STS students invited to conference
What makes up the air we breathe? How do chemicals we put into the atmosphere alter its chemistry? These are the over-arching questions that will be discussed at this year’s Gordon Cain Conference in March convened by Director and Professor of Science, Technology and Society (STS) James Fleming.
Four students from the College will be participating alongside Fleming in the conference, entitled Chemical Weather and Chemical Climate: Body, Place, Planet in Historical Perspective. “The Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) gave us basically four student travel grants,” Fleming said.
The four students, whose studies and work with Fleming have centered on atmospheric chemistry, are Noah Bonnheim ’11, Nicole Sintetos ’12, Victoria Feng ’13 and Erin Love ’14. “I went through my list of students and picked the four that were most qualified for this meeting and it turned out to be one in each class [year],” he said.
As this year’s Gordon Cain Fellow, Fleming was given the opportunity to organize and convene a conference on a topic relating to the history of science. “This is the first time it’s ever been on atmospheric issues,” Fleming said. Speakers at the conference will discuss papers on topics ranging from late-medieval medicine, to tear gas in the Vietnam era and today, to the chemistry of Los Angeles smog 1945-1975.
Fleming and STS major Bonnheim will also be leading a discussion on their paper “Fixed Air and Fixed Sky: Wild Spirit and Wild Ideas.” Bonnheim has worked as Fleming’s research assistant since his sophomore year. “[He] is co-authoring a paper with me,” Fleming said, “on the history of the CO2 molecule before 1936, before it became a climate molecule. It’s like everything you’ve never heard about CO2.”
“Carbon dioxide is seen as this pollutant or this villain, or like the agent of climate change,” Bonnheim elaborated, “but really it’s not a pollutant, it’s just this naturally occurring trace gas that’s necessary for life.”
All four students will be participating in the conference as rapporteurs, a job that entails taking notes on the discussion sessions and recording questions asked of the presenters. “The [notes] will be helpful when the authors are expanding their short papers into longer more publishable papers,” Bonnheim said.
First-year Love began working with Fleming in August of last year through the Colby Academic Research Assistants Program (CARA). After the conference concludes, she will work with Fleming to collect and edit the research shared at the conference to compile a book. “At the end of the conference we have to decide, ‘was this a success?’” If so, Fleming said, “then we have a publisher who wants to make a book basically called ‘History of Chemical Weather and Climate.’”
The title of the conference is partly taken from the name of Fleming’s STS seminar, Body, Place, Planet: Aerial Interventions and Inscriptions, which Feng and Sintetos have both taken. “The class dealt with everything small and big and everything between science and art,” Feng said. “We went from small molecules that make up the air to vast landscapes, to eventually the infinite scope of the entire universe.” Feng and Sintetos will be presenting a poster at the conference related to what they learned in the course.
As part of her final project for the seminar, Sintetos researched the work of digital media artist Andrea Polli, who will be giving a keynote speech at the conference. “[Polli’s] recent work focuses on science, technology and media with an underlying theme of air quality and ‘making the invisible visible,’” Sintetos said. With so much of people’s impact on the atmosphere being invisible, it can be difficult to process the reality of those impacts. Polli’s work uses visual and auditory media to make this invisible reality more tangible.
“I was most drawn to her piece Particle Falls,” Sintetos said, “which is a large-scale public art installation that uses advanced projection technology to make invisible particulates in the air visible.” The installation uses sensors “to detect tiny particulate pollution levels in real time,” as Polli’s website describes. An outdoor projection of a waterfall is clouded whenever pollutant particulates are detected.
The conference, like Fleming’s seminar, centers on the very specific topic of atmospheric chemistry that touches so many different fields, including history, technology, medicine, warfare, architecture and art; yet there is no comprehensive research volume on it available. “The point is that you can’t go to the library and pull off a book on the history of atmospheric chemistry,” Fleming said. “We think we can fill a slot in the library that doesn’t exist right now.”
The conference will bring together 40 international participants—many of them graduate students or recent grads—18 research papers and five posters. Fleming hopes it will not only compile current research on the history of atmospheric chemistry, but also create a more cohesive scientific community devoted to this subject.
“One of my hobbies is building a community of scholars that look at the history of geoscience,” Fleming said. Fleming has been able to achieve this goal on a larger scale through the conference and his new book Fixing the Sky as well as here at the College.
The Conference will take place March 31-April 2 in Philadelphia, PA. In conjunction with the conference, the CHF museum will open their new exhibit “Elemental Matters: Artists Imagine Chemistry.” To learn more about Particle Falls, see Polli’s video here: http://www.vimeo.com/16336508.