Event reviews by our Sci Curious members
Laborastory: the PERFECTION edition
The Laborastory brings together five scientists to tell the story of their science heroes in ten short minutes. Hear stories of tragedies and triumphs and maybe learn a little bit along the way.
Review #1 by Luke
After attending the Laborastory PERFECTION event, I came away with five thought-provoking recounts of scientist and science that were guided by perfection. The central theme resonating through these recounts was that perfection is in the eye of the beholder. To Sylvia Earle, perfection may involve spending your days underwater. Clement Wragge, on the other hand, may have considered himself the embodiment of perfection. In contrast, Leonardo DaVinci’s strive for perfection may have stopped him from ever considering his masterpieces complete. For Chien-Shiung Wu, perfection may have meant proving that the universe is left handed. For the better or worse it is this perfection that shapes us.
The recounts of the scientists and topics were brought to life with the talented speakers at the Laborastory PERFECTION event. Consequently, through the talks, I felt as if I was a part of the story. Over these recounts, we saw diverse backgrounds of the scientists. Despite this diversity, we see that everyone is affected by perfection to some extent. To me, I believe perfection is something intangible that I often set as a personal goal. As Dr Pan Rana highlighted, many seek perfection through makeup and hair removal. Nonetheless, as we saw with the theme of this event, perfection is subjective. I believe everyone strives towards perfection to a certain extent, though perhaps this perfection can be dismissed by something as small as the direction of beta ray emission.
Review #2 by Catriona
Laborastory – A glimpse at PERFECTION
Five people from different fields told the tales of their science heroes, all of whom strove for perfection in one way or another. With tragedy and triumph, comedy and cleverness, the audience was in for a night of both laughter and learning at The Laborastory.
The first story was that of Dr Chien-Shiung Wu told by theoretical physicist and comedian, Dr Chris Lassig. Wu searched for perfection in the Universe by asking whether or not it is symmetrical at the fundamental level. Looking between your left and right hands, and at your face, there you can see distinct differences as they are not entirely symmetrical – most people are not ambidextrous and have one dominant hand, and no one has a perfectly symmetrical face. Wu was born in 1912 along the Yangzi River in China, and was encouraged to undertake her doctoral studies at the University of Michigan in 1937 by her Masters supervisor who had done the same. When she heard that women weren’t allowed to use the front entrance at Michigan and had to use a backdoor, she rejected her offer and decided to study at Berkeley instead – the US was more sexist than she had thought. After her PhD and several postdoctoral positions, including contributing to the Manhattan Project during World War II, she observed beta decay of radioactive cobalt-60 atoms (the loss of electrons) to find that the electrons were not lost at both ends of the atoms, but that they were preferentially lost in one direction. Her finding provided a significant contribution to the field of particle physics and showed that “the Universe is left-handed”, but she was not publicly honoured for her contribution to the theory when the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded two other (male) physicists who also contributed. Ultimately, Wu learned that the world is asymmetrical – whether that be at the atomic level, or the differences between being male or female, and living in the East or West. The world is not perfect, but she “[found] beauty and perfection in what’s really there” and stood up for it as a humans rights activist and the first female president of the American Physicists’ Society.
Connor McMahon, science student and mediator at Science Galley Melbourne, spoke about his science hero, Clement Lindley Wragge. As a student majoring in climate and weather, naturally Connor looks up to Wragge, “the father or modern meteorology” and first person to make weather forecasts in Australia. Wragge’s dedication to meteorology was evident from the beginning when he volunteered to make daily ascents over 3 km to a weather station at the top of Ben Navis in Scotland to take meteorological observations. He subsequently moved to Australia, where he published countless weather guides and established many weather stations, allowing him to draw up weather maps not dissimilar to those used today. Weather predictions are most often not perfect – sometimes it will rain down despite the forecasts giving no indication that it’s best to carry around an umbrella – but in his time, Wragge made them a little more accurate.
