We are celebrating today at Museion! We have received 4,6 million DKK from the Novo Nordisk Foundation for the project Microcosmos/Macrocosmos, from the foundations thematic program for innovative science communication and debate on science and technology. The project is grounded in a collaboration between Medical Museion, The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research (CBMR), and Kunsthal Charlottenborg.
The body in the world, the world in the body
As the title suggests, Microcosmos/Macrocosmos takes its point of depature in the ancient notion of the human body as a ‘little world’, both literally and metaphorically connected to and mirroring the macrocosmos, the wider world around it. The notion that body and world are connected has, we feel, a new significance in the beginning of the 21st century. We see and experience how we are changing the planet around us, and there is an increased interest in how those changes are affecting our bodies in return. We are experiencing a connectedness both ‘downwards’ to the microcosmic world of bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microorganisms living on and in our bodies, as well as ‘upwards’ to the macrocosmic planetary structures that support our very existence.
The project examines this connectedness through four themes – TIME, MICROBES, SPACE and GENERATIONS – each drawing from contemporary scientific research, with the aim of engaging the public in the major questions this research raises about our way of life and bodily existence.
TIME // Our bodies have internal molecular clocks, tying us to the temporal rhythms of the planet. This is examined in a research area know as circadian biology or ‘chronobiology’, which studies the role of temporal rhythms in physiology. Chronobiology raises profound questions about our individual lives and societal structures – e.g. how electrical lighting, shift work, and changing eating patterns are interacting with the temporal rhythms of our bodies.
MICROBES // During the previous decade, we have seen a tidal wave of research exploring the complex microbial ecosystems in our bodies – that is, the trillions of microorganisms that live on and in us. The microbiome is turning out to play a much larger role in our physiology, metabolism, and even mood and cognitive functions, than previously anticipated. This research ties our bodies to the vast microbial biosphere, which covers the entire planet. It raises a number of significant questions – what should we eat to maintain a healthy gut microbiome? And what might it mean if we have to understand ourselves as a ’we’ rather than an ‘I’?
SPACE // Taking its point of departure in astrobiology and space research, this part of the project examines the limits and possibilities of the human body in a time where Earth might not be our sole planetary habitat for much longer. What happens with our bodies if we want to travel to and even colonize Mars? The content for the theme will be developed in collaboration with researchers at the Niels Bohr Institute, ESA/NASA, as well as the group of researchers and artists that created Biosphere 2 (1991-1994), which still remains the most expansive and longest experiment with human habitation in closed, artificial environments.
GENERATIONS // Epigenetics is concerned with how the environment might change what the genes we inherit from our parents actually do. Genes act by being ‘expressed’, and this expression can be altered by changes in nutrition, environmental exposure, and possibly even trauma and other life experiences. The nature and scope of these mechanisms are still very much up for scientific debate, and raise a number of vital questions about the relationship between nature and nurture, and the molecular openness and entanglements of our bodies.
The center piece in Microcosmos/Macrocosmos is a major art/science exhibition, opening in the fall of 2021 at Kunsthal Charlottenborg, a major venue for contemporary art in Copenhagen. Throughout the 2½ year life span of the project – before, during and after the exhibition – the project will produce a number of engagement activities, including public debates, movie screenings, performances, podcast series, and lectures. In these, researchers, artists and members of the public will engage with the topics of the project, sharing and exploring understandings of the world in the body and the body in the world.
Making complex science accessible and engaging
The project is built around an engagement with open, ‘unfinished’ science, and the methodological questions raised by engaging people with this type of research. How to best engage an audience in complex science that is still ‘in process’, rather than engaging them in specific, fixed results? How can we simplify without dumbing down, and how can we bring out hidden assumptions for debate? Such questions are a focus within the contemporary science communication literature, and this project aims to contribute new examples and analyses to the field.
We find it important to work with this type of science for several reasons: First and foremost, it is a way of giving a more realistic portrait of the scientific process. Most science is dynamic, with new knowledge developing in often unpredictable processes – science is rarely linear or predictable. If the general public is not also allowed into this process and given an idea of it, warts and all, then science communication risks reproducing a glorified story about science, which produces unrealistic expectations about new discoveries and new treatments. This mismatch can lead to skepticism about science, which has been a key point of anxiety around the relationship between science and society in recent years.
Another important aspect of engaging the public in complex, unfinished science is to develop a shared understanding of complexity and indeterminacy – to understand that answers are not always black or white, and that complex systems do not readily respond to simple solutions. Sustained encounters with complexity are a pathway to strengthen the debate against the many forces clamoring for the rejection of well-founded, nuanced science in favor of quick fixes. In an age of fake news, fast fads, science skepticism, climate change denial and much more, there is an increasing need for creating spaces in which a broad audience can meet and discuss science as it unfolds. Microcosmos/Macrocosmos is focused on creating such spaces and such encounters.