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Brooklyn’s pioneering approach to art and science

 Janna Levin outside the Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, New York 21 February 2017

Where art and science mix – astrophysicist Janna Levin outside Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, New York.

By Matin Durrani in New York, US

After spending four days in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I travelled down by train to New York (gotta love those comfy Amtrak seats and free WiFi). I first hooked up with mathematical physicist Peter Woit at Columbia University and then with science philosopher Bob Crease from Stony Brook University, who’s been a long-time columnist for Physics World.

I was keen to find out if they’d be interested in writing for the new Physics World Discovery series of ebooks and, while at Columbia, I had also hoped to put the same question to astrophysicist and author Janna Levin, who’s based in the physics department. Turns out, however, that Levin is on sabbatical, spending a year as “director of sciences” at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn’s Red Hook district. Curious to find out more about a centre that seeks to “make culture accessible to all”, I accepted her invitation to pay a visit.

Based in a former ironworks factory, Pioneer Works is home to both artists and scientists. The entrance is an unprepossessing side door, but once inside, a large central space greets the visitor. Levin was quick to point out, however, that Pioneer Works is not about creating “art–science” projects or forcing artists and scientists to collaborate. “The real idea is to show that science is part of culture,” she explained.

 Janna Levin at the Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, New York 21 February 2017

So, for example, Levin has organized a series of public events under the “Science Controversies” banner, where she’s brought in people she calls “science superstars”, such as Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek, biologist Richard Dawkins, cosmologists Max Tegmark and Sean Carroll, and science writer James Gleick.

Other activities include music, storytelling and science and film shows. The centre is also in the midst of creating a series of “science studios” (see below), which Levin has designed to have as few walls as possible. “I don’t want to say ‘this is the science department’ as if it’s something separate.”

The new science bit of the Pioneer Works in New YorkPioneer Works in addition hosts astronomy parties, with beer, wine and food, but another plan up Levin’s sleeve is to build a proper telescope and dome in the centre’s gardens (below). There’s also a “tech lab”, with 3D printers, laser cutters and computers, and Levin even has her eyes on creating a biology lab.

A lot of Levin’s energy is going on getting the science activities up and running. So if you’re in the Brooklyn area, do go along and show your support. After all, Levin’s got to go back to Columbia in September once her sabbatical’s over – and her bosses will want to know her year has been time well spent. In these uncertain times, it’s more important than ever to show just how vital science is to life.

The graden of the Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, New York 21 February 2017

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