Pepeha - Places of Reference for the Soul

“The most beautiful clothing I can wear is the river.”
Those words have lingered in my mind after our waka voyage on the Whanganui River last Friday. Spoken by Hemi our barrel-chested young Maori guide as he welcomed us to “our river”.

The voyage began at the Putiki boat ramp, a couple of kilometres up from the mouth of the Whanganui River. We were welcomed with karakia and hongi to keep us safe, give thanks and bring us together as one.

Paddling down a river seemed an unlikely way to begin a symposium on digital arts and no mention was made about the connection – just a brief lesson on waka paddling and we were off…

water
wind
rustling trees
Hemi’s shouts
birds
paddle stroke
paddle stroke
salt water splashing,
salt on lips,
stretching muscles,
paddle stroke
paddle stroke
paddling together
coming into unison.

The day was windy and the water rough. We had to work hard against the tide and wind. I could feel the blood flowing through my body, my muscles working. To our right we crept past an industrial region – factories, concrete, trucks. Ahead of us a pink cement mixer passed over the motorway bridge, one way, then back again.

paddle stroke
paddle stroke
against the wind and tide
the scene slowly transforming

Finally we passed underneath the bridge into a calm stretch of water sheltered by a little island in the river. We came to rest by the bank - three wakas huddled together under a  tree… listening to stories of the river from our three Maori guides.

Michael, a longhaired Maori man with calm demeanour and laughing eyes, asked us to put our hands in the water as we listened. He spoke about “our river” and “our mountain”, pointing up the valley to Mount Ruapehu covered in snow. He used the Maori word, pepeha to describe these “places of reference for the soul”. He asked us to think of our places of reference – it could be an actual place, a far away friend or family; places or people that give our lives meaning, that we belong to and navigate by.

Hanna spoke about the ecology of the river, describing species of fish, crayfish, fresh water muscles, birds, native plants. As she spoke the scene around us came to life – an intricate network of relationships and personalities. The river is sick, she explained. See how cloudy it is? That’s soil. It runs off from farmland into the river and prevents fish from seeing and breathing. The water is so warm this year that fish are dying. It heats up in streams running over bare farmland. Hemi pointed out a white residue on the side of our waka. “You can thank the meat factory down the river for that,” he said. “They dump their waste from fatty meat patties straight in the river.” A dairy factory wanted to dump their waste in the river too. They figured it was already dirty so it wouldn’t make much difference. They presented statistics and economic arguments but forgot about the real significance and importance of the river.

Sitting there in the waka, with the river flowing through my fingers, I thought about my pepeha; my points of reference for the soul – Island Bay, the south coast of Wellington; how I used to stare out of the back window of the car when I was little, till the last peep of ocean disappeared behind the hill; how my heart came to rest when I arrived home and settled on that same coast after three years in London. The feeling of standing on Traverse pass in the Nelson lakes listening to the ancient mountain quiet all around; sitting by a fire at Makara beach watching the sun go down.

These are the reasons I came back to New Zealand. These are places I feel most myself – creative and connected. Space, land, sea, quiet reverence. Through this journey I wanted to discover the magic of Aotearoa. But as I sat in the waka I realised that I’ve spent most of my journey staring at a computer screen. I’ve been hooking into social networks, reading blogs, tweets, connecting with people and ideas, taking more in, producing less and doing less physical activity. I have been viewing New Zealand from the fixed perspective of the seat in front of my computer – my little portal on the world.

This sense of contradiction was bubbling into a feeling crisis. Social networking is connecting me with inspiring new worlds of people and ideas but it’s pushing me to spend more and more time at my computer, less time face to face and less time in the environments that inspire my own creativity and groundedness. I realised I haven’t been happy sitting at my desk all day. I’ve felt overwhelmed by this techno-social virtual world.

In the waka everything is real. The point where the paddles meet the water – that’s real. Physical transformation of energy from chemical potential in our muscles to kinetic energy and heat. The splash of the oar. The connection is real.  The scenery is three dimensional. The smells are real. The taste of salt is real. The connection with the people around me is real.

The experience was transformative for the whole group. After the waka journey the atmosphere had completely changed…

One participant reflected on how her dominant self had less extra energy in the waka.
“There’s a power shift,” she said, “from the self to the collective.”
“We’ve been reclothed. It’s a very tender reclothing that happens on the river – Collective reclothing. There’s a like-mindedness that comes from that.”

“How do we hold that space?” she asked.

In the afternoon we retreated to a gallery in town to discuss our experience. Immediately the atmosphere shifted to an intellectual and analyticial realm.

John Hopkins, the American artist facilitating the workshop, spoke about changing our point of view to focus on energy and flows rather than objects. Could we centre our identity on the flows and interactions with the people and environment around us, rather than our personal selves?

He suggested that encounters with other people are one of the central purposes of life and that technology emerges as soon as you have an encounter with ‘the other’.

“Language,” he suggested, “was one of the first technologies.”

Like all technologies it allows for both communication and misunderstanding.

“You always lose some energy across the gap when you dialogue with the other,” he asserted.

He spoke about how, over the last 150 years, the techno-social system has become more and more layered, complicated and global; how technology intervenes in almost all our encounters. Now, to engage with each other, we have to spend time and energy on computers and cell phones, in planes and cars. He suggested that the more complex the techno-social system, the more energy and resources it needs to keep it going - that means more oil, coal and minerals – more extractive industries that upset local environmental systems and flows.

