TEDx Maine and Pamelia’s Big Project
It seems unreal at the moment that in a few days Pamelia and I will be in Russia’s Caucasus Mountains, looking out over the Black Sea and staying at a hotel compound next door to Vladimir Putin’s high-security vacation retreat. That potentially fascinating Sports Illustrated Sochi Winter Olympic scouting/planning trip is looming, but we are caught up in the news of Hurricane Sandy and its devastating impact. (Maine has gotten off easy; the winds here on the coast are roaring, but damage and flooding have been minimal.) We’re also in the thick of another stretch of non-stop Naturalist’s Notebook activity, one that has included a TEDx conference, a fantastic meeting with nine naturalists from across the country, a talk to 100 top staffers of a major company, a visit to naturalist/writer Bernd Heinrich’s cabin in western Maine, a meeting with two artists about 2013 collaborations, and more.
You might want to climb aboard our Red Panda-mobile for this blog ride.
The TEDx Trip
“From now on, I am SO for U-Haul,” said Pamelia. She had just seen what we would soon dub the Red Panda-mobile: a 10-foot truck—decorated, to our delight, with the image of a threatened, tree-dwelling Asian mammal—that we had rented for our much-anticipated journey to Bates College. We were making the three-hour-drive south from The Naturalist’s Notebook to attend the TEDxDirigo conference, a state-level version of the global TED-talk events (“ideas worth sharing”) that have become an international phenomenon through TED.com.
Several weeks earlier, Pamelia and I had received an exciting invitation from TEDxDirigo. (Dirigo is the Maine state motto, meaning I lead and originating in part from the state’s former tradition of holding its elections in September, ahead of the rest of the country.) TEDxDirigo executive director Adam Burk, who had enjoyed a visit to the Notebook this summer along with organization co-founder Michael (Gil) Gilroy, had asked if we would create an outdoor, pop-up, interactive version of some portion of the Notebook to accompany the Bates conference. The TEDx gathering would feature 16 speakers from Maine, ranging from College of the Atlantic senior Anjali Appadurai, an extraordinary young woman and youth delegate to world climate change conferences, to EepyBird, the two viral-video geniuses behind creations such as the now-famous exploding-Diet-Coke-and-Mentos YouTube clip (see below). The speakers and the 300 attendees would spend the day sharing ideas about the world and the future.
Of course we said yes to the invitation. We are huge fans of TED talks and TED’s mission of creating “a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other.”
Keep in mind that we launched The Naturalist’s Notebook shop and exploratorium in 2009 in an effort to merge nature, science, art and the frontier of knowledge in fun, creative ways. We wanted to engage people’s minds and attention by combining not only content with commerce (in what we call shop-and-think installations), but also intelligence with imagination, ideas with interactivity, and the skills of an artist (Pamelia) and a writer/editor (me) with the challenge of explaining and illuminating the amazing world in which we all live. We wanted to fill the Notebook with the voices of the planet’s greatest scientists and naturalists and artists. From Day One our catchline—a reference to the scientifically accepted age of the universe—has been, “A place for everyone who’s even a little curious about the last 13.7 billion years (give or take).”
Thus, for the Bates event, we decided to create a simple, traveling version of the 24-color, 13.7-billion-year, spectrum-linked, big-history-of-the-universe staircase installation at The Naturalist’s Notebook. That beautiful staircase—which our team members painted last spring and Pamelia began to sketch in with a temporary, paper-cutout timeline this summer—is just an early stage of one small piece of a work in progress. Over the next several years Pamelia, who is a painter and photographer, will continue to develop the many components and expressions of that project, which she calls the Big History of Our Life. It will merge art, science and education (for different age groups) in unique, engaging, mind-opening ways.
But one step at a time. First we had a traveling timeline to build for TEDx.
With massive help from our friends John Clark and Leanne Nickon, we created 24 wooden stations, each painted a different color and each representing one period in the universe’s history, as in the Notebook staircase. Our ever-creative team members Eli Mellen and Virginia Brooks came up with fun activities linked to each time period, and then painted homemade chalkboards (using old wooden shingles) to present the activities to the TEDx attendees who would be walking through—and interacting with, we hoped—the 24-station timeline. Eli and Virginia joined us at Bates, as did Kathy Coe, the portrait painter who teaches our summer art workshops, and her daughter Anthea, one of our high-school interns and longtime student collaborators. Kathy and Anthea drove all the way up from Connecticut in torrential rain to help the team as we tried to bring the Notebook alive at the coolest conference in Maine.
