Image courtesy of JPL
This year has been a big year for NASA, especially for Angelinos. The Mars Curiosity rover had a wildly successful landing, and has even garnered them some YouTube fame. The Space Shuttle Endeavor took a walk of fame through the city and came to the California Science Center. In Spring 2014, The new Cosmos will be premiering on Fox with Neil deGrasse Tyson at the helm. Facebook’s I fucking love science has millions of new users plugged into science news. There hasn’t been this much public excitement about science in years.
It is devastating that JPL would choose this year to cancel their open house. While I’m sure they have legitimate funding reasons for doing so, it’s still a terrible decision to make this year with the momentum they currently have going. It might be adding a nail to their funding coffin.
Much ado has been made over the recent signing of spending bill H.R. 933. Tucked away in section 735 of the bill, the “Farmer Assurance Provision,” has become what opponents of the bill have termed the “Monsanto Protection Act”. Let’s take a look at this text and see what it says:
Sec. 735. In the event that a determination of non-regulated status made pursuant to section 411 of the Plant Protection Act is or has been invalidated or vacated, the Secretary of Agriculture shall, notwithstanding any other provision of law, upon request by a farmer, grower, farm operator, or producer, immediately grant temporary permit(s) or temporary deregulation in part, subject to necessary and appropriate conditions consistent with section 411(a) or 412(c) of the Plant Protection Act, which interim conditions shall authorize the movement, introduction, continued cultivation, commercialization and other specifically enumerated activities and requirements, including measures designed to mitigate or minimize potential adverse environmental effects, if any, relevant to the Secretary’s evaluation of the petition for non-regulated status, while ensuring that growers or other users are able to move, plant, cultivate, introduce into commerce and carry out other authorized activities in a timely manner: Provided, That all such conditions shall be applicable only for the interim period necessary for the Secretary to complete any required analyses or consultations related to the petition for non-regulated status: Provided further, That nothing in this section shall be construed as limiting the Secretary’s authority under section 411, 412 and 414 of the Plant Protection Act.
This effectively gives companies such as Monsanto and Dow Chemical the ability to freely produce and distribute their products if they have previously been deemed safe by the USDA, even if the legality of that “safe” status has been challenged in court. In this provision, The Secretary of Agriculture MUST, upon request, grant permission for this distribution. Considering the number of Monsanto executives who (perhaps logically, perhaps as a corporate buy-out) have been involved in government food decisions, this does not come as much of a surprise, especially since the bill was written in cooperation with Monsanto themselves. Additionally, many members of congress were apparently unaware that the Monsanto Protection Act even existed within the bill. The under-the-table nature of this alone casts doubt and suspicion, and just adds to Monsanto’s list of why it might be the most “big, bad” corporation around.
It is fair to say that a lot of the talk against genetic modification is hysterical and not founded on logic or strong science. There is currently no evidence to show that GE foods are toxic to humans when consumed. However, in GE foods and many, many other products, a lot of things have not been proven to be unsafe largely because little to no studies have been done to test whether or not they are safe. What these companies will often employ is substantial equivalence, or functional equivalency. Substantial equivalence is the idea that even though an item is different from a predecessor, it performs the same function and is close enough to that currently existing product so as not to require ‘redundant’ testing. But the equivalency of GE foods to organic foods is questionable at best. It’s also worth pointing out that not all genetic modification is equal. Engineering a plant to produce more vitamins is not the same as engineering them to produce their own insecticide.
All in all, genetic engineering is a complicated, complex issue. But when that issue is one that Monsanto, Dow Chemical and others refuse to address it honestly, openly, and fairly, it does not put the science in a good or even fair light. And for that alone, Monsanto ranks among the worst.
Image Credit: victoriavesna.com
Victoria Vesna wants you to think about water.
From installations to exhibitions to symposiums, Vesna has devoted much of her work to raising awareness about the many issues concerning water, people, and the environment. She is a professor in the UCLA Design Media Arts department and the founder and director of the Art|Sci Center. She has collaborated with many scientists, from nanochemist James Gimzewski to biologist Charles Taylor, and has become a unique voice on art, science and the public. Her work with water shifts perspectives in the discussion of environmentalism, and shows how a collection of individual drops can coalesce into an ocean of change.
The daughter of a Yugoslavian diplomat, she traveled extensively in her youth, seeing three different continents by the time she was 5 years old. With the constant travel came many different school systems. After starting in Indonesia and ending in New York City, every version of school seemed to tell her a different version of history. “By the time I was 12 I got three versions of World War II,” says Vesna, “and I did not believe anyone anymore. Very quickly I realized it was all a story.” Vesna was interested in science from an early age. Her father realized that very few Americans knew of Nikola Tesla (who was Serbian, and therefore Yugoslavian), so it became his passion to learn about and share Tesla’s story. The project culminated in the Tesla Monument at Niagara Falls. When her father told her about Tesla’s work, she was amazed. “I thought it was incredible,“ she says. “Tesla just kept coming back into my work and life, and thinking about science and a creative and inventive way of thinking”. She finally went to see the statue at the opening and felt overwhelmed by the power of the water that created electricity. “Everything I saw that was saying it was art was falling in its face next to the power of Niagara Falls.”
