Side by side by Wertheim
This year’s Scientica Medal winner is ready to spin some yarns, both metaphorical and literal. Andrew P Street reports.
The University of NSW has awarded the annual Scientia Medal for science communication since 2014, honouring the likes of Stephen and Lucy Hawking, and Scottish geologist/broadcaster Ian Stewart. This year’s recipient is Margaret Wertheim, multi-award winning science journalist, author, and coral reef crotcheter (more on that later).
Though Brisbane born, she’s been based in the United States throughout a career which has spanned multiple books, including Physics on the Fringe and Pythagoras' Trousers, in a life dedicated to communicating the wonders of science to a general audience.
“I do think we are in a very interesting time with science communication,” she explains.
“One of the things that's a big issue now is that so much science itself is happening in such a high-powered, abstract way that it really is very difficult to convey to people what is happening. And it's never been easy to convey to people what it is that leading scientists are doing, but I think it's now particularly difficult.”
And that’s the great irony of the age, as Wertheim posits it: it’s easier than ever for the scientifically literate to access information, but also damn near impossible for the general public to understand the bizarre state of affairs at the cutting edge of, say, quantum physics.
“How can we do these representations that really do convey to people what's going on in science,” she asks, “when the science is becoming so arcane and so removed from anything that we actually experience in our daily lives?”
That communication is especially vital when certain political leaders are known for not taking the discipline seriously – although she’s quick to dispute the idea that this is a uniquely anti-science epoch.
“Science has always operated in a political environment,” she insists. “I actually think that one of the things that's desperately needed in these discussions is for scientists to come up front and say ‘How are we going to deal with the political realities?’ And I think you're beginning to see this, at least in the US, with scientists coming to realise they have to be more politically savvy and able to make a case for what science can do within the political environment.”
Another point which she’s quick to make about science communication is that it’s not just a matter of giving people information. “People are drowning in data. What we need to do is to find ways to make people feel the meaningfulness of the overall picture.”
An example of this sort of thinking is the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef, a combined science and art project Margaret created over a decade ago with her artist sister Christine and which has now involved over ten thousand artists all over the world, and been displayed in galleries to an audience of millions.
“They're biological manifestations of a kind of geometry called hyperbolic geometry,” she says of the project.
“And it turns out mathematicians didn't have a way to model these surfaces, and you can do it with crochet. We realised that if we didn't stick to the exact mathematically perfect algorithm that the forms started to look wonky and therefore natural, and they really began to look like coral organisms.”
The symbolism of the project isn’t lost on her either.
“We literally said the very day the project started that if the Great Barrier Reef ever died out our crochet coral reef would be something to remember it by,” she chuckles darkly.
“In 2005 that was a joke. It's not a joke any more.”