When I first caught sight of the Biosphère in Montreal, Quebec, I remember telling my parents that I had to see it up close. I was struck by the design of the exterior of the sphere, a fantastic webbing of steel and acrylic cells. It was a structure that I could see looming over Parc Jean-Drapeau from my spot in downtown Montreal, a lace orb that stood out among the dense trees of the island and contrasted with the uniformity of the city’s buildings.
Upon arriving on the island, I realized that the Biosphère holds an interactive environment museum that showcases exhibitions on major environmental issues as well as activities that allow the public to learn about water, climate change, air and sustainable development. I paid a fee I thought to be too expensive for the “knowledge” I would gain from the museum. I knew that anything science-related would go over my head; it was a proven fact. The only reason I allowed my parents to pay for my entrance instead of spending it on one of the French bakeries (think Maison Christian Faure) that make the most delicious little cakes that seem almost too beautiful to eat was my “when in Montreal” mentality. I tried to think less of the cake, and more of the intellectual growth I would face by entering the museum. Difficult, but doable.
The first room I entered in the museum was one that explained meteorology and weather patterns, a topic that would make me yawn on any other day. But before I even entered the room, I noticed a mural on the wall that had an umbrella and the phrase “Ceci n’est pas un parapluie” or “This is not an umbrella” next to it. I understood the artistic allusion to Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” painting right away. This witty play on an artist’s work was appealing to an art history lover like me, but I didn’t trust it completely. When I entered the room itself, I was surprised to see a grouping of actual umbrellas positioned in the center of the room as well as a dozen or so hanging from the ceiling. An image of the moving earth was projected onto the umbrellas, creating a fluid movement of space. In this artistic arrangement, I found myself actively engaging with the information that was being presented. Wind patterns and atmospheric pressures had never held my attention for so long (at least not since my elementary school days). This was new.
After leaving the room, I entered another which housed different types of plants and tree barks. A transparent wall that allowed me to see inside the room had a description of what I now saw was an indoor garden. It began: “Inside each of us is a garden — a secret garden where we nurture our innermost thoughts; a place where we keep the cherished memories of our joy and sorrows.” It continued to describe what “precious gifts of nature” were present in the room. The description of what I was about to see was so poetically written and explained in a way that made this “garden” relatable to my own life, that my attentiveness continued. This was getting interesting.
Next, I went to a room focused on wildlife and deforestation. The first thing I saw when I entered was a wall projection spanning the entire half of the room of a bridge crossing a river, surrounded by luscious green trees. The sound of birds and rushing water filled my ears. Everywhere, there were large, vibrant photographs of different wildlife scenes. Signs about “the essence of the forest and humanity” and “enchanted forest, healthy humans” covered the walls. I went from one photograph to the next, admiring these stunning snapshots of nature and reading about their relevance to the topics being discussed. Now I was getting used to this.
And it didn’t stop there. I felt as if every room I entered incorporated information on scientific topics with artistic components. Whether it was the aesthetic of the room, the word choice used to portray the information or the way everything was artistically set up, I found myself absorbed in the material I was given and even excited to know more.
I know I’m not the only one who finds it extremely difficult to comprehend scientific, or even mathematical, concepts. With two parents whose jobs are in the scientific field, I feel like I should have some kind of inclination towards the sciences. But the interest, or ability to even understand, falls short. Only at the Biosphère did I become genuinely interested in scientific topics. And the underlying factor behind my sudden enjoyment in learning about different wind patterns, the impact of deforestation or the different sources of sustainable energy was clear: there was a merging of art, something I was accustomed to, with science.
As a student in the College of Arts & Sciences here at Cornell, I have the opportunity to take classes in both the arts and the sciences, yet it’s obvious that most courses remain very separate and distinct. I can’t help but think that if humanities courses incorporated scientific elements and vice versa, it would be easier for people who have heavily humanities-based or science-based minds to gain a better understanding of the other. I learned — and retained — knowledge in areas of interest outside my own in Montreal because of the strong connection between art and science. And that mergence made all the difference.
Gaby Leung is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Serendipitous Musings appears alternate Thursdays this semester.