Suffering from bad science teachers who turned her off of studying science formally, she decided to pursue a career in art, eventually earning her Ph.D. at the Centre for Advanced Studies in Interactive Arts at the University of Wales. She believes that if her education had gone differently, so might have her career. “There is probably a similar correlation to students who had really good science teachers and bad art teachers and ended up in science,” she says. But Vesna never did lose interest in science, and soon she would find those ties coming back into her work in ways she would never expect. “If you met me in New York when I was in my 20’s,” says Vesna ”I would tell you I never want to live in LA, I never want to be a single mother, and I never want to teach for a living because those who teach don’t really practice art. And all three came true! So never say never.” Moving to Orange County with her husband, a nuclear physicist, was a turning point in her life. Leaving NYC with a kid in tow and another on the way, she thought her career in art was over.
Then she landed in John Wayne airport. “I looked at this huge bronze statue of John Wayne surrounded palm trees and I thought, ‘I am so happy to be here! This is my next project!’” The statue reminded her of Eastern European Stalinist statues, and the palm trees were preserved. The absurd notion of preserving palm trees in the Orange County climate fascinated Vesna. Her project, “Another Day in Paradise,” incorporated preserved palm trees and surveillance video, sparking a dialogue about virtual reality. She landed both a spot at SIGGRAPH and a teaching gig at UC Santa Barbara, which eventually lead to an offer to chair the Design Media Arts department at UCLA. There she started the Art|Sci Center, which hosts artists and scientists in residence, lectures, exhibitions, and symposiums with researchers at the forefront of both the arts and sciences. The center quickly became a way to experiment with alternative ways of working on campus, and for students who wanted something else.
Vesna has made collaboration a focus point of her work. “It will save our world,” she says. “The separation of art and science is what made the world the way it is. You are really separating your brain. When you function with your full brain, you function as a full person.” These endeavors drew her few followers at first. “People used to laugh at me. Now I’m overwhelmed. I see it everywhere.” Vesna says she has seen many students who thirst for another way of looking at things. “With all access to all knowledge,” she says, “it’s really hard to keep students in the cubicles. The education system is in a crisis. For me, it’s like the best crisis ever! Let it all fall apart. I’m really for it because it’s so wrong. Maybe it worked in the 20’s and 30’s but it doesn’t work anymore”
Vesna’s work soon began to dive into water. In 2006, she created Water Bowls, a set of four interactive bowls that reflect different aspects of water related to the collective human condition. “Each one deals with a heavy reality, but they’re very beautiful. They’re seductive. But when you stay there, seeing the beauty of it, you start to see darker sides of it.” The first bowl, Moon, speaks to how the gravity of the moon pulls water, which is all of earth and the water inside our bodies. The image of the moon is in fact a nanofilter (in collaboration with UCLA Civil Engineering Professor Eric Hoek), which is the cycle of pollution. The next bowl, Sound, has the user experience sound pollution, which is having a severe effect on aquatic wildlife. The third bowl, oil, addresses the oil industrial complex and the effect of spills. The top layer of the bowl is dirty motor oil. Pennies are then dropped and the bowl emits the sound of an explosion. The final bowl, Drop, looks at the effect of one drop of water on everything else, and effects all the other bowls. Vesna relates this bowl to her own experience. “The drop of water is also me,” says Vesna. “What can I do as an artist?”
Water Bowls on display at the UCLA Art|Sci Gallery. Credit: victoriavesna.com
Vesna’s perspective on environmentalism as an artist has come about through her work with water. “I’ve started to shift my thinking from actions directed towards changing the world to changing awareness,” she says. “As you raise awareness, you instantly change the level of your actions.” She believes it should not be about telling people what to, but should instead be about education. As an artist, Vesna is more interested in how to create experiences that shift how people are thinking about the world. “They should be immersive and experiential,” she says. “It shouldn’t be about words or preaching. All of that ends up being very arrogant because you don’t know what someone’s situation is. Somebody could be really poor and hardly surviving, so how can you tell them to eat this or that and do this or that?” To her, such a level of preaching only tells the story that’s repeatedly being told about how bad things are. It instills a defeatist attitude and prevents people from taking action.
Because of these experiences, Vesna started the Water Bodies project. Through her research for the Water Bowls project, she found many people doing amazing work on water. Water Bodies attempts to collect and connect people and projects dealing with water around the globe, from art to science. It also gives the user a way to connect to bodies of water that they have a special bond with. She is currently trying to remove herself as the ‘owner’ of the project so that it can become a true community and be run by people with their own networks. Vesna says this project is an idea that is bigger than herself. She likens the project, and her work as a whole, to the drop metaphor. “If we collect all these works and show how much there is, it’s empowering! All these people doing this work are not alone. We’re so discouraged because we feel alone and we feel hopeless. When we see all this amazing work being done, we feel we’re not alone and it’s not hopeless.”
For more information on Victoria Vesna’s work, go to victoriavesna.com.
For more information on the Water Bodies project, go to waterbodies.org.
I am in Las Vegas this weekend for the Blogworld New Media Expo. After an extended hiatus from blogging for research-related reasons as well as some unexpected dance projects, I am here at Blogworld trying to learn and getting ready to ramp up my content. There are some changes for this blog in the works, and I’m really excited about all that I have planned.
And yes, part two of the ‘future imperfect’ series is coming up soon.
Stephen Schneider. Climate Scientist|Activist
Feb. 11, 1945 - July 19, 2010