You can’t fit 13.7 billion years in the back of a car, of course, which is why we had to rent the truck. It was an unexpected delight. On the sides of more than 1,900 of its vehicles, it turns out, U-Haul is celebrating the discovery in Tennessee of the world’s most complete fossil of an ancient red panda. The almost five-million-year-old relic was found—along with fossils of rhinos, elephants, alligators, camels and other animals that lived in the future Volunteer State during the Miocene epoch—at the Gray Fossil Site, a prehistoric sinkhole that was itself discovered several years ago, when the Tennessee Highway Department was widening state Route 25. Let’s hear it for public works.
It may be startling to read that red pandas once lived in the southeastern U.S. (today they reside only in the Himalayas and China, where they are in peril because of habitat loss and poaching), but such intriguing discoveries are commonplace if you look at the full scope of history covering those 13.7 billion years. The changes the Earth has undergone in its mere four-and-a-half billion years of existence are astounding, yet understandable if you grasp how the forces of physics, chemistry, geology, mineralogy, biology, climate change, natural selection and plate tectonics (among many others) can alter planets and life forms over such a vast a period. Looking at the full sweep of history is like like seeing an aerial view for the first time—wow! It’s fascinating, and whets your appetite to see and learn more.
Unfortunately, to most people the prospect of studying the last 13.7 billion years can seem overwhelming—a journey back into the high-school science classes they dreaded. The terminology alone is daunting. If phases such as Miocene epoch make your eyes glaze over, well, you’re pretty normal.
That’s why Pamelia began work on her Big History of Our Life. Through the project, she hopes to bring more clarity, simplicity, visual impact and mass appeal to the narrative of our scientifically documented long-term past. It’s not about memorizing the names of geological eras. It’s about opening an astounding door of discovery and making it easier to learn about our planetary home and who we are as humans.
Pamelia chose to use the spectrum not only because she’s an artist but also because it is the color order given to us in sunlight, and because it is fundamental to our visual perception of the world, and because even young children know and respond eagerly to color, and because scientists rely on the spectrum as an essential tool when analyzing everything from distant stars to tiny molecules (each chemical element has a unique color “fingerprint” when studied with spectroscopy).
“Our Sun gives us just one color order—the spectrum—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet,” says Pamelia in explaining why the spectrum so appealed to her as a coding method for a 13.7-billion-year timeline.”That fundamental, astonishingly beautiful, color code is embedded in our existence. It’s in the foundations of the universe and in every atom. It’s beautifully simple and familiar. It’s everywhere. We see it in rainbows and on our artist canvases and in our crayon boxes. When I was working through all these fields of study, this color code kept coming to the surface in one way or another in each field—even at the atomic level of our own bodies. Having spent my life as an artist, the color code is my life, but little did I realize that it really IS my life!”
When she mentions “working through all these fields of study,” Pamelia is describing her research for the Big History of Our Life. She has always spent a lot of time studying and thinking about our biological origins and how the Earth and the universe work. In developing this project and its color code, however, she has delved more deeply into the science of the electromagnetic spectrum (of which our visual spectrum is only a miniscule portion) and immersed herself in writings and lectures by men and women who are at the forefront of discovering and disseminating scientific knowledge of all types.
Among those whose work has been most helpful to her—and this is but a fraction of the list—have been paleontologist, anatomist and evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin (Your Inner Fish); geologist and Earth scientist Robert Hazen (The Story of Earth); biologist E.O. Wilson (too many books to list); paleontologists Meave and Louise Leakey; history professor David Christian (inventor of the course of study known as Big History); geophysicist Michael Wysession (How the Earth Works); astrophysicists Alex Filippenko (Understanding the Universe) and Neil deGrasse Tyson (My Favorite Universe and many others); paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall (Extinct Humans and Bones, Brains and DNA); physicist Steven Pollock (Particle Physics for Non-Physicists); and writers Thom Holmes (Prehistoric Earth series) and Bill Bryson (A Short History of Nearly Everything). One skill the aforementioned share (and we hope to emulate) is an ability to make complex science accessible—and in Bryson’s case, quite entertaining—to the average person.
