A wispy, ghost image rotates on the screen, evoking an itch in my mind. Organic, alive, awe-inspiring, the image teases at a memory. Then I have it: The Pillars of Creation.
The Pillars are part of the Eagle Nebula in the Serpens constellation (the “handle” of the Big Dipper points towards it). It’s a “stellar nursery,” that is, a place where gas and dust coalesce into greater and denser masses until pressure and heat sparks the nuclear fusion of new stars.
But the image on the screen over my pint of Guinness at Café Sci Saskatoon depicts the beginning of something else. It is a three-dimensional, extremely high-resolution scan, done at the Canadian Light Source synchrotron.
It isn’t an interstellar nebula spanning light years; it’s a chicken embryo a few millimetres across.
What sparked my mental flight of fancy is a collaboration between an artist and a scientist: Saskatoon sculptor Jean-Sébastien Gauthier and Brian Eames, who uses the CLS to study embryology within the context of evolutionary developmental biology.
As the pair define it, their “scientific art,” or “sciart” is more than simply taking attractive images and putting a frame around them. It is an act of intent, to purposely make a statement, or uncover a statement waiting to be made.
In this case, that statement is one of connectedness, the commonality of all living things. Embryos of chordates – things with backbones like us – share similar structures. Indeed, at some stages, embryos of chickens, zebrafish and humans are hard to tell apart. Gauthier pulled in another comparison: the uncanny resemblance among embryos and the Venus figurines, the earliest artistic depictions of the human form carved tens of thousands of years ago, perhaps reflecting the birth of religion.
Eames and Gauthier’s collaboration has so far resulted in several presentations and Dans la Mesure/Within Measure, an interactive multimedia installation presented at venues including Nuit Blanche and Gordon Snelgrove Gallery in Saskatoon. There were multicoloured projections where embryos grew and shrank, rotated and moved like holographic spirits. There were 3D printed models, including a two-metre zebrafish (life size is about two centimetres long), with light treatments that created the illusion of transparency with skeleton visible, adding layers and culminating in colourful scales.
What struck me about this collaboration is how it sparked forth unbounded discussion at the Café on everything from the purpose and limits of science, what defines art, and the philosophy that may underpin it all. It seemed to tap into people’s creative impulses in unexpected ways.
Five hundred years ago, the original Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci, wrote, “To develop a complete mind: Study the science of art; Study the art of science. Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
Too often today, artists, scientists and engineers put themselves in silos and peer over the ramparts with suspicion and even disdain at the denizens on the other side of the walls. “Their” values, “their” world views are too different than ours, and too difficult to understand.
Difficult, but not impossible.
I know a musician whose position on GMOs was what one might expect: suspicion and opposition. To her great credit, she sat down and had lunch with a scientist that had actually done the genetic engineering to develop new crops. To his credit, he listened to her concerns and accepted them as valid. They discussed, they listened, they learned. In the end, she changed her mind on GMOs. And I suspect he learned much about why intelligent, creative non-scientists might be suspicious of these technologies.
As humans, we are rationalists and dreamers. Rationalists speak to our heads: they try to figure things out, find the facts, explain the world in ways that can be quantified and predicted. Dreamers, less bound by fact and enticed by imagination and possibility, speak to our hearts – and so many of our actions are driven by the heart.
We live in a world where science is under attack. Vaccines, responsible for saving more lives than all other medical advancements combined, are under renewed suspicion. Modern agriculture technologies such as genetic engineering and pesticides are the targets of well-intentioned but misguided activism.
Climate change, how we generate energy, whether or not we should put fluoride in our drinking water, all are contentious issues that would not be, if mere facts were enough. They are not. Science needs those who are expert in speaking to the heart: we need the artists.
All of us, whether scientist or artist, rationalist or dreamer, are human. We share common ground in our urge to discover and create, our internal yearnings and compulsions, our responses to the world that surrounds us. We need both perspectives to progress.
Humanity faces great challenges, from climate change and energy production to how we produce food to feed our billions. Yet public outcry is focused on big, bad corporations, sluggish governments, and ideological opponents that just don’t get it.
Little attention is spent on individual action that would affect our personal lives.
For example, the Canadian government recently declared a climate emergency. If it’s an emergency, it’s not one we’re taking seriously.