“If you want to depower that system you take your life energy and time away from those things,” he suggests.

By sheer contrast our experience on the river had exposed the quality of our daily lives, our unconscious habits and lack of groundedness. It posed a deep sense of questioning in the room: What are we using technology for?  How can we find more balance and groundedness in our work? How do we reconcile the burdens of technology with the benefits of communication and connection?

It seemed a bizarre way to begin a symposium on digital arts at first but in retrospect it was perfect. Our experience on the river had given us a fresh perspective – a new space in which to meet and view our work, our technology and our selves.

A poem inspired by the meeting of Art and Science

A couple of nights ago I arrived home from the Aotearoa Digital Arts Symposium in Wanganui. I never expected the experience to catalyse such a shift in me. Whether it was the constant presence of the river, our waka journey, conversation, reflection, I'm not sure. But I've returned with a longing to write poetry and to connect with the flow of the natural world around me; to step back from rational arguments and intellectual discussion for a momentI feel the artist, or poet, in me waking up. This first poem was inspired by a growing sense of commonality between art and science.

 

An artist

A scientist

Two explorers

who walk outside and in the shards of light filtering through cloud

see more

see layers

of meaning, of mystery

subterranean worlds to burrow

for hidden treasure - barely seen

but intuitively known

connections beneath perception

 

Scientist

 

Artist

 

Awake to things

The world is asleep to

Awakening dreams –

 

of molecules

a billionth the width of a human

hair

poised in vast space –

turning, vibrating


 dreams


of atomic nuclei

smaller than imagination - spinning

like tops

engaged in eternal dance

 

dreams of light

transforming particles of water

into gold

evoking dimensions of human

metaphor

and memory

 

I have always been

a scientist

and an artist

yearning to live in a living world

with no edges

where I move from moment to moment

feeling for depth

seeing in falling leaves

a dance of gravity, friction, form

and mass

 

and a metaphor

for surrender

a lesson for life – how to be

gentle and flexible

 

I have always been

an artist

and a scientist

happiest away from the crowd

burrowing down some new hole

having found something more compelling

than money

or friends

following a sense

of intuition

connection

paradox

rummaging through structures of reason

for hidden assumptions –

exact points of contradiction

 

glitches

 

in the system we live in – fashion, money, belief

the matter we stand on – solid, energy, space

 

I am always

longing

for the illusion of reality to dissolve

 

so we stand

in the presence of life itself

 

cracked open

 

wide eyed 

 

Waka Workshop on the Wanganui, Energy, Information and the Possibilites of Digital Arts


Tomorrow morning I'm off to Wanganui with Jaime Campbell and Sophie Jerram. We're going to board a boat and explore the endless possibilities of the river with American artist John Hopkins. This waka-workshop is part of the Aotearoa Digital Arts Symposium. I don’t know a great deal about it yet – just that I have to bring a hat, sunscreen and river clothes and that Sophie told me I have to come because it will be brilliant. 
The symposium goes from Friday till Sunday and we’re going to be exploring the relationship between energy and information; asking such questions as: 
How sustainable is the technology that supports media art?
What new forms of practice are developing at the intersection of energy conservation and production, technology, and art?
How can we balance a global arts practice with the ethical complexities of global air travel, and the social complexities of remote participation?
Digital Art is foreign territory for me. I'm going along because I want to learn more about the ways artists explore and explain ideas. I want to immerse myself in the culture some more. I'm thinking that digital art could be an awesome medium to explore and communicate science. I recently met a VJ who got me all excited about the possibilites of mixing scientific images with music and performance. I'm hoping to meet some more cool people and create some possibility bubbles with them.

How could digital art help bring alive the magical worlds of nanotechnology or biomimicry, for example?

or help connect scientists with the wider community??

I'll ask people questions and see what emerges...

I've met with lots of people in the last month and I really really want to tell you about them... The meetings have been so encouraging and inspiring. There's been lots and lots going in and not nearly enough coming out! But I'll get there! All will be revealed... 

Crowd funding science - a new type of social and ethical investment

I've just been having a really interesting conversation with Ben Wallace on Intersect about how to encourage more collaboration between the science community and the wider world.

"Perhaps more scientists need to join social networks?" Ben suggested.

He’d noticed that there seem to be very few academics on the LinkedIn Network and speculated that maybe academics don’t feel like they need to join a wider network.

One scientist I met suggested that being part of an academic institution is a bit like being in a nice cushy nest that doesn’t lend itself to leaving. And if this is the case – if our scientists and academics are sitting in their own roosts, how do we encourage them to fly out and engage with the vast world beyond? Surely life is far more interesting once you leave the nest you were raised in?

LinkedIn, as Ben said, is particularly good for discussion groups. If our academics foraged around such online networks, they could find themselves bumping minds with entrepreneurs, sustainability experts, designers, community advocates etc – who would lap up their ideas and expertise. Ideas could start to cross-pollinate naturally.

