The best science artists (according to the European Space Agency)

I am making this list based on certain online sleuthings I made a few months ago.

There was an art competition announced … and it was an art competition that specifically had to do with satellites and climate change. Well, those were two topics heavily featured in my PhD dissertation, so I thought, why not enter? Especially because the guidelines specifically said, hey, you can enter as your artwork a film or an animation! Well, an animation is the only sort of artwork that I know how to make — as long as that’s acceptable, I can come up with something.

The competition was run out of the European Space Agency (ESA) climate office. I just figured I’d make a glowing animation all about their satellites. The winner got 30,000 Euros. It was too good of a chance not to take!

But before I started, I went about scouting the Twitter account of the ESA climate office, and was I in for a surprise. They were announcing their competition on it, sure enough, but then, they were also contacting all these artists and telling them … hey! We hope you enter! Of course, they never contacted me, so I wasn’t sure what the point of entering was at all. They seemed to already have a short-list developed.

But lets take a look at some of these favored artists!

Someone called Ruth Mottram, who is a climate scientist working on Greenland, tweeted at Jackie Morris Art, telling her to enter. The ESA climate office saw the tweet, and said:  lovely work! Hope you enter!

Looking myself at Jackie Morris’ images on her Twitter feed, yes, they are very beautiful. Look at this.

After that, the Climate Office didn’t wait for recommendations from people. They just started tweeting people outright asking them to enter. First, they tweeted at Ralf Schoofs. I looked through the illustrations on his Twitter feed, and I don’t know … They are nice, but maybe a little staid. Except I did like this one of little fishies.

Then the Climate office went and tweeted at a British astronaut. He doesn’t seem to be an artist at all, but I guess they were hoping?

Then, per another recommendation, they told “the Light Dreams” that they’d love to see a submission from him. The Light Dreams got a little huffy, and said, did you just call me a budding artist? I’m way above budding. So let’s take a look. I looked at the art on his pinned tweet. It is not exactly the style of art that I like, and maybe a little generic-looking, too.

They tweeted at Dr. Niamh Shaw. She has a Ph.D., and does art, and is she an astronaut to boot? She’s a big deal apparently. Looks like she does theatre, though I’m not sure I found real samples of her work.

At this point, the ESA Clean Space Office got in on the act, too. And they started helping out the Climate Office, and tweeting at artists as well. They tweeted at someone named Marianne Tricot. And the Climate Office was all, thank you so much! So what kind of artist is Marianne Tricot? Well, I don’t know, because I didn’t find enough images of art on her Twitter to get a clear view, and her website is down. “In maintenance mode.”

Then someone named Peter tweeted to someone named Vero that he hoped that she would apply. Her art looks really cute. And the Climate Office thought so, too, because said they hoped she would apply, as well. She did indeed apply, but she waited till the last minute (as did I) to upload her submission, and the website got stuck (as it did for me). So she tweeted back and they told her, don’t worry, we’ll make sure it gets submitted.

A few days later, the Climate Office, tired of a step-by-step approach, went ahead and tweeted at a bunch of artists en masse. Uh, and none of them were that impressed at the invite, apparently, because none of them answered. But who are these illustrious ones?

First was Melissa Gomis … I couldn’t find much art on her twitter page, but I did find a video she’d made on Vimeo. I thought it was kind of boring. And too abrupt in transitions, no?

Second was Zahra Hijri. Lookie there, first [and only] non-white person they tweeted at. I can’t find much art on her twitter page, but any case, she seems to be a very accomplished journalist.

Third was Susan Hassol. She seems to be a “big deal” as well. She makes climate change videos. What do you think? I wasn’t quite in the mood.

Fourth was Rosamund Pearce. It looks like it’s her job to make visualizations for the Economist magazine. I dislike that magazine, first. But this video she made is pretty cool. It has all the content you need right in the video; you don’t need a caption, which is nice for when you’re just scrolling through a Twitter image feed.

Fifth was Ed Hawkins. Another “big deal”, it appears. But where is his art? The little sun and rain cloud at the top of his website?

