jere7my (jere7my) wrote,

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Living Light at Harvard

I spent the evening at a lecture / dance performance / lecture about bioluminescence at Harvard's Science Center. It opened with a rambly, genial overview from eminent researcher John "Woody" Hastings (Swat '47, 400+ publications), who gave us a preview of his unpublished theory that bioluminescence evolved independently so many times — 30 to 40 — not because lighting up is fundamentally useful but because all of the diverse mechanisms for it remove toxic oxygen from the organism. ("You hear about the dangers of oxygen...anti-oxidants...well, you don't want to get oxidized inadvertently.") Lighting up (he says) is a side effect, which evolution then finds uses for.

The closing lecture was given by Sylvia Earle, aka "Her Deepness" or "the Sturgeon General," an insanely accomplished oceanographer, author, and conservationist who holds the women's record for a solo submersible dive (1000 meters). She spoke easily and passionately, in her Jodie Foster voice, about the seas and the need to preserve them, Australia's move to create untouchable "national parks" in their sovereign seas, and her role in convincing Google to include the oceans in Google Earth. ("Google Earth is great," she said to the project leader, "but it only covers a quarter of the planet. You should really call it Google Dirt.") I wished Kira G. could be there.

Sandwiched between the lectures was a performance by Kristin McArdle Dance, called Aqua Borealis. Performing in total darkness, the two dancers wore suits of LEDs that pulsed in patterns and colors to the beat of the music, mimicking the photophores of undersea creatures. Their movements recalled luminous octopi, then, with only their right arms lit in blue dots and undulating, waves or rippling fish. Just when the dreamy underwater tone seemed well-established, the blue lights burned red, the music accelerated, and suddenly the mood was energetically ominous. It was beautiful and meditative, and, from a staging perspective, fascinating to see performers provide their own lighting.

The Q&A was brief and weirdly hostile, as though there were communication gaps causing testiness among the participants and between the participants and the audience. Perhaps this resulted from the cross-disciplinary nature of the event; I'm not sure, and there were only about four questions. Very glad I went, regardless; it broke up the tense irritability I've been twitching with the last two days, leading me to get into flame wars with militant atheists on BoingBoing. I like science, and I like art, and I like seeing them work together.

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