From my experience, working closely with academics as a science writer, I don’t think social networking has filtered into academic culture yet. Academics haven’t realised what could be gained from launching into this kind of social interaction. Given the framework and structures they work within, this is very understandable - academics are so busy with teaching, writing funding applications, admin and research they don't have time for much else. Social networking won't help them get more money for research (most of that comes from government). It won't boost their academic ranking either (that's all calculated according to the number of papers they produce and the quality of the journals they publish in). So the only incentive to engage with broader social networks is a sense of social concern, which often doesn't hold much sway against their more pressing concerns.

This leads me to assert that:

The academic system they are locked into is outdated. It encourages competition rather than collaboration and knowledge sharing which is counteractive to growth, innovation and progress.

In the current model scientists apply for funding either from Government or industry (although there’s not much industry funding in NZ). But, what if we had a new way of funding science, which incentivises broader social engagement?

Imagine if we could introduce a third stream of funding that responds to the burning needs and concerns of the community and environment and creates financial incentives for scientists to engage in broader social dialogue.

What if we could introduce collective funding?

This idea emerged when Jaime Campbell and I went to see James Samuel on Waiheke Island a couple of weeks ago. We spoke about the characteristics and empowerment of people in this day and age – How the power struggle is shifting from a central control of resources and media to more of a collective governance model made possible by large networks of individuals. James told us about some innovations in finance enabled by new technology that source large amounts of funding from collectives of people. For example Kiva, which crowd-sources loans for humanitarian projects and Zopa that facilitates peer to peer lending and has lent more than £100 million to 25,000 borrowers.

Imagine if we could harness the will of a growing collective of people who want to see positive change in the world. Imagine a new type of social and ethical investment that funds science and innovation – one that responds to real world problems without the immediate goal of making more money. Using a system like Kiva, a little contribution from a large number of people could go a long way.

If scientists had to convince the public of the value of their research to secure funding what better way than engaging in social networking? Maybe it would also help in breaking down the stereotypes and language barriers that currently inhibit communication of ideas and research. Imagine if the new Ministry for Science and Innovation used online forums that facilitated dialogue between scientists, economists, entrepreneurs, sustainability experts and others. Imagine if such a dialogue became an integral tool for deciding which research programs are funded

I can almost hear the objections coming from scientists as I type.

Writing funding applications to panels of scientists is hard enough. How are they supposed to convince the lay public of the vital importance of understanding nuclear spin interactions or the mathematics of electromagnetic pulses? How is this fundamental research going to compete against cures for cancer or solutions to climate change? Non-scientists may not realise that fundamental research is the engine of innovation and underpins every technological breakthrough.

What about the scientists that follow a pure sense of inquiry and discovery? - they may not consider practical applications but their work expands and enriches our view of the world. Every scientist knows that research doesn’t go in straight lines. You never know what you’re going to discover until you start exploring and the best discoveries and innovations often pop up in the most unlikely areas.

The answer is simple. I’m not suggesting we cut down the established funding system and plant a brand new one. I’m simply suggesting we diversify -sow new seeds that will become part of a funding ecosystem where government and collective thought are intertwined in the development and direction of innovative solutions.

Science needs to engage with society.
It needs connections that reach beyond its current limits.

I’m not suggesting that every scientist should turn into a social networker or that all research should be funded by popular choice. But I do think the general public is capable of grasping the excitement and importance of fundamental science. There is something about the spirit of science that resonates with the pioneering, practical, rule-breaking spirit of New Zealand. Non-scientists may not understand the jargon and mathematics but they can appreciate that fundamental science is key to our future health and prosperity.


In the past the media has let science down – publicised only the ‘Big Breakthroughs’, ‘cures’ for diseases and quirky sex habits of animals. It’s presented stereotypes of scientists as evil, mad, geeks and know-it-alls. It’s distanced science from society. Social media has the potential to do the opposite – to allow scientists to set the record straight. It allows scientists to develop personal connections with people. They can write a blog at the pace of scientific research - bit by bit over years. They can be genuine rather than sensational. They can convey the process of science; show what they really love about their work and why they believe it is essential for society. I know from experience that scientists have a lot to say about this.

And people out there are interested. Everyone I have spoken to – entrepreneurs, environmental activists, teenagers, economists, art curators, and business folk – has been surprised and delighted to hear what’s going on in the NZ science community – nanotechnology; biomimicry; biomaterials etc. People have been really keen to find out more. There is so much vision out there and people aching for the science to help find the solutions.

I’m a guinea pig at your service – profoundly uncomfortable and enlightened




After writing my last blog on the NZ Association of Scientists I felt acutely aware of the barriers to collaboration – stereotypes, culture, language and values. Even though everyone was talking about collaboration, I got the sense that people are looking in different directions, focusing on different things and talking past each other. I could feel my own language, behaviour and even values shifting as I moved between cultures: from science to community; community to business; from business to green; and green to creative industries. I wondered how it might be possible to reconcile these different viewpoints, to overcome traditional suspicion between sectors and to find that sweet spot where we can all meet and develop solutions?

To shed some light on those questions I’ve been using myself as a guinea pig. This is my theory: To find the sweet spot between cultures I’ll first have to understand them really well – and not just in an intellectual way – I’ll need to know what it feels like to be immersed, to belong in that culture – I’ll have to put aside my own opinions and beliefs for a bit and let myself be ‘converted’. I’ll need to sit with the different viewpoints long enough for them to find a way to relate to each other inside me.