If you think Pamelia’s research sounds like drudgery, trust me, it has been more exhilarating than anything you’ve watched on TV lately. Every day she has found new connections and ideas and quite often she is up reading about all this at 2 a.m., unable to put a book down. She wakes up and immediately starts weaving together strands of insight from different fields of study in sketches and notes. Sometimes she’s so excited that she paces around the room playing out thoughts in her head. The history of the universe, the Earth and the development of life fits in remarkable yet logical ways into her color-coded system—artistically as well as scientifically. In the cold blue colors of the timeline, ocean life and cold-blooded creatures dominate; in the green range, plants proliferate; in the warmer reds, warm-blooded animals rise and rule. And so on. That’s just how the colors fall when paired with geologic eras. It might be a new way for you to look at your crayon set.
The TEDx attendees seemed drawn to the colors and content of our traveling installation. They interacted with the stations and talked to me about the project as I worked at a book table outside the auditorium. Two of the Notebook’s ambitions are to bring together people and insights from different fields (a concept E.O. Wilson calls “consilience”), and to bridge the chasm between scientific knowledge and public awareness of it. Our day at TEDxDirigo enabled us to do both. The conference itself was a huge success, and the conference-goers came out of each lecture session upbeat and energized. Funny how spending time sharing intelligent ideas can have that effect. At day’s end, as Pamelia, Eli, Virginia, Kathy, Anthea and I hiked off through the streets of Lewiston to a 16th-birthday dinner for Anthea at an Indian restaurant, we felt exhausted but elated, happy indeed that we had climbed aboard the Red Panda-mobile and joined this community of curious souls.
I know this blog post is long already, but I have to thank a top Maine company for inviting Pamelia and me to give a talk to a wonderful group of about 100 of its executives and managers from across the country about what the Notebook does and how she and I try to creativity to keep the shop and exploratorium vibrant. We all gathered at the coolest place in Brunswick, the Frontier cafe and theater, which is owned by previously mentioned TEDxDirigo co-founder Michael (Gil) Gilroy and overlooks the Androscoggin River from inside Fort Andross, a former cotton mill. Gil himself gave a memorable talk on how a harrowing yet poignant experience in Russia eventually led him to launch Frontier (and try to bring people together). Another of the speakers, Luke Livingston, founder of the fast-growing Baxter Brewing Company, merged comedy (the tale of turning his college dorm room into a personal brewery) and tragedy (the loss of his mother to breast cancer) to explain how he came to pursue his passion and found his innovative and environmentally progressive beer-making operation in his hometown of Auburn, Maine. (Did I mention how good his IPA is?)
One of the many other highlights of the evening was the first (unofficial) world record ever set under the aegis of The Naturalist’s Notebook. We have a tradition, when celebrating a great idea or success, of gathering in a circle, putting both hands up, palms facing the outside, at about head level, saying, “One, two, three…” and then—at the instant when we all yell, “Supernova!”—high-fiving the people on both sides of us simultaneously. It takes a little practice to actually connect with both neighbors’ hands and create the satisfying slap! but it’s a fun, team-spirit activity that the audience in Brunswick adopted enthusiastically. Under the leadership of the youngest person in the room, Anthea (who climbed up on a table at the end of the dinner to announce the instructions), all 100 of the company staffers formed a giant circle and performed what we think was the largest and loudest supernova cheer in history. Some were still doing high-fives and yelling, “Supernova!” on their way out of Frontier.
Just another crazy moment in our own supernova week.
We found this star-shaped leaf on the ground on the path around the lake at Bates. What kind of tree is it from?
b) star anise
c) golden maple
a) a bald eagle
b) a red fox
c) a keg of Baxter Brewing Company beer
And In Case You Never Saw That Exploding-Diet-Coke-and-Mentos-Mints Video I Mentioned: