Sciworks Radio
Sciworks Radio
Science Communication Through Art

You have your 3D glasses on, you’re settled comfortably, facing an enormous screen. The lights dim and you find yourself in orbit around the Earth. Or maybe you’re in a galaxy far, far away, or boldly going where no one has gone before. Whether you’re reading your child a book about bugs or on a class field trip to see dinosaurs at a museum, you are receiving your information through the interpretation of an artist.

You have to captivate people first, and get them interested, because once they’re interested then you can go do the science.

photo by: Shawn Fitmaurice

Dr. Janna Levin, University of North Carolina School of the Arts

That’s Dr. Janna Levin, Associate Professor in the Division of Liberal Arts at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. She teaches science to artists!

My filmmakers always ask, “What about the science in Interstellar? Is that right?”, and it turns out to be the case that they had pretty high-powered physicists advising them on the screenplay, so that worked out really well. But, if you’re gonna make a movie, it’s your job to communicate these amazing ideas, so it gives the public the chance to say “Wow, that’s where science is right now, and that’s what we understand.” And if there are issues related to space and time that we generally don’t think about on an everyday basis, but if you’re an artist and you’re going to communicate that, you better do it right.

Generally speaking, scientists are not usually trained communicators. Often our trained communicators are not scientifically literate. So, principles that impact our lives can be poorly communicated. That is precisely where art can bring us into the conversation.

I was actually just talking in my class this morning about why it is, in an artistic sense, we’re able to confront issues. So in an essay, for example, you know, maybe you would rant and rave about how perhaps evolution should be taught in a science class, and not creation via intelligent design. But then, if you take a look at something like [the play] Inherit the Wind, it presents it in a different way, and people aren’t immediately turned off by that argument. It’s tangible, it’s exciting, and it makes people think; perhaps in the way they wouldn’t otherwise.

Artists can often find unconventional and creative ways of conveying scientific concepts to an audience.

I had a student who had a grandfather who had Parkinson’s Disease and she wanted to explore why the government does not fund stem-cell research more. She was a dancer, and she danced a piece that portrayed the stages of Parkinson’s that her grandfather went through. It was really moving, and it made you want to dig deeper into the science so that you could understand why this was such an important issue.

Dr. Levin teaches science at a college for artists. What’s that like?

It’s a wonderful challenge. There’s an enhanced element of communication, I think, with artists, for me. I tend to be somewhat non-linear. I tend to be fairly divergent. I tend to like drama in the classroom. I tend to like controversy. And I think for artists, that’s a really good thing to see. I actually hated science. I hated science with a passion. I hated science, I hated math. I was pretty sure I was going to teach but I did not think it would be science and math, and I certainly didn’t think it was going to be physics and chemistry. What actually changed things for me was the element of challenge, which often changes things for me. Like, oh this is really hard for me. This is something that I really just despise with every bone in my body… so I’m going to do it. One of the very positive things about that is that I understand when people don’t get it. So when students come to me and they’re frustrated, “I don’t understand this concept, can you explain this to me?” Yeah. I get it. It’s hard. I’m happy to work with you to explain these things further because I know what it’s like to not have it come naturally. For my students, they have their art. It’s drama, or it’s film, or it’s music. And I have my art. My art is science education and communication.

This Time Round, the theme music for SciWorks Radio, appears as a generous contribution by the band Storyman and courtesy of

First Aired Nov. 20, 2015