That’s what I’ve been doing over the last month. My work time has been divided between meetings, conferences, writing, workshops and interviews. I found myself in a constant state of adaptation –continually interchanging hats –swapping high heels for jandals, recording equipment for a wine glass, chirpy-cheekiness for professional demeanour and watching my language morph to suit the environment – one minute technical jargon and the next idealistic and philosophical.

The month began with a trip to Waiheke Island to meet James Samuel who, amongst many inspiring pursuits, is responsible for kick starting Transition Towns in New Zealand. We spoke about resilience, community capacity, collectives and social enterprise –inspiring in me all sorts of possibilities for science funding, idea and resource sourcing and collective research. A couple of days later I interviewed my uncle Digby Crompton who has just written a book on a tax model that he believes would encourage more enterprise, ingenuity and fairness. Next I got the flu and spent several days contemplating the pohutukawa tree outside of my bedroom window. My recovery time was cut short by a trip to Christchurch to meet electrical engineer and social innovator Susan Krumdieck. I attended the Signs of Change conference (which Susan organised) –A national e-conference “showcasing transition to sustainability” and interviewed several speakers for a film being made about the conference. From there, I took my nasally congested self across town to a High Tech Manufacturing networking event organised by UCONZ (University Commercialisation Offices) and BusinessNZ. I tried on a jet pack and flew around a simulated city; talked to researchers, business owners, and commercialisation experts about open source, industrial design, robotics and advanced materials. I left feeling charged with excitement – excited by the discovery that key people in major universities are starting to think that knowledge sharing and open source could be the way forward for New Zealand – that it’s not just a happy hippy dream but the logical and smart way for a small country to operate. This sense of optimism grew further when I attended the annual symposium for the MacDiarmid Institute a couple of days later. Principal investigators from all around the country brainstormed how they could combine their skills and resources to create four major collaborative projects. Last but not least, my tour of cultures concluded with the opening of “TakingStock” by artist Eve Armstrong, a stunning display of plastic waste that reflects the absurdity of consumer culture.

That’s what I’ve been doing over the last month and its been a profoundly uncomfortable and enlightening experience – feeling my internal frame of reference constantly rebuilding itself to reconcile different ideas and viewpoints. My body decided it was all a bit much and got the flu. But things are beginning to come clear. Man have I got some awesome ideas to share! I’m really looking forward to diving into some of the specifics and cross-pollinating between the cultures and sectors that I have infiltrated. I am Elizabeth Connor: Science writer, art appreciator, amateur economics enthusiast, tree hugger and guinea pig.

New Zealand Incorporated! Collaboration and Innovation

It was the explosion of possibilities that caused my brain to explode after the NZ Association of Scientists annual conference a couple of weeks ago! Almost every speaker called for more collaboration between organisations. After almost twenty years of fierce competition for contestable funding, our research organisations have finally realised they need to work together! They just weren’t sure how to do it…

The theme of the day was “Re-setting Science and Innovation for the next 20 years”

Despite a huge diversity of speakers every scientist, politician, businessman and civil servant agreed that New Zealand needs to focus on science and innovation in order to create a prosperous, healthy, sustainable future. And they need to do so co-operatively.

Wayne Mapp, the Minister of Research, Science and Technology spoke about “a new era and attitude” symbolised by the new ‘Ministry for Science and Innovation’.

“Science is not just about the laboratory,” he insisted, “It’s about connecting the whole, connecting the research facilities,  connecting the universities, the polytechnics and businesses so that there is a seamlessness in growth, building prosperity.”

Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Science Adviser, shifted our attention to the “perfect storm” brewing globally – population growth, resource depletion, environmental degradation, food security, water, demographic change.

“We can’t put our head in the sand,” he urged. “New Zealand is part of this world.”

Science, he suggested, could become a new cultural heart of the country if it comes out of its “traditional silos’ to meet these challenges. “Radically new forms of relationship between science, business, government and society will be needed both on a global and national scale.”

“Science could do for New Zealand what Ed Hillary did fifty years ago,” he said. “…Science brings with it a spirit of adventure, of enquiry, innovation, looking ahead. It can be infective and  that’s exactly what we want! Because these are the very attributes that this country needs to succeed.”

Garth Carnaby, the President of the Royal Society of New Zealand, called for a new “service mindset” within the science community and urged scientists to get out and talk to industry.

Jacqueline Rowarth, Director of Agriculture at Massey University, proposed a radical shift towards free exchange between all R&D (Research and Development) organisations in New Zealand.

“We are only 4 million people compared to 7.2 billion overseas. I think we should be NZ incorporated. Everything in New Zealand should be freely exchanged and supported by the government.  We need to swing people in behind each other and align the R&D companies. Then you’ll get the bees pollinating like mad!”

Shaun Hendy, Deputy Director of the MacDiarmid Institute, showed compelling data to support the idea of exchange. New Zealand needs to act like a city of 4 million people,, he suggested to achieve the critical mass for world-class science and innovation.

Bob Frame from Landcare Research called for ways of engaging new sectors and  generations to develop solutions to the “wicked problems” of climate change and environmental degradation.

His colleague Garth Harmsworth spoke about the growing Maori population and the challenges of inspiring young people and incorporating Maori values and knowledge into the innovation system.

At the end of the conference the big question of “how?” hung in the air.

While every speaker called for more collaboration everyone of them was gnawing at the bit for solutions. How how how?

