Science. Communication. Community.
I remember that squirrel. Right paw raised high, as if we go way back. Come to think of it, it has been three years since we first crossed paths.
“That squirrel” is one of the 1,000 organisms photographed for “A Cubic Foot,” a clever feature story in National Geographic that now has a second life as a free exhibition at the Society’s museum in downtown Washington D.C.
The premise of the project is simple: place a 1-cubic-foot wire cube in various habitats around the world, including the squirrel’s home: New York City’s Central Park. Photograph everything – down to a millimeter in size – that moved through the cube, or lived in it, over the course of 24 hours.
Even if you read the original story, seeing these organisms in massive prints is a startling experience. Details that barely registered at magazine-scale become focal points. But what (still) thrills me most is the way photographer David Littschwager took time out of the equation. He transformed the podunk pace of field work into a moment of visual bliss.
There’s a bit of strategy behind Littschwager’s magic, points out biology PhD candidate Jason Aloisio, who’s based in New York City. Littschwager chose an ideal spot within Central Park for his sample. It was secluded. It passed through several strata (e.g. leaf litter, humus, soil). And it straddled a rotting log, which is an ecosystem unto itself. Still, Aloisio says, the larger truth of the piece needs no embellishing: rich biodiversity exists in our own backyards. To perceive it, you just need time and interest — which is where, in my view, exhibits can play a role.
I’ve seen one other biology exhibition that set my senses atizzy: sLowlife. In order to debunk notions of plants as still, sLowlife sped up time-lapse photography of plants responding to their environment. Suddenly plants dance, demonstrating — in mere seconds — movements that Darwin painstakingly tracked in his laboratory.
Aloisio is a firm believer in direct experience. Nothing beats the feel and smell of soil. But he does have a favorite research-based teaching tool: the Manahatta Project, a map that reveals the likely flora and fauna in every block of Manhattan in 1609. Seeing that the FDR highway was underwater, he says, always opens up discussions of how humans change our environment.
I’m still wondering what’s the equivalent to these visual feats in science writing. Can words toy with time, so that even the most slow-paced research projects dazzle on the page?