That was the end of that list. But then someone named Knurek tweeted to someone named Kiciputek to make a submission. And the Climate Office said, that would be lovely. But Kiciputek has canceled his/her account, so I don’t know what’s on it.

And that was a wrap. None of them ended up winning, though.

I applied, after all, and made my little animation. I knew it was a long-shot, but I thought, I can’t pass up the chance (I didn’t have a job at the time!) … and then once you’ve submitted, you stop thinking it was such a long-shot, you start thinking, oh, maybe I’ll actually get it!

Like I mentioned, the submission website got stuck as I tried to submit, like with Vero. I tried it again and again, and it finally worked on the third try. At least, I thought it did. I was able to check online to see if my video was ever downloaded by the Climate Office, and it was not. I emailed them, and it hadn’t arrived. I had my confirmation email and everything, so I sent them that, plus sent them the video directly, and I guess it got considered in the end.

The person who won was Shane Sutton. Looks like he does all sorts of large-scale art, so I think it must catch the eye really fast. He’s what I’d call a “real” artist — like he does it with his hands. But can you tell what this is supposed to be?

Animation seems like so much computer-magic, it seems far too technical that I’d actually be able to call myself an artist. But I was happy with my submission anyways. I didn’t want to spend a long time on something that had a small chance of success, so I mostly made it by recycling and stitching together animations I’d already made. I told myself that wouldn’t take too long. But then it took like 12 hours after all. I had to do a lot of thinking and plucking and re-stitching.

 

A very girly science feed

I am working as a science communicator, like at a real job, can you believe it?

Well, I like shiny things, a la Taylor Swift, and I like pretty colors, and softness, and sparkles and flowers and things like that. So my plan is to use my new position to populate the online presence and outreach presence of the project I’m hired under with all those favorite things of mine, in the name of science.

So far, I’ve mostly made Twitter stories. This one has pretty flowers and pretty glaciers with a sunrise behind them, and a cute girl, too! This one was a little more sedate. Nothing very silky and golden and whimsical about it, but it’s still okay.

Right now, I’m trying to make a series that I shall call, “how we know what we know.” I am trying to make the introductory frames, first. I’ve had to do a couple of takes. My first attempt looked like this. I loved the pretty ocean water and its rich, sparkly green-ness, and I loved the glacier, and I loved the diamond moon, and the blossoming pink tree … but then I realized that it was way too busy.

So I had to take out a lot of the pretty stuff, and I ended up with this, instead. But that’s okay, because I have my girl back in it, and she’s not just another white girl, and it’s a cleaner and clearer view of things overall. It’s just a work in progress for now.

I made these videos in Blender.

Feeling ghosted – Animations with kids

I feel like I have very bad follow-through sometimes when it comes to my Science animations with kids program.

Sometimes, it’s my fault. Like at my last viewing party, about 30 parents, grandparents, aunts, everyone, showed up. I gave them all a little slip of paper with the URL of my website (the one you’re reading) and my YouTube channel, and my email, so they’d be able to find the films that their kids had made online.

But alas, I neglected something very evident … I forgot to collect their email addresses. So let’s just go ahead and assume that all the slips of paper I passed out are by now lost, crumpled in a bag somewhere, etc. And I have no way of contacting the parents. Kind of really sucks, because during the viewing party, I couldn’t get the sound to be loud enough, and we were in a big room, and I don’t think anyone at all understood what was happening in the movies.

These were the two movies the kids had made, by the way: A lesson on nurdles and When Anders, Dilsa, and Reza were mean.

But then some other times, it’s not my fault at all. Instead, I literally just get ghosted by the teachers I worked with. For example, the teacher I worked with at Wolf Meadow. The kids there made two such beautiful films: The grass is not trash and The desperate tale of the last tree snail.

