Sunday, 23 March 2014

Imagining Science

The lovely Mrs. Im has been organising Reading Science Week for the last few weeks, and she finally pulled it off this week. She was overseeing the program of events mostly, but she also organised and ran her own exhibition, Symbiosis - a collaboration between art and science. She is raising money for brain tumour research, and although the exhibit is now finished there are still pieces available to buy online. So far she has made well over £300 for charity just from that exhibit. The Rising Sun Arts Centre, where it was held is a really lovely venue, they do a lot of events and exhibitions but they also have a regular project with adults with profound learning disabilities - they run groups for them, ask them to help out in the cafe, and help them do the books afterwards. It's pretty amazing. As part of the exhibition, the group, called the Move Up project, also created some pieces around the idea of symbiosis specifically about lichen.

Art work by Immy Smith on paper dyed by Scott Mantooth
The exhibit itself comprised of various paintings done on canvas or on luggage tags and a giant book full of more paintings of lichen and information. Lichen are incredible - they are a mix of funghi and algae that live together on trees mostly, but can live in all sorts of places. Some strains have been used as dye, some as food (particularly Reindeer Moss, which is the main food source for reindeer but also as food for humans toot) and they are used as an indicator for air quality. By looking at the lichen that grows in your area, you can tell the quality of the air because the colour of the lichen will show how much ammonia and how much nitrogen is in the air. One of the biggest clean air surveys in Britain was done in '80s by getting school children to go out and count up types of lichen in their area, they managed to map the whole country. The survey is now being done again, so if you get out and about and you would like to take part, check it out: http://www.opalexplorenature.org/AirSurvey.

I helped Im set up and had a chat to Larry, the founder of Rising Sun, he was a very interesting man. We had quite a few people wander in and out throughout the day. During a quiet moment Im and the two volunteers and I had lunch together which was really fun. The room was pretty big, there were luggage tags hanging off of fairy lights, some paintings on the wall and a giant book made by Beth Coin and painted in by Im, Michelle Anderst, Scott Mantooth and a few other artists. There was a roll of paper laid out at the far end with some twigs and magnifying glasses so that people could draw - that had been a favourite with children who came by, on Saturday there was a gentleman called Dennis who had learning difficulties who came in, sat down and drew lichen and twigs fairly much for the whole day. Some very interesting people came in it was a really nice atmosphere. In the afternoon, Larry asked if I'd be ok manning the cafe, to which Im replied 'I can't think of anyone else I'd rather trust with our tea and cake needs', so I got to serve people for a couple of hours. It was fun being behind a bar again. At about 5pm we packed up the exhibit for good and got everything back in the car.

(L-R) Sharon Birzer, Jen Purnell, Immy Smith, Michelle Anderst, Stephanie Pui-Mun Law, Veronique Robigou, on luggage tags hand-dyed by Scott Mantooth. 
From there we grabbed some dinner at a local pub, The Lyndhurst, and they had llama on the menu! If I ate meat I would totally have gone for that! As it is I had some thai udon noodles, and naturally, managed to throw sauce down the white scarf that I was wearing. Once we'd scoffed some dinner we went on to the first ever Science Slam at Reading - a bit like a poetry slam but with scientists. Six contenders had six minutes each to explain their PhD topic and then we had to rate them on how entertaining they were, how easy the science was to understand and whether we would want to know more about it. There was a science advocate, a cyberneticist (systems engineer), an electrophysiologist, a psychologist, a biologist and a forensic chemist - I learned a bit about the unfortunate Carl Schelle, how your brain can tell what is your body and what is not, how the epileptic brain sends out very different signals and what can be done about it, how we need to keep more hydrated, how we can use the microwave spectrum to measure how much snow there is in the world (and thus make sure our water supply is secure) and finally how we can use infrared spectroscopy to look at molecular structures to tell if bank notes are forgeries (as well as works of art and other things). Charlotte won with her talk about epilepsy - she kept it pretty simple with no costume changes or voice overs (Water Woman, I'm talking to you!) and she had no difficult experiments to perform (a la the snow lady), but she was very clear, got the audience to participate somewhat and explained interesting things. It was a very enjoyable evening, but we were all shattered. We went home, had hot chocolate and went to bed.

This morning, Mr. - is -thinking made us all scrambled egg, beans and sausages for breakfast with olive bread and jalapeno and cheese bread. Yum! After that Mrs. Im grabbed the giant book and headed out for the last of the Science Week events and I jumped on a train home. What a fascinating weekend! I'm glad I got to support Im and learn some exciting stuff at the same time.

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