This article was formerly published in Wild River Review as part of the Quark Park column
by Kimberly Nagy
“The miracle is that mathematics is the language that nature talks.”
Freeman Dyson, Mathematician, from the film Quark Park
“Where will the next generation of scientists come from?” lamented Hai-Lung Dai, Dean of the College of Science and Technology at Temple University during a recent graduation ceremony.
If, once upon a time, science and scientists ignited the world’s imagination rivaling movies and movie stars for airtime, today it might seem that we’ve lost access to the childlike joy of curiosity (and deep methodical satisfaction of problem-solving) so essential to scientific inquiry and appreciation.
In 2006, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) reported that American 15-year-olds ranked below average in scientific literacy, falling behind many other industrialized nations including The Republic of Korea, Canada, Sweden, Poland, and Hungary.
That same year, a grassroots organization of citizens, scientists, and educators worried about decreasing scientific literacy in the United States, formed the Coalition for the Public Understanding of Science(COPUS). The National Science Foundation (NSF) panel from which COPUS’s mission emerged, says:
For sixty years in this country [the United States], there has been a symbiotic relationship between science and industry. That system is now in jeopardy. The nature of science is being successfully challenged, reducing the interest in and support for it, and thus reducing the flow of people and ideas to industry. Science is poorly understood and often misrepresented to the public, the news media, and to political decision-makers.
The ultimate goal would be to increase public appreciation of science, the scientific process, and the impacts that scientific advancements have on our quality of life.
The Birth of Quark Park
In Princeton, NJ, the very same year, landscape designer Peter Soderman; architect, Kevin Wilkes; and later, landscape artist Alan Goodheart, decided to take action and address the American public’s lack of scientific knowledge by creating a garden devoted to science.
“We have a problem in America with the widening gap between profound scientific knowledge and the empirical existence of everybody’s daily lives,” says Wilkes. “We thought that maybe through the combined pathways of art and science we could bring children of all ages into a garden of revelations and insight.”
They found a surprisingly powerful setting in which to showcase wide-ranging scientific research a vacant lot in the heart of the Princeton commercial district and transformed it into a garden.
“I thought, well, fifty scientists who live in Princeton have actually won the Nobel Prize,” remembers Soderman. “How extraordinary for one town’s culture, and it was germinating right in front of me. It was the right time for Mr. Wilkes and me to start building a garden.”
The first seed for Quark Park was planted by the Dean of Faculty at Princeton University, David Dobkin who was impressed with Wilkes, Soderman, and Goodheart’s first collaboration, a garden of follies called Writer’s Block, which featured local poets including Pulitzer Prizewinner Paul Muldoon, historians such as James McPherson (another Pulitzer Prizewinner) and internationally regarded playwrights such as Emily Mann. Writer’s Block won two major architectural awards in the state of New Jersey.
Dobkin, with a background as a mathematician and computer scientist, suggested, “If you do it again, you should do scientists because science doesn’t get that kind of play in public.”
Quark Park highlighted the scientific work of Princeton-area scientists, including Professor of Molecular Biology and Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman, and Templeton Prize-winning mathematician and physicist Freeman Dyson. By fusing the talents of architects, artists, and landscapers, Soderman, Wilkes and Goodheart created an interactive outdoor gallery where you could taste, touch, and smell the mechanics of science. And scientists appreciated the opportunity to interact with the public.
As George Scherer, a Princeton University materials scientist and one of the leading researchers on stone preservation says, “Anything that makes people realize that science is entertaining as a career and valuable socially is a good thing. We have a serious problem attracting American students into Graduate school. I saw Quark Park as a real opportunity to introduce people to how science works and how it can benefit people.”
Today, the lot where Quark Park stood, once a magnet for locals and out-of-town visitors, is now luxury condominiums.
Yet, the thrill of Quark Park is permanently chronicled in a new documentary by Chris Allen, including clips from interviews with scientists such as Freeman Dyson and Princeton University President Emerita, Shirley Tilghman; and artists such as Kate Graves, Jonathan Shor, and Robert Cannon.
Filming Quark Park: Chris Allen
An NYU film school graduate (who has shot film in Chicago and the South of France) Allen felt pulled to tell the story of Writer’s Block and Quark Park in his hometown: Princeton, NJ.
“I was deeply inspired by Writer’s Block and Quark Park because they brought people together in creative ways, says Allen. “My hope for the film is that it may open someone’s eyes to more possibilities through seeing what Soderman and Wilkes did, starting with nothing but an idea. Ideas are easy, but the courage to fulfill them against heavy odds is an inspiration.”
Molecular biologist and Quark Park participant Paul Schimmel agrees. “The park presented the uplifting nature of science and how science is based on human thought. To communicate with the public this sense of wonder, this sense of awe, in a way, a sense of reverence, and at the same time a sense of fun, to poke fun at itself. All of those things, artists can do better than scientists, much better.”
One moving shot from the film lingers on sculptor Robert Cannon’s interpretation of Schimmel’s work. It captured the wind moving through sunlight, swirling glass prisms reflecting DNA codes caught for fleeting seconds in random flickering shadows upon a silver screen. This vision, beneath a blue sky, seems to portray the ever-changing intellectual energy and creative fluctuations behind the pursuit of art and science, one vast formula behind our multifarious lives that will continue to surprise and inspire us.