How do we build connections and collaborations and overcome the traditional suspicion between sectors?

How do we inspire more young people to pursue careers in science?

How can we share knowledge and infrastructure? How do we meet the needs of all sectors and communities? How can New Zealand become a landmark for success with science as a cornerstone of our society?

Something struck me. While I was thrilled by the fact that so many people, with different political alignments and motivations were agreeing on a principle that I hold to strongly – cooperation and collaboration – I became aware that, out of a hundred or so people, I was almost the only Generation Y present! It struck me that the answer to the how, could be exactly that – Generation Y - the tech-savvy, team oriented, socially aware, highly networked, aspiring New Zealanders.

I was also struck by the fact that the language and culture of the conference itself – men in suits, 245 dollar registration fee, formal setting – would have been isolating for young audiences.

Imagine if we could get past the barriers of stereotypes, culture and language; if we could combine the wisdom and experience of the older generation with the technological and networking skills of Generation Y. Their knowledge and our inspiration.

All the elements for success are already here. But, in the words of Bob Frame “a sweet spot” is needed – “A sweet spot where people can get together and develop solutions”.  

This is my mission. I want to connect the dots; inspire trust; help the sharing of culture and vision; give voice to possibilites; catalyse connections. But again comes the how? And what an exciting question to explore. I don’t have the answers yet, but with every person I meet the way becomes clearer. Maybe I can find that sweet spot between the people and sectors.

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Ideas, Energy, Inspiration, Brain Explosion, Back Spasms, 3 Interesting Encounters

Two weeks have now passed on my journey of discovery. I’ve spent the time researching, following leads and meeting people.

Overwhelming!

So many people to meet - such a wealth of knowledge, energy, passion and resources. So many interesting initiatives, educational programmes, companies. So many questions, ideas and issues. What to do with it all? How does it all connect? How do I fit in?

In the last week the scale of what I’m trying to do hit me.

Last Monday I was lucky enough to share a three-course fancy pants lunch with some of the winners of the 350.org Logan Brown Competition (http://www.350.org.nz/news/media).;  I sat with KiwiRail’s new Corporate Responsibility Manager who is currently investigating the switch to biofuels for the entire fleet. He spoke about the difficulties of finding a consistent source of high quality and cost-effective biofuel in New Zealand. The conversation made me realise what a challenge it is to turn an innovative concept, such as making biofuel from wood pulp, into a reliable product fit for large-scale commercial use.

On Thursday, I attended the annual conference of the New Zealand Association of Scientists. The talks were so stimulating that my mental activity reached a fever pitch and on Friday morning my system crashed. When I woke up I couldn’t move. My back had seized up and even a wiggle of my fingers sent it into surges of pain. My body obviously thought it was time for a rest!

After four days lying on my back, sleeping and going for gentle strolls I’m back at my desk, sitting bolt upright tentatively preparing to let the ideas in again. I want to share some of the ideas and questions I’ve been thinking about – one by one this time – so as not to overload.

I have three inspiring meetings waiting to share with you:

The first was with Al Morrison, the Director general of DOC along with Rob Fenwick, DOC’s new Commercial Relations Adviser, their Chief Scientist and Communications Advice Manager. DOC’s mission is to change the culture of New Zealand and persuade businesses, landowners, farmers, government and the New Zealand public that biodiversity is a “MUST HAVE” rather than a “nice to have”. They asked me how I thought this change could be made – a huge question, which I’ll carry with me on my travels.

The second meeting was with mechanical engineer and youth leader Carl Chenery from Auckland. “Can you help me tell the story of how humans can be a positive influence on the environment?” he asked. The book he gifted us – Cradle to Cradle (http://www.mcdonough.com/cradle_to_cradle.htm) has undone my understanding of ‘recycling and reuse’. We spoke about design principles used to construct materials that can be infinitely kept ‘in the loop’. Plastics as food for the environment. I’m intrigued to find out if there is any science research in New Zealand that could contribute to this concept.

Thirdly, I met with computational physicist and Deputy Director of the MacDiarmid Institute Shaun Hendy. His research into innovation networks here and overseas has shown that the more people collaborate, the more productive they become. Shaun is my old physics lecturer and a constant source of new ideas.  His work has been a major inspiration for my journey and he has offered to provide support and mentoring along the way. His research assistant Catriona Sissons has offered to help me analyse and visually represent the data I collect.

That’s just a little taste of some of the meetings and questions I want to explore in the next couple of weeks. I also want to share with you some thoughts from the conference last Thursday - the ones that caused my brain to explode. It was all about fostering innovation in New Zealand. I'll be back with that soon. :)

First inspiring Kiwi on my journey of discovery: #Science as Activism #350 #10/10/10 #climate #education

“The arc of history is long but bends toward justice” – Martin Luther King Junior

This is Aaron Packard’s favourite quote and he’s a true bender. Apart from doing a bit of break-dancing and circus performance in his spare time, Aaron is the Pacific coordinator for 350.org. He’s a passionate environmental enthusiast with a big heart and a seriously silly streak.

Aaron is also my flatmate and the first rebellious optimist on my voyage of discovery. On a rare and beautiful Wellington afternoon we rolled down to the beach on our bikes and sat on the same rocks where 10/10/10 was launched a couple of days before.