The best selling vehicle in North America is not a gas-sipping subcompact. It’s the Ford F-Series pickup truck. Ford’s offerings are closely followed by Ram and Chevrolet full-sized pickups, in second and third place.
There are no activist protests against manufacturers of pickup trucks. There is enormous public outcry about pipelines and oil sands.
Likewise, in agriculture, neonicotinoids seed treatments are under fire, somewhat justifiably, for their impact on songbirds. Yet there is little attention spent on the greatest killer of songbirds: the domestic cat. Another major cause of avian demise is tall buildings, specifically how we light our cities at night - including our own homes.
Keeping kitty inside and rethinking illumination are actionable on a civic and personal level. Yet activist campaigns focus on neonicotinoids and other products to protect our food crops from pests. Meagre attention is given to the issue of light pollution.
More than 24 years ago, in his book All the Trouble in the World, American satirist P.J. O’Rourke wrote, “Everybody wants to save the Earth; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes.”
Moving the needle on issues that matter may involve bugging your local councillor. You might need to run for civic office to get some bylaws passed and priorities changed. You might have to keep kitty inside, and put volunteer time into causes that will actually have an impact and perhaps a personal cost.
All of us may just have to fill up the sink, grab the wash cloth, and give Mom a hand.
It’s an approach advocated by the late Hans Rosling, in his 2017 book Factfulness, written with his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund. Yes, things are bad - but they’re getting better. If we reject despair, if we have hope that we can overcome the great challenges that face us as a species, we can get to work to fix things.
Without hope, we react with denial or resignation. If there’s no hope, why bother? Why not, as the saying goes, “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die?”
“Think about the world,” Rosling wrote. “War, violence, natural disasters, man-made disasters, corruption. Things are bad, and it feels like they are getting worse, right? The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer; and the number of poor just keeps increasing; and we will soon run out of resources unless we do something drastic. At least that’s the picture that most Westerners see in the media and carry around in their heads. I call it the overdramatic worldview. It’s stressful and misleading. In fact, the vast majority of the world’s population lives somewhere in the middle of the income scale. Perhaps they are not what we think of as middle class, but they are not living in extreme poverty. Their girls go to school, their children get vaccinated, they live in two-child families, and they want to go abroad on holiday, not as refugees.”
British writer Matt Ridley, recently wrote a piece in his Rational Optimist blog and elsewhere entitled “We’ve just had the best decade in human history. Seriously.” While readers might be forgiven for spitting out their coffee in disbelief, he goes on to back it up with statistics. For example, he points out that in his lifetime, (Ridley was born in 1958) the number of the world’s people living in extreme poverty had dropped from 60 per cent to 10 per cent today.
We so often focus on the negatives, and there are many. Climate change, plastic pollution, species extinctions, energy, food security, anti-science rhetoric, the rise of populism, and the weaponization of information to threaten democracy. How can we possibly have hope in the face of all this?
“The answer is: because bad things happen while the world still gets better,” Ridley writes. “Yet get better it does, and it has done so over the course of this decade at a rate that has astonished even starry-eyed me.”
While we struggle to rise and overcome the great challenges that face us, let’s pause to recognize and savour our successes. We have conquered diseases that once killed and crippled millions. We put a hole in our planet’s ozone layer, but we came together and fixed it. In the mid-20th century, war killed tens of millions, levelled cities and shattered economies. We have not yet conquered war, but seen in the light of these conflagrations, we have at least made progress.
“Step-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improving,” Rosling wrote. “Not on every single measure every single year, but as a rule. Though the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress. This is the fact-based worldview."
As the new year begins, let us step forward with hope, based on facts, encouraged by knowledge of our past successes. Yes, the challenges are enormous. But we’ve faced enormous challenges before. We’ve got this.
Whether it's vaccines, nuclear power, fluoride in water or any number of issues, people's, fear comes from several sources and is then amplified by various facets of human nature and those who can gain by exploiting it. There are many factors that go into the fear of GMOs. Here are a few of the major ones, in my view:
This is certainly not a comprehensive list of reasons why people fear GMOs, but these are a few major ones. The science, however, does not support these fears. Genetic engineering is no more risky, and arguably much less risky, than any other breeding method.
I'm a science writer based in Saskatoon, Canada. While I write on a wide range of topics, I most often find myself exploring life and environmental sciences as well as the social science aspects of science communications. Examples include agricultural biotechnology, food and water security, and public response to innovations in genetic engineering and energy production.