At the very least, these films deserve to be championed by the people who were involved in making them. The kids were all fifth-graders who apparently don’t have emails or anything, so I don’t expect much from them. But my partner teacher! And the school principal! First, they said that we would have a viewing party for parents once the films were done. Well, when we actually reached that point, they cutely changed their minds … no, we can’t have a viewing party because only two of the five fifth-grade classes participated in this project, and if there’s a fifth-grade event happening, then a notice must be sent to all fifth-grade parents, and the parents of kids in the other three classes will be upset their kids didn’t participate. I mean, what kind of a lame excuse is that? No, actually, it’s very possible to just send a notice to the parents/families of the two fifth-grade classrooms I worked with. Gotta love rank inflexibility.

But I got over that, and my partner teacher said: oh, yeah, we’ll post the movies on the school website, and we’ll send an email to all the parents. Yeah, that is the very least you could do when your kids have just made two excellent animated films. Except even that never happened. I know, because the viewing counts never changed. I sent email reminders to my partner teacher and everything, but nothing. Can you believe it?

Then there was the time I was describing this project to a lady who’s part of a science communication network. She said, oh, the project sounds great. And she said, without me begging for it, that the science communication network she’s from run a blog, and would I like to write a blog post for them? Well, yes, I would. I emailed her twice after that to remind her, ask her about doing that, but of course she ghosted me, too, her and her exclusive little science communication club that people like me aren’t good enough to get into.

Then there was a man who ran in the same exclusive club circles. Let’s just call him Loser idiot stupid ugly moron. Well, me being me, I don’t learn my lessons the first time, so I was still panting after the exclusive club. Loser idiot stupid hateful moron tells me, and I quote: “This is so cool” [talking about the Animations with kids project] and “hope we find ways to cooperate” and “I was deeply moved, happy and proud” [while looking through my work] …. ahhh, shut up. He also blabbed a whole bunch about how he would talk to this and that person, and find partners for me, and he went into details! Like asking me, how much money will you need, and giving me ideas for film topics, and when would this happen? And he even did the thing, which is kind of rare, of answering my emails within a day. That honestly never happens.

Then after about a week of this, and me being really happy, he ghosted me, too. I hope he falls into a meat cleaver. He just stopped responding to all my emails, everything. If you ask me who I hate, his name will be the first mentioned.

 

Pretty clothes clashing with science?

I like pretty clothes.

However, in one of my “Animations with kids”, I made a video with the second-graders at MacAllister Elementary called “A handbook to taking care of the earth.” And in that movie, it kind of sets up a conflict between doing good in school/being conscientious versus fashion.

I didn’t want to make it a conflict … so I tried to soften it by adding: “I like pretty clothes, too … but Diana thought about nothing else.” (The boy who narrated that line did such a snarky job of emphasizing Diana, with no pointers from me!)

However, I then went back to the second-graders at Irvin Elementary and showed them all the films I had made at other schools. We also re-watched their own film, “All about butterflies.” They were really into all the films!

But when we watched “Handbook,” and then paused to talk about it afterwards, most of the kids raising their hands told me what they’d learned was: you shouldn’t care about clothes and make-up, you should care about the Earth.

And I got a little muddled and trying to help them distinguish between normal levels of interest in clothes versus complete asceticism versus complete hedonism was beyond me when faced with these lovely little upturned faces. So I didn’t have much more sense than to quickly nod my head and tell the kids they did such a good job for comprehending the lesson of the film. I’m going to try to be a bit more perceptive and careful next time!

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Not always the best at thinking on my feet!

Animations with kids: do the kids actually learn anything?

The main idea of “Animations with kids” is that the kids learn some science in a friendly, storytelling way.

So when I was writing the story for “Mr. Glump and the poisonous pond“, I had hopes that the second-graders, and anyone watching the film, would come away knowing exactly how algae kills fish: that when the algae dies, it sinks into the water, decomposes, and the process of decomposition sucks so much oxygen out of the water that when the fish “breathe” through their gills, there’s nothing for them to breathe in.

Except that’s not exactly how it turned out. When we’d finished the movies at McAllister, I visited each classroom to show them their movie (before the parent party) and to have them take a survey and get their feedback. After we watched the “Mr. Glump” movie, I would ask: So, tell me what the movie said: how does the algae kill the fish?

