Found at Futility Closet and noted here for tagged archive.
In February 1962 John Glenn circled Earth three times on Friendship 7.
When he landed, he received a card from the International Flat Earth Research Society.
It said, “OK wise guy.”
So, this past weekend, I watched this video. A few seconds in, I stopped it, turned off the lights, plunked on a pair of headphones, and then expanded the view to full HD mode. Then, under these conditions, I watched it fully.
It’s hard to explain but I found this video very moving. Moving for all sorts of reasons, I suppose. It was beautiful, the Earth was beautiful, but it was also an inspiring glimpse of much needed perspective. The Earth looked so small, especially when backdropped against the cosmos, and for reasons I can’t fully explain, the Earth also seemed so delicate – like it was obvious why we need to take good care of it.
Chalk it up to just another example of an interdisciplinary crossroad. Here we have footage that had a perfunctory scientific and technological basis, and yet some of the “data,” the “observations,” the footage that was collected, when translated by a skilled practitioner, clearly had a power beyond those acts of hypothesis generation and hypothesis support.
This is an interesting dynamic – how beautiful pictures, beautiful sounds, or beautiful words can inform the scientific endeavour, although it’s a dynamic that doesn’t appear to have a lot of research behind it. So maybe it’s worth taking a closer look? Or maybe not? After all, does looking too deeply, working out measurements or concocting algorithms to explain why I feel the way I feel when I watch this video, would this result in a loss of that wonderful perspective, or would it allow us to do it even better?
This is just a heads up that my lab will be “having a go” at some new research queries. Specifically, one that examines the interspace between impressions of “science” and impressions of “creativity.” In fact, tonight I’m heading to Calgary to meet up with Marie-Claire Shanahan and take a crack at the first draft of the grant proposal. In the meantime, however, you can stay in the loop with our progress at our open research blog. Below is a quick (grant-speak-ish) write up of what we hope to do.
Science is a creative endeavor. This is obvious to many who actively participate in scientific research as they see their work as a continuum of creation, whether it leads to product or discovery. Similarly, the notion that science is creative is also obvious when viewed under the lens of those who study “creativity,” a term that is rich with diverse interpretations but often abridged as “the ability to create work that is both novel and appropriate” (Sternberg and Lubart, 1999). Despite this clear agreement, public perceptions around science, including those perpetuated in classroom settings, almost universally exclude the role of creativity (Braund, 1999). As a result, this detachment leads individuals away from an authentic view of science, which not only creates false impressions, but could also lead to a loss of scientific identity (where one considers “who we think we must be to engage in science”, Calabrese Barton, 1998, p. 379). This, in turn, could culminate in an unintended estrangement.
Under this context, this research will aim to explore notions and impressions of both authentic science and creativity, and the effect of science educational programming that actively promotes their connection. Here, the aim is to build research queries around the activities of a science education lab that: (a) operates within, and therefore has unparalleled access to, a highly regarded multidisciplinary scientific research unit – the Michael Smith Laboratories at the University of British Columbia; and (b) has already shown an inclination towards programming that relies on collaborations between scientific and artistic communities. Given that this programming also extends over a variety of school grade levels (elementary and secondary), takes place in a state of the art genetics research (authentic) space, involves participant numbers in the 1000s, and is malleable towards specific research interests; this collaboration and this research is viewed as an unprecedented opportunity to delineate the effect of the science and creativity disconnect in public perception.
Since, we’ve set this up as an open blog and all, we’d love to hear what people think. Check it out here.
Just recently had the opportunity to read the excellent New Yorker piece on Dr. Oz (written by Michael Specter and definitely worth checking out). Dr. Oz’s behaviour and obvious media clout reminded me of a little rant I wrote for Boing Boing a while back. Anyway, I thought it was worth reprinting here, so take a peek below.
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By DAVID NG
Now that we’re half way through the university semester, I’m finding myself inundated with a lot of marking. Sometimes, I try to tackle this work at home, but being the skilled procrastinator that I am, this will inadvertently lead me into the land of daytime television. It was here the other day that I caught a few minutes of Oprah, and noted that in that short timeframe, I found my reaction changing from a sort of admiration to a feeling best described as a prolonged wince. The reason for this abrupt change of heart was essentially the appearance of Jenny McCarthy in what looked like a correspondence role – she of the celebrity ilk, noteworthy for being a very powerful advocate of some very shaky medical advice.
