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Complexity for Kids: life sciences under the microscope


ADORNED in white lab coats, Dr Gregory Crocetti and Briony Barr hunch over a small upstream tributary of the River Torrens in South Australia.

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Barr commands a net that hustles water and organic material in to a small bottle at the end. Dr Crocetti takes water through a pipette and samples it.

The full ecosystem found in river water is invisible to the naked eye. When the pair put these samples under the microscope, each drop will be revealed to be bursting with microbial and planktonic life.

“The patterns, the shapes, the movement of creatures that they’ve never seen before, there’s so much novelty in what they will be exposed to.”

“What we’re doing here, two months in advance, is taking samples of the river. We’ll then capture footage, classify the microbes we see and edit it together in to really nice vignettes of the diversity we’re seeing. This is about celebrating the biodiversity upstream, and hoping we see it downstream,” Dr Crocetti says.

The interdisciplinary art and science group, Scale Free Network, will be giving kids microscopes that peer in to what is essentially a microscopic zoo as part of The Invisible Torrens during South Australia’s Come Out Children’s Festival in late May.

“The patterns, the shapes, the movement of creatures that they’ve never seen before, there’s so much novelty in what they will be exposed to in the workshops,” Dr Crocetti says.

“The workshop will explore the biodiversity of the Torrens. That’s what we’re looking to get people interested in and curious about,” says Barr, “we want them to explore it through drawing and direct observation of the samples we’re taking today, to visualise the invisible communities living inside Adelaide’s river.”

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SAHMRI, the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute, is going to be the stage for their laboratory – an installation artwork in itself.

“It’s a great way for anyone – children or adults – to immediately engage with the complexity of nature. The kids don’t realise they’re doing science. They’re looking through a microscope and asking questions,” says Barr.

In it, the act of science becomes something of a performance. The children who take part will be swept up in to that performance themselves – wearing lab coats, looking into microscopes, making drawings and sharing their findings.

“Anything can be fascinating under the microscope, even a coin or a bit of fluff. The microscopes are magical. Often you see high-magnification images, which are really abstract. With the microscopes we use, you’re seeing incredible detail but you’re still having a sense of the whole object and where it comes from,” Barr explains.

Briony Barr, visual artist, and Jacqueline Smith, artist and educator, comprise Scale Free Network’s artistic side. Dr Gregory Crocetti, a microbiologist, is the scientific mind of the group – but they wouldn’t be so quick to divide the two categories.

“An artist isn’t necessarily an illogical, irrational, purely emotional being – and scientists can be creative as well!”

“Science and art haven’t always been so separate. Today we rely on cameras to record our observations, but scientists of the past, and artists, were recording from nature. By drawing their observations they communicated them to the world. It’s only now that there’s more of a divide,” Barr says.

“The art of drawing through a microscope was lost,” says Dr Crocetti, “neglected at least, once the camera came along and we could attach that to a microscopes.”

The importance of observation is key in the workshop. School groups from the age of eight to fourteen years old will observe things scientifically, through the microscope, and then observe them again through drawing, capturing the details and blending the lines between the two disciplines.

An installation made by Scale Free Network in 2012.

At the end of the workshop, the school groups will have completed a large, collaborative drawing of the Torrens from upstream to downstream. It will be a unifying image showing the life present in the samples they’ve taken, giving a picture of the River’s health as it runs down to the sea.

“All ecosystems are susceptible to change depending on environmental conditions,” Dr Crocetti says, “We notice this with the Yarra River in Melbourne, that samples upstream have much more biodiversity than those downstream.”

“That’s strongly suggestive of the quality of the water. That’s a qualitative, simple observation we can make.”

Dr Crocetti says that he has found more and more scientists arguing for a measure of the microscopic diversity of planktonic creature and microbes, like bacteria, as a better, cheaper and faster indicator of water health than a typical water monitoring program.

“We separate environmental health and human health at our own peril. SAHMRI focuses on biomedical health, so it’s a very nice place to focus on water health, on biodiversity and environmental health in a place that typically focuses on human health.”

The Invisible Torrens will run from 25-29 May as part of the Come Out Children’s Festival.

“In past workshops we often look at the similarities between artists and scientists,” Barr says. “They both ask questions, they’re both curious. An artist isn’t necessarily an illogical, irrational, purely emotional being – and scientists can be creative as well!”

Scale Free Network has also recently established Scale Free Publishing, which distributes Art-Science educational books that explore and visualise invisible microscopic worlds. Their first two titles are The Squid, The Vibrio & The Moon, and Zobi and the Zoox.

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