This week, the only dedicated science illustration conference in the country is taking place in Boulder, CO. The Guild of Natural Science Illustrators’ annual gathering is in full swing and there are fascinating developments to convey. First off, on Monday the keynote speakers addressed two sides of the same question: how can we engage more with science? This is a question all science communicators and scientists should be asking and both speakers had fascinating solutions. One came up with a revolutionary device to help scientists and the general public visualize data that is otherwise incomprehensible, and the other is working on ways to reconnect our youth with nature. Here’s a quick synopsis of both:
Science on a Sphere
Dr. Alexander MacDonald is the director of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, CO. Twenty years ago, he came up with the concept of projecting climate data onto a sphere in an attempt to analyze his data on a surface that more accurately represents the planet. With the charming admission that “if you’re willing to look stupid for a while, eventually you can do great things,” he explained how his initial experiments with a beach ball and a VHS player turned into the wildly successful Science on a Sphere program. What started as a tool to better help him visualize the reams of data he was trying to understand morphed into an inspiring communication tool that can bring even the most complex planetary data to the general public. Over the course of his talk, MacDonald shared many fascinating data sets turned into stunning animations. He showed atmospheric dust swirling off of Asia, typhoons and hurricanes gathering strength and dissipating, and This was perhaps the most memorable, a map tracking commercial airline flights marching across the globe. Each yellow “tail” represents one flight:
Many more visualizations are available from NOAA of the atmosphere, oceans, and continents on their website and on their YouTube channel. You can also look up the closest Science on a Sphere exhibit near you and experience the room-sized projection in person.
Falling in Love with Nature Again
Dr. Scott Sampson is Vice President of Research & Collections and Chief Curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and the host of PBS’ popular kids series Dinosaur Train. He is currently working on a book which is slated to come out in 2015 that tackles the problem of our diminishing connection to nature. As though walking down the street and having to dodge people immersed in their cell phones weren’t convincing enough, he cites statistics like “children today spend 4-7 minutes outside while spending 7-10 hours in front of screens” and “kids today can identify thousands of corporate logos but only 12 species in their environment.” (And here you are, reading about it on a blog!) Over the course of his address, he implored us to get out into nature and ask questions, following our curiosity. He cited groups that are forming family nature clubs and teachers employing “place-based learning.” When his book comes out, I will be sure to snag a copy and review it here. In the meantime, he recommends Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv as a good primer.
The GNSI conference goes through the end of this week. More updates to follow. For those who are interested in following along and/or joining the conversation, use #GNSIconf.