Science Museum of Minnesota’s “Beaker and Brush” lecture series enlightening, entertaining


Sometimes even the most lauded art gathering can leave visitors wanting. Thankfully the Science Museum of Minnesota’s monthly lecture series “Beaker and Brush” perfectly fills this void.

Every second Tuesday of the month, scientific novices and enthusiasts alike gather at the Black Dog Cafe in anticipation of whichever brain-tickling concoction lies ahead. Themes are unique to each lecture, but the format remains standardized: A scientist or researcher teams up with an artist whose work is either heavily influenced by or directly related to their field of expertise. Together the two speakers tag-team to discuss the rich, but often neglected, intersection of science and art.

A recent installment featured physicist and glaciologist Robert Jacobel alongside internationally recognized photographer Stuart Klipper, who together presented “Clarity in the Ice,” a discussion centering on their experiences in Antarctica over the past 30 years. Another session was dedicated to “Biological Art” in which Professor Neil Olszewski contrasted his knowledge of plant growth with that of multi-modal artist Diane Willow, who incorporates living organisms in works that require human interaction as the pieces’s catalysts. Last month’s venture into Minneapolis also veered into social science territory as developmental psychologist Moin Syed and photographer Wing Young Huie tackled the intricacies of identity formation.

Regardless of the topic, the first half of each session finds the speakers familiarizing the group with their work, complete with pertinent and engaging multimedia elements. Afterwards, an intermission is called to allow for mental digestion while the organizers travel around the room collecting the audience’s written questions that will be answered throughout the remaining Q&A session.

It is at this point that the combination of mental stimulation and delicious beer/wine/espresso from the café can create a pretty riled-up audience. After all—as Olszewski so noted during his own lecture when issues of genetic modification and safety were brought up by an audience member—the subject matter under discussion often serves as a vehicle to broach philosophical and moral gray areas that, “even scientists would rather discuss around a piece of art rather than [with colleagues in the field].” The Museum’s moderators do an excellent job of letting the discussions veer just far enough off course to keep things exciting, while quelling anything that gets too blatantly political or out of hand.

The speakers themselves also have a way of tempering spirits by throwing into relief the bigger-picture elements of their work, such as when a glaciologist retorts to a questioner, “What does ‘eventually’ mean? Well, that depends.” In one single comment, he was able to demand the audience acknowledge the amazingly subjective nature of time; to the photographer, whose work hinges upon a single moment, in time passes quite quickly, whereas his profession requires an acknowledgment that tangible time passes very slowly, yet both existed together in a world where the sun, primary signifier of time, regularly goes wonky by in its refusal to set or rise.

Attentive listeners are treated to such a feast of thought-provoking glimpses into the scientific and creative processes, supplemented by tidbits that would’ve forever remained the exclusive territory of experts. For instance, I learned that it is entirely possible to splice human genes into a petunia and grow it to maturation, after which point the flower must be disposed of as a biohazard. Additionally, should one use an analog camera at extremely low temperatures, the best shutter lubricant is porpoise jaw oil.

No matter the topic, the “Beaker and Brush” discussions are one of the best ways imaginable for those of the creative persuasion to spend an evening. Entertainment and truly innovative ideas are shared in equal measure in a room full of intelligent, participatory peers. How much better can it get?

Oh…it’s free.

Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Collaborative.