Pecha Kucha - My Journey in Science and Spirituality

Six minutes and 40 seconds, 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide. That’s how long I had to describe my journey in science and spirituality to 250 people at Downstage theatre a couple of weeks ago. It was the Pecha Kucha Science Sessions, a rapid-fire presentation evening that I co-curated with Christine Harper from Landcare Research. We gathered together thirteen scientists, including NZr of the year Paul Callaghan, Geologist Hamish Campbell and Green candidate Sea Rotmann, to talk for six minutes and 40 seconds about what inspires them most. It was a such a great evening. The presentations were inspiring, funny and fascinating and the event was so popular we had to turn 40 people away.

For me, the evening was confirmation that science and the arts (and even spirituality) really can go together and confirmed that my approach to science communication and the work I've been doing is working. It was the first time I'd brought the scientific and spiritual aspects of my life together in public and the response from the audience was so positive and affirming, it’s given me a boost of confidence to keep going.

My presentation took ages to prepare. There were so many cobwebs around my memories. At first I couldn't for the life of me remember why I studied physics when my best subject was art; why I felt so desperate in physics labs; what I was so inspired about when I was 15, why I became a science communicator… but slowly it came back - reading old diaries and trying to remember what I felt like at age 4, 10, 15, 20...  The process unearthed all these buried creative urges. I started drawing to try explain my thoughts (something I haven’t done since high-school). Slowly, as the story unravelled I became aware of this thread of inspiration running through my life - the best word I could find to describe it was "Atman".

So, here it is, my Pecha Kucha Presentation:

“Atman – A life-time Inspiration”

Atman is an ancient Sanskrit word that means "your true self", "the universal spirit" or “everybody’s secret”.

 I came across the word when I was 4 in my first class at the School of Philosophy. Sitting with “Uncle Norman”, a lovely old carpenter with white hair, who explained how the whole universe is contained in our hearts and how the same Atman that is our true self is also the true self of everything else – people, animals, plants. So, we should always do good things for others and stay in the present moment where the light of the Atman is shining.

I really liked the sound of this and I decided to dedicate my life to looking for Atman. I was 4 at the time, playing by the back door and it was a very rational decision – it seemed the best way to find out if it was all true.

When I was 10 I learnt to meditate. I was very strict and made sure my whole family meditated every morning and evening. As a teenager, my friends and I were inspired by the Italian Renaissance. We wanted to start one of our own. It would unite art, culture, science and spirituality and spread all over the world reconciling conflicts.

At night I spent hours on the roof of my house – fascinated by the space between the stars. I spoke with the moon, my deep soul friend. At these times I felt intoxicated by the magnificence of the universe and the whole valley seemed to pulse with hidden significance, with spirit – Atman.

This is my art teacher ripping my painting in two. I never understood why she did it and when it happened I felt like my heart got sat on. It seemed to be a common experience. I was really inspired by art, poetry and history but my grades were so dependent on my teacher’s opinions.

Science was something I could hold on to. Science and maths were reliable, honest and consistent. The laws of nature could be the judge and they wouldn’t let me down like my art and history teachers had.

I was also captivated by the way physics seemed to uncover the hidden significance in Nature. The fact that one law, like gravity, connected so many things– birds threading through the sky, planets orbiting, leaves falling. This was magic. Science provided the structure, Atman sparkled through and the whole thing was an artistic expression.

When I went to university I made it my mission to reunite science and the arts – the long lost friends. I planned to start with physics, to give me a solid grounding, then move towards art bringing them together as I go.

I fell in love with physics but studying it at uni felt like chasing a carrot that was always a centimetre away from my grasp. There was never time to focus on one topic long enough for it to soak in, to make connections and really understand it.

I remember once running out of a lab screaming. I wasn’t very technical so while my lab partner whipped around with wires and twiddled knobs and I often sat by feeling frustrated. We were always in a hurry to get to the result (which was already in the text book) so there wasn’t much sense of discovery.

I also felt stifled by the language we had to use. We had to strip all the personal pronouns out. So it wasn’t “I put the mass on the scales”. It had to be “the mass was placed on the scales”. There was no room for people, descriptions or humour.

By the end of my degree I felt defeated. I’d glimpsed something really magical then had it whipped away. I was also bursting with creative urges. Fortunately, I met Paul Callaghan, the Director of the new MacDiarmid Institute. He gave me a job travelling around the country interviewing scientists and writing about their research.

Finally I found a way into the magic. I didn’t have to do it myself. I could find it in others. It was like a treasure hunt. At first the research often sounded boring. But then I’d discover what the scientist was really passionate about. I’d follow that sense of spirit like a lead to the essence of the story. It was so satisfying to see their delight at having their story reflected back with them – the person – put back in.

I felt so encouraged I went to the UK to do a Masters in Science Communication. We studied the habits and customs of scientists as if they were an indigenous tribe from an unknown land. We looked at history, philosophy, sociology and ethics and I realised that many science customs are just quirks of history and culture.

Up till this point the scientist and spiritual parts of me had been minding their own business. During my Masters they began to talk and sometimes argue. This was disturbing. I wanted to reconcile this conflict. I also wondered whether it might reflect a wider conflict in society. So, in my dissertation I explored these questions.

Have you heard this story: a bunch of blind people go to visit an elephant. The one who touches the tail thinks: "mmm, an elephant is like a rope"; the one who touches the ear thinks "Hmm an elephant's like a fan";  the one by the leg thinks it’s like pillar and so on. Later they get into such an argument about what an elephant's like they end up bashing each other. This seemed to explain the conflict between scinece and spirituality well.

I wanted to see the whole elephant. So I started exploring. I toured the UK with a maths circus, directed a play for the Edinburgh Fringe, sang in bars, made podcasts of London tourist trails, hung out with Hari Krishnas and taught really naughty London kids science and Maths using creative dance.

When I got home to NZ everything started coming together. The barriers between people seemed lower. Things seemed small enough and flexible enough to change. I felt a strong connection with the science community. Then was awarded the PM’s science communication prize – a huge opportunity to work towards my dream.

When I look back I recognise that every stage of my journey there's been a search for Atman- that common spirit connecting people, ideas and cultures. I hope that all the experience I have gained will help me be that bridge between cultures. Who knows, there may be a Renaissance yet – there certainly seems to be something brewing.
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