Another student and Science Gallery Melbourne mediator, Ella Loeffler, told Dr Sylvia Earle’s story: Earle is a legendary oceanographer, marine biologist, and aquanaut, who is a leading pioneer and world record-breaker of the ocean. Her first dive was in Florida when she was 16 years old to a depth of 9m and since then has nearly spent as much time in the water as out. She completed a PhD in phycology, a branch of botany that covers seaweeds and other algae, and was one of the first marine scientists to use scuba gear for research. Among her many achievements, she was the first female to submerge 100 feet (30.5m) below the surface in a deep dive, and led the first all-female team of aquanauts in the Tektite II Project in 1970, living below the surface of the sea for several weeks. (She had initially applied to join the first Tektite Project, but was rejected despite having already undertaken more than a thousand hours of research underwater.) To this day, even at 83, she still dives regularly and inspired Ella to scuba dive around the world too. In 2009 she founded Mission Blue, a foundation for protecting and exploring the ocean, and educates people on the effects of ocean damage (e.g. oil spills and over-fishing). She truly is a Hero for the Plant – and was named so by Time Magazine in 1998 – living to love and protect the ocean and its wildlife.
Next up was comedian Dr Pam Rana, who described the countless people throughout history who have suffered for the sake of beauty and perfection. Ancient Egyptians were the first to be poisoned by their cosmetics, with eye makeup made of malachite (a green ore of copper), galena (lead sulphide), and kohl (a paste made of soot, fat, and metals such as lead), leading to multiple adverse health effects, including affecting wearers’ mental health. Ancient Greek and Roman men and women continued to plaster lead onto their face in the form of white face creams. In addition, the Romans added red lead on top for a rosy glow and used lead as a major ingredient in hair dyes. Even in the last two decades, there have been lipsticks and mascaras sold commercially that have contained hazardous levels of lead or allergens. Pam has a particular interest in hair removal ( as she is still haunted by her moustache from puberty) but she wouldn’t resort to the 1530’s solution of arsenic and quicklime to dissolve her leg hair. In addition to health concerns, the introduction of the Prickly Pear plant to Australia to start a cochineal dye industry caused widespread environmental problems. Cochineal insects that lived on the plant were used to make red dye that produces the vibrant, red colour of soldier’s coats, but while the insects quickly died in the Australian environment, the cactus thrived and spread rapidly as a weed. Pam’s tale was a warning of the dangers that can arise when we strive for perfection in appearances.
The aforementioned scientists may have escaped under your radar until now, however, science hero Leonardo da Vinci is one of the more well-renowned scientists (and artists – perfect for a Science Gallery event) of the Renaissance. Dr Ryan Jefferies, Head of Programs at Science Gallery Melbourne, revealed a hidden side of the famous da Vinci. If you read one of Leonardo’s biographies, you’ll see that the list of his areas of interest is quite extensive, including engineering, painting, architecture, science, and music. He is considered a one of the greatest painters, despite only producing about 20 paintings – he was a perfectionist and only considered a few number of paintings to be complete in his eyes. He spent five years painting the Mona Lisa (which, if you visit The Louvre, is actually quite small), and three years on The Last Supper. While he was perfectionist himself, he certainly didn’t fit into society’s ideals because he was sacrilegious and gay; he discovered that the Earth is older than the Bible describes and that it was changes in sea water level that left behind fossils rather than a Great Flood, and was nearly burned at the stake for having a ‘homosexual encounter’. He also had the perfect pet: a dragon, which was in fact a lizard that he covered in other animal parts (e.g. fish scales) to show off to friends. All up, Leonardo da Vinci was quite the unconventional man.
I would consider some of these scientists as unsung heroes – I had only heard of one of the four before this Laborastory event. I was introduced to two incredible women in STEM, one who has been and one who still is a champion of change, and as a woman in science myself, it’s always inspiring to hear the stories of women before me who have achieved so much in their respective fields. While I may not be perfect myself, and Chien-Shiung Wu has proven that true perfection is not possible in this Universe (atomically), I’m hoping to make my mark on the world too.