Archive for July, 2007

Is Race Real?

Wednesday, July 11th, 2007

Modern genetic researchers say there is no biological basis for the concept of race, that the average genetic differences between geographic groups such as Japanese, Europeans, and East Africans are too small to be significant. But if race is not a scientific concept, is it still a culturally valid one?

Joanne Rizzi, an exhibit and program developer and visiting Osher Fellow to the Exploratorium, explored the misunderstandings and realities of race with an exhibition she helped develop with the American Anthropological Association and the Science Museum of Minnesota. RACE: Are We So Different? covers the myth and meaning of race. There are obvious differences in the way we look, in skin color and hair for instance, but is race really only skin deep? What about the human experience of race and culture—is it possible to reconcile or at least acknowledge the two concepts?

Joanne told a group of us at the Exploratorium that she was initially reluctant to work on the exhibition because she didn’t think a purely scientific exploration of race would be broad enough to embrace the cultural reality and history of race and racism in America. But the Science Museum of Minnesota kept asking her until she finally agreed to come onboard. While on the exhibit team she initiated a community advisory panel that would become part of the development process and co-developed a series of programs. genographic.jpgIt was tough going, many people of color were suspicious that the exhibition wouldn’t tell the truth about racism and power. One advisor quit over the prominence of a map, based on genetic evidence, that all humans on earth originally came out of Africa. A Native American, his religious and cultural beleifs conflicted with the scientific views so he left the project.

But eventually what they created allowed many voices and viewpoints into the exhibition. One especially powerful public program were the “talking circles” which brought together groups of people to share ideas about the exhibition with a process that allows everyone to speak. Now the exhibition is on tour, currently in Detroit and spreading out across the U.S.

Rock’s Answer to Climate Change: Live Earth

Friday, July 6th, 2007

July 7, 2007 will mark the global concert Live Earth, which features bands on all seven continents rocking out with a call to arms for combating global warming. San Francisco residents can watch the satellite feed at the Exploratorium, along with a screening of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth. Web audiences can tune into MSN’s Live Earth webcast here.

about_band3_thumb.jpgAmong the dozens of headliners, which include The Police, Shakira, and Linkin Park, Live Earth will launch the Indie band Nunatak onto the world stage. Made up of scientists at the British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera research station on the Antarctic Peninsula, Nunatak will record a concert with a live audience of only 17, the full contingent of scientists and support personnel manning the station in the dead of winter. You can check out a rehearsal video on YouTube that features some pretty decent fiddling by Tris Thorne, the communications engineer at Rothera Station.

There’s a long tradition of do-it-yourself entertainment in Antarctica. Among the earliest explorers, who spent up to 18 months or more on the ice, it was the only choice they had. Costumes and wigs were part of the cargo on all of Shackleton’s expeditions and his crew competed in talent shows that starred cross-dressing sailors. Even today, with cable TV and DVDs available, there is plenty of homegrown arts and culture on the ice. During our expedition in 2001/2, we were lucky enough to catch “Ice Stock,” the New Years’ celebration of garage bands, arts, and chili-cook-off competition at McMurdo, the largest NSF research station in Antarctica.

icestockhenry.jpgThat concert line-up in 2002 included a pro in the mix, guitarist Henry Kaiser pictured here in red with one of McMurdo’s house bands (written up in his Antarctica blog).

Survival in the Arctic: climate, hunting, and native knowledge

Thursday, July 5th, 2007

I spent a couple of days in Boulder, Colorado visiting Mickey Glantz, Exploratorium Osher Fellow, friend and collaborator at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. In his 30 years at NCAR, Mickey has concentrated on the social side of climate research shuttling between the world of science and communities of people worldwide who are affected by climate change. His usable science workshops help farmers, fishermen, small business owners, and community leaders make sense of, and prepare for, changes in the weather including extreme events like hurricanes, droughts, floods, and other disasters associated with climate fluctuations like El Nino and La Nina.

During my visit, we talked about his recent visit to China and meetings there with scientists at the polar research center in Beijing who are enlisting Mickey’s help in setting up a polar affairs center. China is among 60-some countries participating in the International Polar Year which started this spring and continues until March 2009. Canada is another of the participating countries and, while I was in Boulder, I went to a talk at the University of Colorado by a researcher, Shari Gearheard, who lives in the Canadian Arctic.

inuit.jpgShari is a remarkable young social scientist who occasionally sleeps in an iglo and is an apprentice dog musher, a necessary skill for traveling to her research sites on the ice. She is documenting native knowledge in an Inuit village of 800 residents, collecting observations of climate and environmental change and helping mediate that knowledge with scientific studies of the region. (In this photo, Shari is with Ilkoo Angutikjuak, Inuit Elder and hunter from Clyde River, Nunavut, with whom she has worked closely since 2000 on environmental change research). Arctic communities are experiencing more dramatic climate change than anywhere else on earth, but the patterns aren’t uniform across the North. On Baffin Island, houses aren’t falling into the sea as they are in some places in Alaska, but the Inuit are still facing changes that affect their traditional way of life. Indigenous Arctic hunters depend on stable ice, predictable seasonal and daily weather patterns, and productive ecosystems, all of which are threatened by global warming.

In her talk, Shari described the last three years living among her indigenous Arctic colleagues. Shari has deep respect for the Inuit people and spoke of all she’s learned from the hunters and their families, including patience, humor, courage, and deep, precise knowledge of the environment. It may be an exaggeration that Arctic peoples have 100 different words for snow, but there is precision in their language that can communicate subtle variations in wind direction and speed, ice thickness and stability, and changing weather conditions, all of which tells a hunter whether it’s safe or perilous to venture out on the ice. Shari talked about their curiosity and eagerness to participate in the scientific research happening around them, in many cases Inuit knowledge has preceded the science and is proving valuable in helping track both the extent and impacts of climate change in the Arctic.

Shari created a CD-ROM of her work in Clyde River, which you can order here.