WRR: You draw from many different interviews with scientists, writers, artists and poets including Freeman Dyson, Tracey Shors, Paul Muldoon, and Paul Schimmel. How did you know what to include and what to cut?
Basically I’m trying to tell a story and not bore anybody. I start by watching the footage to get a feeling for it. I want to keep the film moving, so I don’t stay with any one interview for very long and try to find other interviews that build on the point.
There is no narration in the film, so it is told by the interviews and the footage of the parks being built. Once I put a segment together, using everything that seems to belong, I look at it critically and start cutting. Something that is really great may have to get cut because it just doesn’t fit.
In the end, you can’t make a perfect film, so I don’t try to. With over 30 interviews and hours and hours of footage to work on, there are an unlimited number of ways to put it all together. Anybody else would make a different film out of that footage, but this is the one that looked best to me.
WRR: What can film do unlike any other medium?
Pretty much everything film does is unlike any other medium. It is experienced in a set time frame and it’s all about image, motion and sound to create feeling. Unlike music, it’s also visual. It can be emotional, funny, dramatic, as can other art forms, but I think what it can do that’s unique, is to transport you to another time and place and recreate the feeling that was there.
WRR: You use Paul Muldoon’s poetry in the film. Tell me what drew you to the poem, Why Brownlee Left, as it is a very moving piece of the film?
Why Brownlee Left
by Paul Muldoon
Why Brownlee left, and where he went,
Is a mystery even now.
For if a man should have been content
It was him; two acres of barley,
One of potatoes, four bullocks,
A milker, a slated farmhouse,
He was last seen going out to plough
On a March morning, bright and early
By noon Brownlee was famous;
They had found all abandoned, with
The last rig unbroken, his pair of black
Horses, like man and wife,
Shifting their weight from foot to
Foot, and gazing into the future.
The poem was actually shot for another project. Paul was recording his poetry for a spoken word CD release and I was shooting video of his reading. While I was editing Quark Park, the role he played in helping Peter and Kevin Wilkes was being discussed, and I thought it would be great to include one of Paul’s poems, both to introduce him, and to underscore the idea of writers as inspiration. There were about 30 poems and I started watching them to see if anything would work. I wanted one that wasn’t too long, as it was sort of a departure from the film, and somehow Why Brownlee Left seemed to fit.
I asked Paul if I could use it and he said “Go for it!”
I’ve worked with video and poetry before, and love the way they can combine, and so I looked for imagery that supported the feeling of the poem. It isn’t a direct telling of the poem or anything, but it somehow evoked an emotion, and it worked, both with the footage I used and with David Sancious’s music. Some of the best things seem to happen by chance, and that’s how Paul’s poem got into the movie.
WRR: How did you choose the music in the Quark Park film?
The music was taken from performances at Quark Park by David Sancious and The Tony Levin Band. The park was packed to capacity for these acts, and you could see why. I shot both performances and knew I wanted to include them. At first, I wanted to use a song or two as background and show that it was being played at Quark Park. But the more I auditioned the music, the more of it I wanted to use. I’m thrilled with the soundtrack.
WRR: How did you get started in film?
CA: In 1965 I talked my mother into using her Green Stamps booklets (remember those, old-timers?) to buy an 8mm movie camera. It was supposed to be a present for my dad, but I just grabbed it and started shooting. I graduated from NYU film school (after a long circuitous route), and have worked in film and video ever since. After a long stint in corporate video, I started my own production company, Open Sky Cinema, in 2001 and have been producing documentaries since then.
WRR: Scientist Paul Schimmel, a participant in Quark Park, described the Quark Park initiative as a beautiful expression of a “sense of wonder, imagination, the sense of joy and happiness that the scientist feels, that the artist feels, that society needs to feel.”
You capture that sense of wonder very well in your film. Quark Park was a magical place where “children of all ages” could learn about science. How did you as a filmmaker approach capturing the magic of these gardens?
CA: Really, I just went into this to document what happened. I was enthused by what they were creating and was happy to have the opportunity to record it. I hope the film inspires other people to open up their creative spigots.
WRR: Can you envision communities following the model in other areas of the country?
Certainly, and if people are made aware of this project through the film, I think there may be some who are inspired to beautify an unused lot in their community. It takes a lot of work and a lot of cutting through the red tape. But I know that everywhere you go, people can be found with original, exciting visions of what they would do to turn an empty space into a work of art – be it a folly garden, sculpture garden, a garden of vegetables and flowers, or something completely different.
WRR: What is your underlying mission in the creation of the Quark Park film?
Again, I wanted to document this wonderful process of artists, sculptors, writers, architects, landscapers and gardeners working together for no other purpose than to create something beautiful out of nothingness. That’s a holy endeavor when you think about it. And more so when you realize that all the people involved, volunteered their time with great joy and enthusiasm.
There’s no overt message of spirituality in the film, but it is certainly there just under the surface, and that is the critical element necessary for anything I devote my time to. My association with the project was very rewarding in that regard.