And these were the answers I got:

They eat it and it’s poison! No…

It smothers them! No….

They had quite a few theories, and the exact mechanism with the algae decomposing was just lost on them, it seemed. I was a little bummed. So all that work and they hadn’t learned what their own movie was trying to explain??

But then I told my partner teacher about it, and he said: at certain ages, kids just aren’t developmentally ready to grasp certain concepts. They might not understand exactly how the algae kills fish … but they will be able to remember: algae is bad; spraying stuff into water is bad.

That made me feel a little better.

The unestimable sweetness of fifth graders

Yes, I said once that ‘I don’t understand’ fifth-graders. And I think I still don’t. I related many anecdotes of my difficulties. But they’re sweet, nonetheless.

The way they all eagerly contributed to ideas when I asked them to pick a title for their story.

It came time to vote on the ideas … and I was worried those contributions with zero votes would put a spotlight of shame or failure on whoever had made that suggestion. Instead, the kids just shot out humorous little smiles that swept the awkwardness away.

I take each kid aside for 15-30 minutes so they can do the animation on my laptop. When one of them chanced to see the photo of me on the background screen, she asked ever so quietly and shyly if she could see more photos.

The hesitating way they say: yeah, I want to go to college one day, with slow smiles and that inward consciousness of talking about their futures.

Without any prompting from me, I ended up with a string of blue houses capped by black roofs in the “Grass is not trash” background pictures. I didn’t even know it was happening at the time, but the kids must have put their heads together to ensure continuity in their individual drawings.

I brought the draft video to each class before the viewing party. Those drafts were a bit of a mess – with weird cut-outs rising menacing across the screen when they’re not supposed to be there, and the quality super choppy, because it was only at 4 frame per second (the standard is 24!). And still they watched avidly at the screen as though it was the best thing ever, and never minded telling me all the mistakes to correct.

Then yesterday, we had the official “World Premiere” viewing party of “The desperate tale of the last tree snail” and “The grass is not trash“. First, can I say I am super proud of how these movies came out?

But I was a little bit sad going into the viewing party, because no parents were invited. I thought that was a bummer. The point is that parents are to be invited. But apparently the principal took an executive decision on this because “we’re not really in the demographic where parents come.” Uh, except I did this at Irvin Elementary, and there about 10 parents showed up for the viewing party, and they are in the same demographic. Also, “since you only worked with 2 fifth grade classes, we can’t have parents because when we invite parents, we have to invite the parents of the entire grade.”

Is that not the lousiest excuse in the history of excuses?

But okay, I told myself. Just the students.

We did it in the gym, because Wolf Meadow doesn’t have the best technology. If you will believe it, we actually did it with a projector that just projected onto the white cinderblocks of the gym wall. Well. And yet, the color of the video was better than when we watch things on the smartboard in the classroom!

Of course, now let’s break for some technical difficulties: I had passed a USB drive with the two movies on it over to my partner teacher. She hooked her laptop up to the projector, and the movie came up fine … but there was no sound. We fiddled with all the cords, still no sound. I didn’t have a heart attack just yet, because I had already pulled up the videos on my own laptop and everything had played normally, with sound. So I had no need to panic and think: OMG, I rendered the movies with no sound, and it takes 20 minutes to re-render them, and OMG, OMG, all is lost! Cause I definitely would have done that.

The logical course of action was to play the movies from my laptop. But lo and behold, once I hooked my laptop up to the projector, the sound again vanished. And it suddenly occurred to me that almost four years ago I had done a presentation in a classroom in Sweden, and that time, too, the sound went mute when I hooked up to the projector. It’s some sort of issue with an HDMI cable.

Luckily, we had two laptops in play: mine and my partner teacher’s. So I just told her: we’ll simultaneously play the video from one, and the audio from the other. That solved it for us! I had brought my laptop in order to be prepared for just such an eventuality. A voice had said: now, you know that if you just bring the movies on the USB drive, something will go wrong and you’ll wish you had your laptop, heavy though it is to carry around.

