Art can be part of the scientific process, a climate scientist says

Mika Tosca (center left) of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago talked about the role art can play in science at the annual meeting of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Anne Snabes
Medill Reports

Artists and designers can participate in the scientific method by talking with scientists, according to a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Mika Tosca, who crosses worlds as a climate scientist and assistant professor at the SAIC, spoke at the annual meeting of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on November 7 about how artists can be involved in climate science. She said climate change is currently a “really unique problem.”

“It’s kind of this immediate existential crisis that we’re facing that we’re having a very difficult time communicating, visualizing and imagining,” she said. “Those are things that I think creative folks, like artists and designers, are really good at doing.”

Tosca teaches climate science to art students and said that artists want to be involved at the beginning of the scientific process. They are typically only involved at the end, when they help present and visualize scientific data.

Tosca was one of several speakers from academics and politics to talk about climate change at the Annual Meeting of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Robert Socolow, a professor emeritus in Princeton’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, said that people are improving low carbon options and decreasing consumer costs. He said the decreasing cost of the solar panel is “extraordinary.”

Jerry Brown, former California governor and executive chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said in a speech that California is doing more than other states to address climate change, but not enough.

Other academics and prominent figures spoke at the meeting about topics ranging from limiting nuclear weapons to artificial intelligence.

Eric Horvitz, director of the Microsoft Research Labs, said in the keynote address that humans and machines can work together and that machines can augment human knowledge. He said that the Defense Innovation Board of the Department of Defense created an AI Principles Project stressing that artificial intelligence systems need to be responsible, equitable, reliable, traceable and governable.

Horvitz said these statements are “powerful and interesting, but they’ll be hard to implement, and this is one of my concerns.”

The Bulletin created the Doomsday Clock that symbolizes how close our world is to destruction. The hands of the clock currently sit at two minutes to midnight, the closest position to Armageddon since the 1990s because of the triple threat of  climate change, nuclear disaster and disruptive technology. The hands of the clock will be reset in January.

Tosca said in her talk that scientists nowadays are often creating knowledge for the sake of creating knowledge and are producing knowledge for other scientists, instead of for the public. But climate change, she said, is a problem that we have to respond to now.

“I don’t know that we have necessarily the time to just sort of continue creating knowledge for the sake of creating knowledge, which is why I think artists play a really important role in this,” she said.

Tosca explained that artists are “exceptionally good” at imagining the world in ways different from the approaches of scientists. She said artists can transform a scientist’s data into a work that’s “really unique and communicable.” She said that artists she has talked to would like to participate in the scientific method from its first step. Scientists could talk to artists at this first step.

“I think that when you have even just a discussion with an artist or creative … person or a designer, it can open your own mind as a scientist and also look through the minds of stakeholders and the general public in a way that maybe you didn’t think of before,” she said in an interview.

Tosca said she assigns her students a final project in which they have to research climate change or another environmental disaster. The students have to write an essay and create an artistic work about their topic. One student researched the emerald ash borer, an insect that is killing ash trees in the U.S. The student created an emerald ash borer sculpted out of wood that had been infected by the insect.

“It’s a really sort of like interesting way of thinking about a problem,” she said.

One of Tosca’s students made an invasive species called emerald ash borer out of wood. Photo courtesy of Mika Tosca.

Cyndi Conn, the executive director of Creative Sante Fe, spoke after Tosca’s presentation and said that the arts facilitate communication between people of differing opinions.

“What we’ve found is that artists can serve as a bridge of empathy, of compassion,” she said.

Photo at top: Mika Tosca (center left) of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago talked about the role art can play in communicating science at the annual meeting of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. (Anne Snabes/MEDILL)