I won’t go into too much detail here about her travails, since they’ve been covered extensively here at Boingboing and elsewhere in the media, but suffice to say, both the medical and scientific communities overwhelmingly take issue with her claims regarding linkage between the MMR vaccine and Autism. Indeed, her opinion has not changed, despite recent studies that showed that much of the data in the Wakefield paper (the scientific article that laid the media groundwork for this linkage) was actually fraudulent in nature.
Anyway, this is interesting to me. Ms. Winfrey by all accounts seems to have her heart in the right place, and as a person of considerable media clout, you would think that she (or at least her team) would have carefully thought through the ramifications of associating with such a notorious individual. Except that when you look a bit deeper, you find other instances where her brand chooses to ignore a very simple and sensible idea: that “claims,” especially claims that operate best under scientific ways of knowing, should only be supported when there is robust evidence to back them up.
An obvious example of this is her recommendation of The Secret. This is a book written by Rhonda Byrnes and which appears to be a very elaborate and (if I can be cynical here) lucrative interpretation of the placebo effect. Specifically, the author claims that an individual can “change their electromagnetic frequency,” so as to change outcomes in their life. Such language is striking because if you were to ask an expert who knows a thing or two about electromagnetic radiation – say a physicist – you would learn that this phrase is entirely nonsensical. More importantly, you could even ask physicists of different moral leanings, political sensibilities, and/or cultural backgrounds, and you would still get the same answer – because the evidence that refutes her claims stands on its own objective merits.
We could go on with other examples of Ms. Winfrey’s fondness of pseudoscientific trends – from the establishment of Dr. Oz, to providing the center stage to individuals like Susanne Sommers and Christiane Northrup – but I think you get the point. Let me also be clear: I do think there is some value to these things if individuals truly feel that they are benefiting from them. However, what’s worrying to me is when lines regarding safety are being crossed. All to say that for me, there’s a bit of irony here, because before seeing Ms. McCarthy on her show, one of things I applauded Oprah Winfrey for was her work in South Africa, particularly her involvement on the HIV/AIDS front.
As many already know, this is a country that continues to be devastated by the effects of this disease. According to the latest UNAIDS statistics (based on2009 data), South Africa currently has the highest infection numbers, estimated at 5.6 million of its population. This includes a startling 17.8% prevalence in individuals aged between 15 and 49. It’s also no secret that a significant part of this deadly reality is due to poor government policy, whereby from 1999 to 2008, the former President Thabo Mebki and his health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang were willing advocates of a variety of pseudoscientific claims made by AIDS denialists. Many of these deterred the provision of life-saving antiretroviral medicines: most infamously, Manto herself promoted the use of “beetroot and garlic consumption” as an effective treatment regime.
This narrative is strikingly similar to those that allude to Ms. McCarthy or The Secret. The difference, of course, is that with HIV/AIDS in South Africa, Ms. Winfrey chose to side with reason, data, and good evidence. More to the point: having both Ms. McCarthy and the South African HIV/AIDS issue being so prominent under a single brand is an odd dichotomy that begs us to wonder what to make of it. It is, quite simply, a mixed message. At best, it is confusing in a world where the glut of information is already a burden. And more seriously, it is an insult to the good people who have worked so hard on HIV/AIDS education, treatment, and research. But at its worst, it is an affront to all those who have been victims of the propagation of such dangerous claims, whether it is the people of South Africa or the millions of viewers that follow Ms. Winfrey’s every suggestion, every recommendation, and every action.
“Many a man floated in water before Archimedes; apples fell from trees as long ago as the Garden of Eden, and the onrush of steam against resistance could have been noted at any time since the discovery of fire and its use under a covered pot of water. In all these cases it was eons before the significance of these events was perceived. Obviously a chance discovery involves both the phenomenon to be observed and the appropriate, intelligent observer.“
By Walter Cannon, The Way of an Investigator, 1945. Via Futility Closet.
I can get from BORA to YODA in only 4 lines…
KORA (a African harp-like instrument)
KODA (common name for the tree species, Ehretia acuminata)
A coincident?!? (I think not)
If providing sound advice on science blogging and science writing had a ranking system, then Bora Zivkovic would be clearly be somewhere at the top.
