Art, science and wonder: My capital city is cutting-edge

“The glory of science is to imagine more than we can prove.” – Nadine Wiper-Bergeron at TEDxUOttawa quoting theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson

Siu Hong Yu is a scientist working at the National Research Council. Outside the lab he tries to stay out of trouble with live music, food outings, photography, gallery visits, running, hiking, good reads and cinema.

A little less than a year ago, I stepped into the Pilot Lab at University of Ottawa and was immediately mesmerized by Andie Haltrich’s installation “The Space-Time Fabric”.

The Space-Time Fabric

In that unusual exhibition setting, the connection and interdependence of each alloy pipe and pressure gauge was laid bare in front of my eyes. I couldn’t help but to appreciate the fact that in order to conduct any cutting-edge scientific experiment, everything had to click, all the way down to each nut and bolt!

The one-night event Catalyst: The Art and Science Experiment, which explored the dialogue between art and science, was a student collaborative effort between the Department of Visual Arts and the faculty of Biological and Chemical Engineering. 

It sought to create a more unified, multidisciplinary campus.

Fast-forward to the beautiful autumn morning at TEDxUOttawa a few weeks ago, I found myself sitting among a forward-thinking crowd.

Learn more about TEDxUOttawa here: http://bitly.com/SzSc4C

Coffee in hand, half of my body wished that I was still in bed but when Assistant Professor Nadine Wiper-Bergeron from the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine spoke, I was captivated.

In her talk, she recounts how she, as an artsy, goth high-schooler, got turned on by stem cell research and convincingly argues that the path of scientific discovery is not that much different than any artistic creative process. She urges scientists to learn from the arts and humanities as to make science more accessible through community outreach.

Finally, she conjures up the idea of “science vernissage” where the public can see, feel, interact with and celebrate what a dynamic creative force that science truly is.

By the end of the talk, my mind was beaming with excitement and resonance and I thought it would be a tough act to follow.

Then came the Editor of Art & Science JournalLee Jones, bringing the union of art and science to come full circle. The student-run blog and biannual publication showcase artworks that are inspired by science, nature and technology.

Focusing on “the wonder that occurs when fields collide”, Lee passionately illustrates that art has a physical presence where our knowledge can be expanded upon and where concepts become reality. Through artistic exaggeration, art often confronts us in a way that raw data and factual graphs may seem too sterile and neutral.

With science-themed artworks serving as the catalyst for eureka moments, Lee hopes to instil a sense of awe, to make us contemplate and rethink our world.

For more on Mini Maker Faire: makerfaireottawa.com

Having slept on all those thought-provoking inspirations, I headed out to the second edition of the Ottawa-Gatineau Mini Maker Faire for some hands-on biohacking with Assistant Professor Andrew Pelling, who also presented at TEDxUOttawa the day before.

He was accompanied by two of his students. Andrew’s research focuses on re-engineering and re-purposing cells and organs through genetic and physical manipulations.

In an extreme example, his team managed to grow mouse muscle cells inside a decellularized apple scaffold!

The big question Andrew ponders is how structural elements affect the biology of living cells. Of course the science is mind-blowing enough, but what stuck me was the venue. The Mini Maker Faire took place at the Shopify Lounge which is used to be the Capital Music Hall in the heart of the Byward Market.

Unlike conventional science conference, it was free and open to the general public.

Why does it matter? As Andrew points out in his TEDx talk, citizens are embracing the DIY, open science movement and he would like to participate as much as possible through this type of social engagement. At the event, the Pelling Lab displayed several homemade equipment relevant to DIY biology, such as a cell culture incubator made from garbage, along with instructions and parts lists.

Crystals Siu Hong Yu grew in his lab

By pure coincidence, I recently came across a book by David Edwards titled Artscience: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation where art and science no longer exist in a dichotomy but fuse as one.

With the motto “two speakers, two topics, one conversation”, an upcoming Double Major event featuring a dialogue on synthetic DNA and hip hop’s roots at Carleton University Art Gallery is just one of the latest examples of how local artists and scientists are eager to join force to create and innovate. 

What do I make of all this?

It is highly unlikely that my boss is going to let me put together a mixed media art piece in my fume hood any time soon.

However, looking at the crystals that I just grew in the lab via a technique I learned way back in first-year chemistry, I rediscovered that the beauty in science often lies beyond the facts and figures but is usually found at the interface of substances.

Wow! Thank you so much for such a wonderful glimpse into Ottawa’s scientific community. Do you want to shine the spotlight on a little known local community? E-mail us at ltottawa@gmail.com.