Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Experiment seeks fun people with good chemistry

By Carol Clark

Learning about chemical evolution can be as easy as a walk in the park. In fact, you’re invited to participate in a public science-and-art experiment, “Group Intelligence,” taking place in Atlanta’s Freedom Park this Saturday, April 21 at 2 pm. No experience or special knowledge is needed. If you are between the ages of 10 and 100 and curious about the world, just bring your molecules, and be ready to mix it up. Click here to RSVP.

“Besides learning some basic concepts about molecular assembly and chemical evolution, the idea is to have fun,” says Meisa Salaita, education coordinator for the Center for Chemical Evolution.

Group Intelligence is a collaboration between the Center for Chemical Evolution, funded by NASA and the NSF, Out Of Hand Theater in Atlanta and The Lunatics artistic company in Holland.

“We’re pushing the frontiers of what we know,” says David Lynn, a lead researcher for the Center for Chemical Evolution and chair of chemistry at Emory. “A lot of the concepts we’re grappling with are difficult to grasp. What is life? How did life form on Earth? Are we alone in the universe? As the world and our knowledge changes ever faster, the need to educate people at all levels becomes even more critical and scientists have to play a role in that.”

Lynn is a leader in taking science to art galleries, concert halls and, in the case of Group Intelligence, the streets.

Each performance is as different as the people who show up to participate.

Participants will follow instructions delivered through MP3 players. Everyone will press “play” together and set off on a chaotic journey, mimicking how energy stirs molecules into self-assembly. Along the way, the participants will collect materials to cooperatively build a one-of-a-kind sculpture.

“This is a convergence of science and art, and how they can inspire and influence each other,” says Adam Fristoe, co-artistic director of Out Of Hand Theater. “Working on it has been like a gift for me.”

Group Intelligence debuted last year in Atlanta in more of a flash mob format, and ran for 10 performances at the Oerol Festival in the Netherlands. The Freedom Park event is a test run for a revamped version of the science-and-art experiment, as it heads out on a U.S. tour. It will appear at the Cambridge Science Festival on April 26 and 28, and the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, Connecticut on June 23 and 24.

Each performance is as different as the people who show up to participate.

“Molecules behave the way that humans behave,” Fristoe explains. “Diversity in a group is really essential for its survival. Fast and slow, young and old, stronger and weaker, all are equally valuable for groups of people or molecules.”

The organizers are gathering qualitative data about the effectiveness of Group Intelligence by holding focus groups with random participants. A long-range goal of the project is to simplify its execution, and perhaps even develop a turnkey, half-hour curriculum for use by high school biology and chemistry teachers.

“We think ‘Group Intelligence’ can be an effective way to spark strong conceptual conversations about molecular behavior because it’s so experiential and aesthetic,” Fristoe says.

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