Anyway, here’s a quality must read for those of you who are curious about the traditional ways, the non-traditional ways, and various degrees of meta-ways in which a person can become a “science writer.”
So I gave a Pecha Kucha a few weeks back. Scariest presentation ever! Really fun but really challenging format. Essentially, you need to prep a talk that involves 20 slides that auto forwarded every 20 seconds. In other words, not only do you have to be concise, you also have no control over the progression of slides (yikes!)
Anyway, here it is below. Enjoy!
Ubiquitous unicorn graphic via cottoncritter.
Note that this essay is in regards to this.
The session began with a bit about inflatable pools: although here, a little context might help.
In the summer of 2009, my hometown of Vancouver experienced a small heat wave. It got very hot and humid, unbearable even, and not surprisingly my two young kids (Hannah and Ben) were quite miserable. Consequently, to led to the very popular idea of getting an inflatable pool for our backyard, which to all intents and purposes, appeared to be a genius move. And so before we knew it, we were suddenly on the hunt.
This naturally led us to a local toy store, where lo and behold, marketing geniuses that they are, the store had conveniently placed all of their pools front and centre. Here, we were confronted with the pool that you see in the picture above (on the left).
It looked, quite frankly, awesome, and, if you can believe it, it was also priced at only thirty dollars. Needless to say, we bought it immediately and full of excitement, took it home to set up. It was here that something odd happened. In essence, when the pool was inflated, it looked a little different from the box (see image on right).
Of course, being a scientist and all, my rational mind was racing and trying its hardest to come up with hypotheses that could explain what was going on. Why did the pool look so tiny?
Did I not blow hard enough and inflate it properly?
Was the photograph on the box taken in a land of small hobbit-like people?
Were my children, unbeknownst to me, massive?
It was all very bizarre, but at the end of the day, the explanation was quite simple. Apparently, in the world of advertising, it is permissible to use misleading images so long as there was some presence of text that exposed the reality of the product. For instance, the object’s dimensions are clearly printed on the box, or a statement such as “object in box may not be as appears” is included.
For our session at Science Online 2013, this silly anecdote served as a sort of meta-example of what we were hoping to talk about: That is, how do we talk science to folks who don’t necessarily care about science? How do we preach outside the proverbial choir, or go “beyond the choir,” or delve into things that are praeterchoral if you will. And perhaps more importantly, what are the tensions associated with trying to do this? Should there be important things to consider, say for the public good? And do such things even work (or how would we even know)? In effect, the two images represent the “truth,” and how the “truth” might come across when communicated. They are meant to represent a literate form of science communication, and a form that is not quite accurate but might be easier for the general public to engage in. In other words, we were wondering whether there is a cost to translating science in this way.
Looking at the two inflatable pool images, I can think of a number of potential problems. For instance, when using more creative methods, perhaps one will inadvertently dilute, distort, or even get the “truth” or the science wrong. Or maybe it’s not even a case of being scientifically sloppy, but rather one paints a slanted version of science culture by consistently focusing on the stuff that is deem interesting, strange, entertaining, or dramatic – we leave out the boring bits, which arguably present a more accurate portrait of science. As well, a lot of the science used to capture interest, might not be the sort of science that is quote-unquote “important,” or at least important in terms of civics and public good (yes, a narrative about an inflatable pool is charming, but shouldn’t we talk about climate change or gun control for instance?) Even worse, maybe in my zeal to be entertaining, funny, and/or quirky (never mind finding a way to show off my kids), I actually created a situation where clarity was lost in the discussion.
All to say that the act of preaching outside the choir has many nuances. Certainly enough to warrant an extensive list of things to think about: a list that Gertrude Stein might even approve of. Which was why Tom (@TomLevenson) provided a tour of such a list of considerations, prefaced by the dying words of Stein and made all the more pertinent because it was quite likely that the inflatable pool meta-example had failed (which you could say was sneakily deliberate – a meta-meta-example? – or a consequence of my not getting enough sleep and perhaps being too glib and overconfident in my ad-libbing speaking skills*)
In any event, this list (which can be seen in full here) was aimed at provoking the audience and included important questions such as: “Should we first ask: why do we want to engage such audiences (the uninterested)?”, “Where do notions of Civic Duty/Need (Proselytizing!) and/or Self-interest fit in?”, and “Does entertainment even work?” And in the end, this dialogue culminated in three simple queries: WHY, WHO and HOW?