I was intending to podcast our fascinating conversation. But, unfortunately my trusty recorder (which has never failed me before) went doolaly and corrupted the file. So no podcast! Only my memory. And this little bad quality video we made at the end:

Ok now… Go memory!

Aaron – positive vision, enthusiasm, love, action – having huge goals and showing you mean business by doing solid practical stuff and getting people involved – the power of people – the power of positive persuasion; of laugher; of being silly; being human; being bold and optimistic.

Putting our humanness before our political alignment, our opinions – making sure that people know they won’t be judged, they are free to be themselves. Engagement through inspiration, understanding and respect – not guilt or fear.

Aaron has a particular talent for getting people engaged and excited. He has gathered together a huge network of friends and contacts around NZ and the world. Over the last few months he has been hard at work co-ordinating the Pacific region’s actions for the 10/10/10 Global Working Bee (see blog Oct 10th). He’d often bounce into the kitchen from his bedroom office and announce things like: “Federated States of Micronesia just registered an action! Woohoo!” He’d snort like a horse, do some crazy dance and return to his room. His enthusiasm is obviously infectious as he persuaded people in every Pacific country to get together on 10/10/10 for working bees – from planting trees to building sculptures out of rubbish (350.org). He also persuaded myself and the other flatmates to get up at 6am on Sunday morning to do a solar panel dance to the rising sun (http://bit.ly/b6i5NY).>

In a way it doesn’t matter so much what people actually did on 10/10/10. What’s more important, I think, is that there is now a network of millions of people out there connected, listening and ready for action. I’m inspired by Aaron’s ability to co-ordinate and inspire such a diverse and dispersed network of people. As a science communicator I’m learning a huge amount from his example.

As Aaron was telling me, 350 treads a fine line between focussing on the emotional appeal of climate change and the hard science. But it’s the emotional connection, he thinks, that really gets people engaged and enthused. Young people are passionate about climate change because it gives their lives meaning and purpose. It gives them something to fight for, a community to belong to and something bigger than themselves to serve. 

I believe this is the spirit the science community needs to tap into to get young people engaged with science. While fewer and fewer young people are enrolling in science courses at school and university, more and more are getting passionate about climate change. We need to connect with young people where their passions already are. We need to tell the story of how science can help them achieve their dreams. After all, without science we wouldn’t even understand climate change and we’d have no idea how to tackle it.

I’d like to see enthusiastic young environmental enthusiasts choosing careers in science as their way of contributing to the wellbeing of the planet and their community. By science I don’t just mean Ecology and Environmental Studies. Physics, Chemistry, Engineering, Biology and Technology offer young people the ability to redesign and rebuild the way the world works – so it’s sustainable but inspiring and beautiful too. These sciences allow us to learn from the building techniques of nature; to design materials and processes that nourish rather than pollute the environment; to harness energy from the sun, wind and waves and to turn waste into gold.  

This is creative inspiring work.

It’s like magic – alchemy – but it’s not. It’s science.

Science As Activism!

It’s a way to make a difference.

As Aaron pointed out science gives environmental activists the tools to understand and work with complexity; it enables groups like 350.org to develop evidence-based arguments to present to the public, government and policy-makers and it offers a neutral ground for dialogue.

I see a huge amount of possibility in the network that Aaron has helped to create around NZ and the world. I’d like to engage with this network and tell the story of how science can help us create a positive future. 

I’m not sure how this will take shape yet. I’m looking forward to seeing how this journey unfolds.

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I’d love to hear your thoughts, ideas and suggestions…

 

 

10/10/10 day 1 of a journey of discovery

Someone wise once said you should never go travelling until you have seen the beauty in your own backyard. In this spirit I began my journey of discovery this morning at Island Bay beach down the road from my flat. I hopped on my trusty old bike at 6.15am, thermos cup of tea in hand, helmet over woolly hat and I rolled through the clear morning air to the beach. On the rocks, with a small bunch of environmental enthusiasts and dancing solar panels I watched the sun rise over the Rimutaka Ranges. I can honestly say there is no place in the world that sinks so sweetly and deeply into my soul as the south coast of Wellington. 

What pulled us out of bed so unnaturally early on a Sunday morning was the launch celebration of the world’s largest ever working bee (10/10/10) - along with the enormous enthusiasm of my flatmate, Aaron Packard. Aaron is the Pacific coordinator for 350.org - a passionate climate enthusiast with a big heart and a flair for the ridiculous. It was Aaron's idea to make solar panel costumes out of cardboard boxes and to welcome the sun with a solar panel boogie. Yesterday I helped make the panels and this morning I shook my thing to the beat of the taiko drum. Aaron is one of the first inspiring kiwis on my journey of discovery. In a couple of days I'm going to tell you his story. But for now I want to share some thoughts from this morning.

Standing on the rocks in the exquisite stillness of dawn our attention was drawn to the earth under our feet, to the trillions of hearts beating around the planet, to the miracle of life on earth, the enormity of space and the constant march of time. Listening to the blessing and Waiata I felt a wave of gratitude well up in me. Gratitude for the beauty, wisdom and gentleness of this land. I felt a desire to let this beauty, wisdom and gentleness pour into my thoughts and actions; to let it shape the culture and vision of this country.

