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April 6, 2016

Elizabeth H. Simmons: Science, Art and Human Experience

April 6, 2016

Elizabeth H. Simmons is the dean of Lyman Briggs College and University Distinguished Professor of physics.

As the Dean of Lyman Briggs College, I lead a community dedicated to the study of science in societal context.  Because the humanists and scientists within the college collaborate closely, we engage constantly in explaining the big questions in our fields to one another without relying on jargon or shared backgrounds. 

This stood me in good stead during my 2014-15 year as acting dean of the College of Arts and Letters, where the range of fields I was working with became far broader.  What particularly fascinated me was how the work of the arts faculty throughout the college brought issues related to community and social justice alive for people in ways that encouraged them to go beyond surface thoughts and easy answers.

That year of sharing my time between Briggs and CAL reminded me how crucial it is to pay attention in one’s own life to the arts and the sciences, to keep in touch with both kinds of human knowledge and human engagement with the world. Like many scientists, I’ve been an amateur musician all my life and derive great pleasure from it. My older child is employed as computer scientist in the realm of virtual reality – a place where coding, the visual arts and design merge. My younger child is studying exoplanets but is also an avid violist, pianist and singer (we are both in MSU’s Choral Union). In other words, the blending of the arts and sciences is quite personal for me.

So I particularly notice when stories appear in the media about artists who use scientific principles to bring something to the viewer’s attention. Science Friday recently wrote about artist Robert Smithson’s piece “Spiral Jetty," which was installed in the Great Salt Lake in 1970. It is literally a jetty of black basalt that coils through the water, visible in low-water years and entirely submerged when the lake rises.

The bacteria living in the Great Salt Lake are very colorful; moreover, the pink and orange pigments they express depend on their environment. As the lake’s waters rise or fall, heat or cool, the patterns change dramatically. There’s a vibrant beauty to the patterns the bacteria make in the water trapped within the coiling jetty. And if you know a little about the associated biology and the chemistry, the lovely layers of color reveal the properties of the water. As a viewer, you are simultaneously experiencing a scientific and artistic perspective on the environment of the Great Salt Lake.

One of the striking things about MSU’s approach to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines is the way the university encourages campus scientists to collaborate with scholars from other fields, including the arts, education and public policy.  Joint appointments across colleges are common. Wide-ranging degree programs like STEPPS, ESPP and EEBB attract enthusiastic students. Interdisciplinary grant programs like S3 or WaterCube and research centers like BEACON flourish here.  Science colleges like Lyman Briggs are even included in the university’s Cultural Engagement Council because science is acknowledged to be an aspect of human culture.

Moreover, the university further stretches its inclusive approach to science, by urging us to translate our technical successes into ways of bettering people’s lives, to engage with communities impacted by innovations in agriculture or medicine or engineering, to use our advancing knowledge to transform lives here in Michigan and around the world. The extraordinary leadership shown by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha in advocating for Flint children's health during the current lead poisoning crisis is a prime example.

It is in this precise spirit of stretching science across disciplinary boundaries and into communities that MSU brings the Science Festival to mid-Michigan and Detroit each spring.  This multi-day series of talks, museum nights, café demos and stargazing events enables the public to experience science as directly enjoyable and relevant.  Most importantly, it helps the young people, who represent the future of our state, understand how an underlying basis in creativity fundamentally links science to design and art. By showcasing the intersections of science, art and human experience, the Science Festival unites what I love best about Lyman Briggs, Arts and Letters and MSU.