Which worked well, because the audience took to the list and responded in wonderful and thoughtful ways. In particular, the discussion appeared to categorize itself into three particular trends.
Firstly, many of the comments showcased intriguing examples that took advantage of an unconventional pairing – for instance, the case presented by Chad Orzel (@orzelc) of connecting a narrative between the National Football League and the neuroscience of concussion effects. Along similar lines, there were also many examples where some facet of art was combined with the act of translating science. This included discussions around the use of aesthetics in artwork, comics, animation, video, or the importance of theatrical elements or story telling as a form of engaging narrative (@Indrevis, @BenLillie, @Beatricebiology). In particular, I remember Jennifer Ouellette (@JenLucPiquant) describing some of the mandates around her role as Director of The Science and Entertainment Exchange. This was great stuff, and really this should all be archived somewhere someday (maybe here even?).
As well, there was a category of stirring conversations which tended to be the ones that considered the motivations involved – as in, why do the people in the room do what they do. Here, we heard many comments around the simple idea of sharing one’s passion, and to hope that in doing this, one will engage someone to look a little deeper. Or better yet, a science communicator who wants to move outside the classroom mentality is doing this because they are, in effect, saying that “this is my view of science culture and I think that you might find it interesting too…” In other words, it’s not necessarily about being strategic or attempting to fix science literacy issues en mass but simply doing your part, in the context of whatever reach you can muster. I quite like this sentiment, especially when expressed with eloquence and passion by individuals like Danielle Lee (@DNLee5) and Annalee Newitz (@Annaleen). It feels right and, if I can be honest, it’s also downright inspiring.
Except that none of it feels very scientific, which presents a delicious sort of irony and also our third and final stream of commentary. More to the point, this discussion addressed whether any of our preaching outside the choir was actually working. Are our efforts for naught, or are we, as a roomful of passionate science communicators, actually changing societal impressions, views, and opinions around science? Anecdotally, yes, but can we call ourselves successful when applying a more rigorous scientific rubric.
This, to me, is an important question, but it’s also a question that might not have easy answers. In fact, Ben Lillie (@BenLillie) very nicely expressed this conundrum, so much so as to suggest that maybe it’s not something that can be measured – and I think there’s some merit to this train of thought. How do we evaluate such things, this talking science to the uninterested, and in any case, how confident would we be with this evaluation, knowing that it is likely a caveat laden process? It reminds me a little of a recent chat I had with a theatre academic – he told me his colleagues were constantly wrestling with the following question – “how exactly does one measure the value of art?”
Still, that doesn’t make it a pointless question, and certainly not one that shouldn’t be explored. Indeed, Science Online was wonderful because others were interested in this challenge, and I’ve even managed to embark upon a research initiative with Marie-Claire Shannahan** (@mcshanahan) to hopefully capture a glimpse of what an answer might look like. It’s funny: This science communication business is all a little mysterious when you think about it, but upon reflection, I find it comforting to realize that this isn’t so different from the awesomeness of science itself.
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* It was the latter by the way. This is why theatre is always workshopped, and I should’ve known better!
** More on this later. For now, we have both agreed to present this research process in a completely open manner. Right now, we’re stuck on the name of the blog where we would real-time share our discussions, processes and results.
Or something like that…
For more info, see choirmechanics.wordpress.com
Really impressed by this graphic. It’s just about perfect for this sort of thing… (although technically the word “hypothesis” would be better than “theory”)
By Kyle Hill.
Recently, I was asked to imagine a set of New Year’s Resolutions that “Science” would aspire towards. This was pretty general and in good fun, as well as potential fodder for a piece at Slate. In the end, Slate only used a small part of my rambling, but I figured this blog is as good a place as any to share the rest of my role playing resolutions. As well, I’ve categorized it into three main sections, and note that some of them are a little silly (albeit potentially AWESOME).
A: Proper science (technical) resolutions
- Some major mind blowing breakthrough(s) in the renewable energy category. Something, basically where the cost per watt just destroys the competing fossil fuel economy.