There is something magical about New Zealand, Aotearoa. And as Kiwis - Maori or Pakeha - I think we all carry this magic in our hearts somewhere, no matter how staunch or cynical we are.  It may not always show in our working lives or our policies but it's there - there is something about our country that we love. On my journey I hope to discover this magic something. I hope to learn how it has shaped our history and character and how it might reshape our future. I guess you would call this the spiritual side of my journey. 

A Journey Begins

This Sunday I will embark on a journey of discovery around New Zealand.

My aim is to discover and draw together the threads of a new Kiwi vision and culture that cherishes the values and strengths of all our country’s communities and sectors.

I feel something very exciting brewing in the nooks and networks of New Zealand.

I’ve felt it while talking to scientists, artists, environmental activists, entrepreneurs, politicians, architects, economists and community volunteers. I feel it in my bones!

But it’s not the kind of story you see in the news.

It feels like time for New Zealand to shake off the dependence and hesitance of youth and to stand up for what is unique and strong about our country - the ingenuity, creativity and determination of our people and the wisdom, power and beauty of our ancient land.

My plan is to track down the rebellious optimists – the inspired Kiwis who have seen a positive future for the country and are working hard to make it a reality. I want to find out what sets them on fire, what challenges and inspires them and what they think we need to do to achieve their vision.

As I go I’ll collect common threads from across the sectors and communities. With these threads, together with the network of inspired, motivated people, I hope to weave a shared vision for the country – a vision that touches the hearts of all New Zealanders.

For me it will be a journey of growth and exploration – coming into tune with my country and imagining possibilities for my future here.

My inspiration is collaboration. As I travel I will be looking for opportunities to connect the skills, knowledge and passion of the people I meet to form unique, co-operative initiatives that benefit everyone involved. I will bring my own personal skills and experience as a science communicator to the mix.

I see a special place for science in the culture and identity of New Zealand. There is something about the open-minded, inventive, practical, rule-bending spirit of New Zealand that resonates with the spirit of science.  And I believe the science community holds invaluable secrets to enrich the culture, environment and wealth of our people.

So, on Sunday morning at 6.30am I will embark on my journey of discovery. At Island Bay Beach in Wellington we’ll be gathering to welcome the sun up on 10/10/10 Global Work Party day (www.350.org). With over 7000 groups of people gathering in 180 countries to celebrate climate solutions on this day it seems like a perfect way to kick off my journey - a message of hope that positive change is possible. 

Dissolving the Illusion of normality

Why is science communication important?


Normality as we think of it is not real!

Normal life, normal ways of thinking are based on assumptions.

Take a look deeper into the physical universe and the normal illusion dissolves. Detail inside detail inside detail – zoom in and solids become tangled networks of molecules, molecules become arrays of atoms, atoms turn into vast tracts of vibrating spinning space punctuated by tiny specks of dense nuclei. Zoom in further and the nuclei themselves turn into space and energy. Sharp definitions have gone, position and shape are defined by probability and possibility. Strange new quantum rules apply. Particles can be in more than one place at once, can pass through walls. Nothing is solid. All semblance of normality has gone. Where are we? Right here! We could be inside any of the objects around us – the desk, the computer keys, the walls, the trees…

Normality dissolves…

What are we made of? Energy? Particles? Potential?

Not what we thought anyway.

See this seamless image of reality we see around us – in the bus, in advertisements, fashion, shops, landscapes, walls, computers, TV ….

Science digs into it. It makes the strange unseen worlds, patterns, energy and structures visible.

I think we forget how bizarre it all is – how precarious, subtle, moving, balanced, uncertain. We exist in and through this uncertain, pulsing vibrating landscape. But we forget it. We get tricked into an illusion of normality

Science Communication is about bringing this to people’s attention – about breaking through the comfort and boredom of certainty and normality – An scientist explorer comes back from a strange new land and we don’t listen because they speak a different language – jargon – we recognize some of the words but the meaning isn’t there.

Science Communication is travelling to the frontiers of science and communicating just how bizarre it all is – it’s about making those connections.

BUT! The whole purpose is to crack through the blank expression – to create little explosions that destroy normality.

That’s the purpose.

And to encourage exploration.

Shatter assumptions. Don’t bother building new structures – more beautiful broken. More open. We have more fun. We meet more. Break through the blank, the seamless image of the world – and we can step out and meet each other.

No real conflict. Only small views and blank expressions.

The Ripple Effect - what NZ can offer the world

Imagine what would happen if you lifted New Zealand up out of the ocean one calm windless day and dropped it back in again. Imagine the ripples it would create over the vast expanse of clear water as it plunged in – concentric circles expanding outwards over the ocean, gently lapping on the shores of Australia, Asia, Africa, America, Europe…. Imagine what messages those ripples might carry…

It’s a silly idea but it seemed to give form to thought that has been growing in my mind for the past year – something about what makes New Zealand such a unique and special place to work.

I’ve always felt a sense of magic and possibility in New Zealand. The land has a depth and quietness to it that humbles me. The air is clear. There is space to think and to reflect. People are open and willing to consider new ideas. There are less rules, less history weighing us down. The natural world feels wild but safe. You can walk barefoot through the bush without getting eaten. The drafty wooden houses and freezing southerlies make sure you never get comfortable enough to forget you’re human.