Now, all this time as we jiggled cords and plugged laptops in and out and were trying to figure out what to do, do you think the fifty fifth-graders sitting on the gym floor were being serene and quiet and helpful? No, ma’am! They were setting up a ruckus. And I thought to myself, oh, dear, we’ve lost them.

Even when we got the movies going, I tried to steal myself against disappointment, because lots of whispers and jabbing of shoulders went on. I looked over the kids, and took solace in the few (at least, it seemed few to me) who were looking intently on the screen. I thought to myself: well, I guess I’ll have to revise this blog post title, which I’d already started writing; maybe they’re not so sweet after all!

And I guess above all, I tried to banish any thought of: all the effort you put in working with these kids was for naught, because the experience doesn’t seem to have settled further than skin-deep for them.

After the movies were over, we all applauded. My partner teacher asked: do you want to say anything?

Oh, yes, I did! Something inspiring, something to really pull things home! But I’m not that good with words when I have to speak them, and I had already decided to accept this clunker of a viewing party; and it seemed wisest not to fight against fate. So I just shook my head with a cheeky grin.

Then my partner teacher said: everyone give a big round of applause for Dr. Mejs for taking the time out of her life to come work with us for the past 3 months. She worked so hard la la la … and it was a pretty big round of applause. I was surprised! I thought the kids couldn’t wait to be rid of me.

Then the partner teacher said: This is the last day Dr. Mejs will be here so make sure you show her your appreciation.

That changed the mood. “She’s not coming back??” asked a startled girl called “Allie”.

Nope, said the partner teacher.

Now, I had gasps and groans coming towards me. We broke up the class to take them outside for the rest of the period. In the hub-hub that followed, a delegation of girls marched up to me, headed by Allie , and said: we want to give you a hug. And that set almost all the girls off in the class, and one or two boys, who also wanted hugs.

Might I add that Allie is a Black girl and she has an expression on her face that most people (or most white people) would call “not innocent”; they might call it wary and dangerous.” She worked beautifully with me every step of the way, though I did not escape getting those under-the-eyelid looks of caution from her. It’s hard not to worry about the types of constrained chances and rough reactions a girl like that is going to get as she grows up in this world.

Then a girl called “Mia” started shadowing me as we walked to the playground: don’t leave. Please don’t leave. Why do you have to go to Houston?

Honey, I don’t want to go to Houston either, but somehow you have to make money in this God-forsaken world.

“But it’s not fair,” Mia tells me. “There’s other kids around here who deserve the opportunity of making movies like this, too.”

Mia was equipped with a notebook and a pen! So like me! (except at this moment, I had nothing.) I told her she could write down her email for me and pointed at her notebook. I added: it’s so cool you carry your notebook and pen around! She goes: you never know what’s going to happen. What a smarty!!!

Then, the notebook got passed around to kids all over the playground, Allie taking a lead going up to kids and saying: give her your email!!

By this time, I was feeling pretty happy, you may say. So my project was a success, after all? I have dreams of being able to follow these kids through middle school and high school, and maybe give them pointers and advice along the way.

 

Watching kids watch each other’s animations

I made “Mr. Turtle Gets Sick” with a class of second-graders in Chapel Hill 4 and a half years ago.

And every time I go into a new classroom, those kids watch “Mr. Turtle”, too, so they have an idea of what this project is like.

It makes me really happy to think that after all these years, the messages from those first set of kids are still being heard. My audiences are always so engrossed! And the movies from all these new classes will hopefully be used as models in my future classes.

In fact, I already had my fifth-graders at Wolf Meadow watch the two animations (Mr. Glump and Handbook to caring for the Earth) the second-graders at McAllister made. They laughed, they leaned forwards … okay, some just kept on drawing and whispering through the movies, too, but they were still pretty interested!

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Kids in Concord, plus some of their parents, watching “Mr. Turtle gets sick”, which the kids in Chapel Hill made. Mind you, they’re watching it now for the third time and still full of interest!
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The fifth-graders in Wolf Meadow watching the animations made by the second-graders at McAllister