- DNA Sequencing to hit that magic criteria where costs and speed are met. Basically, something akin to someone getting that Genomics X Prize (http://genomics.xprize.org/). With those kind of capabilities, I think this is where the ideas behind personal genomics can really be put to test (we’re fast approaching it anyway). Note that ideally, this would also mean that the policy side of things can also keep up.
- Somebody works out an efficient, effective, and easy way to isolate, purify, culture, and even possibly reset adult stem cells.
B: In the education, and/or policy arena
- Some kind of decent increase in national funding for science research generally – this works for any number of countries, US, and England (and Canada), in particular. This is especially true in the basic research category which tends to get hit the hardest due to lack of appreciation (by politicians and the general public at large) of how science tends to progress.
- Science expertise in policy making decisions is given much (much!) more clout. This kind of clout is needed so that more (all?) political decisions are made based on rationality, validity and good evidence (climate change policy, I’m looking at you). While we’re at it, such expertise must also be utilized in a much more efficient and quicker fashion, since this advice doesn’t help if it can’t keep up with the science (decisions around molecular genetics/genomics for instance). Basically, science needs to have a much more primary role in the political world.
- Slow but strategic introduction of “Science Philosophy” concepts into school curricula, such that one day, it will have a much more significant presence throughout elementary and high school syllabus (and also diversified in where it turns up: such as in Social Studies as well as the usual science topics). This is because the nuances of things like the scientific method are far too important to be really only covered at the earlier ages where it is presented in an overly simplistic fashion. The epistemology of science much richer than that, and ultimately you want all citizens to comfortable and knowledgable in such things because they provide the best practices for good decision making. (Plus, it doesn’t have to be boring either – check out this piece for instance) In other words, it’s not necessarily about educating people to become scientists, it’s more about teaching everyone the value of “thinking” like a scientist. Put another way, I’d like everyone to smile while looking at this t-shirt, but then on reflection, that same person would ask themselves “How is that claim validated? What is the evidence?”
- I would love for science communication skill sets/options/practices to have a greater presence in the conventional academic science pipeline. In other words, something like if there is a dedicated funding schematic for graduate students to have the option of exploring these practices. Translation of science needs more advocates from those in the trenches, or at least needs more that have some experience in the public communications arena.
- Somebody to develop a “Downton Abbey” type television series, but revolve it around the contrasting relationships between supervising scientists (professors, etc), and the rest of the lab (graduate students, technicians). That show is like crack (I can only assume) to me.
- Where science begins to be recognized formally as a “creative” endeavour. i.e. you go to the art gallery, and there’s a floor or the permanent exhibit looking at how science is, in many ways, a form of art. This isn’t so much from the point of view of “this data looks aesthetically pleasing,” but rather, “how they came up with that hypothesis is just so elegant.” I, and I’m sure others, believe that there’s beauty in that.
C: “Out there, totally unrealistic but this would be awesome category.”
- Somebody invent a time machine already, so that we can finally persuade Climate Change denialists that Climate modelling is actually a very robust and validated science. In other words, with this contraption we can finally go to the future, and say “See, told you…”
- Give the UN enforcement capabilities for international agreements concerning the environment or biodiversity issues. I suggest giving them lightsabers so that everyone knows that this is serious now.
- A super group who makes a “Let’s promote science literacy” music album (can we still call it an album?). I can see Thom Yorke, Peter Gabriel, and Bjork doing this as a triad of voices backed by the rest of the Radiohead band.
Alright, that was fun. Any other suggestions out there?
(Image by Kenwyn Lim)
(Reprinted and re-edited with more recent statistics from an earlier blog post)
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about good old 0.7%. This is the hallmark figure suggested by Pearson as a target for foreign aid to developing nations. In other words, the main idea is that wealthy nations do something nice and set aside about 0.7% of their gross national income, so that the sorts of things that the UN Millennium Development Goals are focused on, can be proactively tackled. It’s all noble stuff: challenging yes, but definitely important in the global context.
Problem is, that not many countries actually do this, and this is why you have people like Bono and Jeff Sachs all in an uproar, etc, etc, etc. For example (based on 2009 stats), the United States puts aside approximately 0.2% of GNI, whereas Canada is only a little better at about 0.3%. Indeed, sometimes a small part of these G7 Summits that happen from time to time is about addressing this specific issue, except that often the agreements in place tend placate to long “statement of intent” type timelines – the sorts of timelines that are much longer than the life of existing elected governments.