When I returned from the UK early last year I couldn’t believe what a beautiful place I came from. I had gone to London to do a Masters in “Science Communication” after finishing my Physics degree in New Zealand. I ended up staying there for three years. The London vibe got me hooked. I spent my time riding my bike through London’s long grass commons and along the Thames; I worked for a podcasting company producing tourist trail podcasts of London; I wrote songs and sang in bars; I taught science and maths to naughty London kids and directed a play for the Edinburgh festival. London was exciting and stimulating but there was always a part of me that longed for the quiet.

When I came home to Wellington the quiet almost knocked me over. My parents picked me up from the airport and we drove back home along the South Coast. I went and sat in the sun at the bottom of their garden, opened my eyes and ears and just let the thoughts drain out. My senses feasted on the juicy green smells, the lucid details of flowers and insects, the bright colours and the neighbour’s kiwi voice directing some building work. All of these details seemed to be hovering lightly over the top of this vast reservoir of silence. For the first time in years I felt something deep inside come to rest. I could see my thoughts clearly forming against a clear page of quiet.

I actually only intended to stay for a two week holiday but that was January 2009 and I’m still here. I’m here to stay now. From that time I have felt my sense of purpose unraveling. I’ve been discovering how I can use my skills and experience to help contribute to a positive future for New Zealand and I’ve been lucky enough to find more than enough work to keep me busy.

There have been a few things that have inspired me. The first is a vision for New Zealand that my mentor and old physics lecturer Paul Callaghan has described in his recent book Wool to Weta. Paul is a world-class physicist with a flare for communication and a passionate belief in the importance of science to New Zealand. His vision is for New Zealand to become a centre for high-tech and creative industries. He wants to reverse the brain drain and make New Zealand the place young people choose to build their careers and raise their families. I’m inspired by Paul’s rebelliously optimistic spirit, his determination and practicality. I’m inspired by the idea of making money while preserving our natural environment and enriching our community and culture. It’s not very well known but high-technology is already New Zealand’s third largest export industry. A couple of companies, like Weta Workshops, have made it into the public eye but most have gone un-noticed. I’m inspired to change this. I want to go and meet the entrepreneurs and creative people behind these companies and tell their stories to the country at large. I want to help spread this vision and give people the courage and self-belief to go for it.

There are many other things inspiring me – the down-to-earth lifestyle of my friends here, the view of Wellington’s South Coast from my bedroom window, the idea of multi-disciplinary collaboration…

I’ve started this blog to track this unravelling inspiration and to share some of the inspiring stories of the people I meet. The Ripple Effect seems like a perfect title. I looked it up on Wikipedia and it said…

People often speak about the tyranny of distance. There is also a beauty in distance and space. You know what an effect it has to clear your workspace before starting a new project? New Zealand has that clear workspace.

In Europe or America people are sending their signals out on every side. We have a perfect quiet haven to develop a new identity free from the conventions and rules of the rest of the world. We have an ideal oceanic amphitheatre from which to send our ideas out to the world.

I feel an inspired energy rising up in this country and I’d like to give voice to it – start throwing things in the water so to speak.

Introducing me and my mission

Hello World! My name’s Elizabeth Connor. I'm a 'science communicator' by profession. I spend my time translating the incomprehensible murmerings of scientists into language and concepts we can all understand.

My background is in physics – I studied at Victoria University in Wellington before going to London to do a Masters in ‘Science Communication’ at Imperial College.

When I was fourteen I came to the conclusion that science and the arts had been unnecessarily wrenched apart. I loved both subjects and made it my mission to bring them back together again. I didn’t have a clue how to do it but have been trying my best ever since.

On leaving school I was faced with an agonizing choice between fine art, creative writing and science. I had always imagined myself as an artist but chose physics in the end. I wanted to discover the underlying laws and patterns beneath the beauty I saw in nature and physics seemed like a nice gritty thing to study! It was. I found it challenging and illuminating but frustrating too. I knew something wasn’t right when I burst out of an electronics lab shouting “No more numbers!” I was felt suffocated by the sterile language and lack of human context. I wanted to describe the things we were studying with metaphors and gesticulations.

My chance came when I was given a summer job writing web-articles for the MacDiarmid Institute of Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials, a collaborative science research institute. I spent the summer travelling around the country, visiting labs, interviewing researchers and writing articles. My job was to describe their research for a general audience. I felt liberated. I found I had a knack for discovering scientists’ inspiration and expressing their work in terms of images and metaphors.

It was my quantum physics lecturer and former director of the MacDiarmid Institute, Prof Sir Paul Callaghan that gave me the job and encouraged me to pursue science communication. I had no idea it existed as a career choice before that. Paul’s example as a passionate communicator and visionary has been an inspiration to me ever since.

I now work as a freelance science communicator in my beloved hometown, Wellington. My clients include the MacDiarmid Institute, Canterbury University and 'Viclink', a branch of Victoria University that helps staff and students commercialise their research.

This year a very exciting thing happened. I was awarded the ‘Prime Minister’s Science Media Communication Prize’, a new award devised by the government to help raise the profile of science in NZ. As my career has unfolded it seems to be wending its way from science towards the arts. The prize has given me the incredible opportunity to complete that journey and to fulfill my mission of uniting the two. I believe that science holds secrets which could transform the culture and economy of our country and the world. But, it needs the human touch of the arts to make the connection with real people and real needs. I hope to use the Prime Minister’s prize to help develop a culture of cross-sector collaboration in New Zealand.