Now, there is a lot of good debate about the relative merit and/or problems of going for the 0.7% target, which we won’t go into here, but I thought a good exercise in perspective (for you and I as individuals) is to think about what 0.7% actually looks like.
To do this, I thought a good place to start would be to think about that cup of coffee you probably drink every day.
Let us suppose that the average North American buys a single cup of coffee a day. And also let’s guess that the average price of that coffee sits somewhere around the $1.50 range. This takes into consideration, those who don’t drink coffee, those who can get their coffee cheaper (or for free) at work, those who buy larger sizes, those who buy the fancy coffee drinks, those who choose to also get the muffin – more or less, to say that an average cost of $1.50 per day doesn’t sound too unreasonable. Besides, it’s about what I spend daily on my caffeine perk for instance.
The point is, if you multiply $1.50 by the 365 days, you get a yearly budget of about $550.00. If we take that figure and extrapolate using 0.7% as a hallmark, it means that if you make about $80,000 per year, your coffee expenditure (under these parameters) would be equivalent to that 0.7% benchmark. If you make less than $80,000 or buy more than one cup of coffee a day, then your percentage actually jumps up significantly.
To me, the mental exercise here is to appreciate the relative insignificance of 0.7%, and to juxtapose that to what would happen if we all chose to use that coffee money towards developmental aid.
The answer, of course, is that “a lot of good” would happen. Actually, it’s a little mind boggling when you think about what how a person’s coffee habits and culture indirectly divert from some really serious global issues (rather than preach on what these issues might be, I invite you to take a closer look at the Millenium Development Goals to see what’s at stake).
Anyway, this is not to say that we should feel guilty for grabbing a cup of coffee, but rather to consider what that money might actually represent in the global context. Maybe we should all set up 0.7% collection jars or something – certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing. And probably more so in this holiday season.
Just a note for the general global sciencegeek community at large. I invite you all to have an upstanding drink and toast on the night of December 21st, because (you know) it’s not an Apocalypse, it’s a Nerdpocalypse. At least that’s what the science says.
(And if you’re in Vancouver, feel free to pop by the Railway Club at 6pm on, where some of the local Science Scouts and Nerd Nite folks will be on hand to collect data on the prospect of hypothesis 2. We’ll be at the back, and give me a heads up so that we make sure our numbers are doable for the place – @ng_dave).
It was a real treat to have Margaret Atwood out to UBC last night, and she was a delight to host from start to finish.
At the beginning of her talk, she made mention of a science badge – a “Science Scout” badge – and I thought it would interest some folks to share a bit more on her nod to this unconventional thing that came from my lab.
Essentially, a while back, she was kind enough to help design a Science Scout badge.
What is a science scout badge exactly?
Well, it’s one of those things that goes a long while back, and is usually best left unexplained – except to say that searching the internet will get you there.
In a nutshell, the badges are a silly thing, if not amusing, but also a portal into science culture. Usually, these badges are virtual stamps to leave on one’s website, or an opportunity to tell an interesting science story. And on occasion, we do have talented folk who make physical incarnations of them.
In this case, I arranged for one of these talented folk (Rachel Newlin) to make a few of Miss Atwood’s badges. Here is a photo of one of them:
Lovely, isn’t it?
More importantly, I think it’s another great example of science culture. It’s another instance that shows that it’s o.k. for a writer like Margaret Atwood to participate in science things (obviously) – likewise, it’s o.k. for a scientist like myself to participate in storytelling things. It’s really not that strange.
Science isn’t a technical term – it is a form of culture. It’s also a tool or a way to understand and experience the world. And as such, it can be embedded into everything, in large or small parts, technically or philosophically, and we shouldn’t be afraid of it. Perhaps we should be wary of it, but not afraid of it – these are not the same thing. If nothing else, it seems to be a pretty good inspiration for badges.
“Since 2010, Spanish artist Alejandro Guijarro has been traveling to several Quantum Mechanics institutions across the globe. He photographs their blackboards that are filled with the mathematical scribblings of some of the greatest minds in the world. The photographer walks into each facility’s lecture halls and proceeds to snap shots of the blackboards without modifying the board or interfering with the original arrangement of the space. The ongoing series titled Momentum presents an honest look at the intellectual scrawls, some of which have been wiped away.”