August 10, 2012
Flickering green lights composing the shapes of human bodies emerged from sheer darkness within the Harvard Science Center last Tuesday. Set to music and a narration by Dr. Sylvia Earle, dancers in electrified black body suits appeared to swim onto the stage with their glowing spots tracing patterns through the shadows. This eerie aquatic performance may sound like an alien form of communication – and it almost is. “Aqua Borealis“ by New York’s Kristin McArdle Dance troupe celebrates one of earth’s most exotic and enchanting biochemical phenomena – bioluminescence – the emission of light by living organisms for purposes including prey attraction, camouflage and communication.
This striking performance was the culmination of “Living Light: The Art and Science of Bioluminescence” – an evening of science lectures and performances co-sponsored by the Harvard Museum of Natural History; Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment; Harvard Summer School; Friends of the Farlow Library and Herbarium; W20; and the Pleoades Network (Harvard Gazette, 2012). The event was intended “to highlight the beauty and importance of bioluminescence and address the critical need for ocean conservation” (Harvard CHGE, 2012).
This cross-disciplinary melding of performing art and science appeals to our emotions rather than our logic – something Kathleen Frith, managing director of Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Environment, believes to be quite powerful: “… people are not rational at all. We’re motivated by our emotions, our hearts, and our peers.”
That combination was made ever more compelling last week with the rousing words of Dr. Earle, a source of inspiration for McArdle’s piece. In the final talk of the evening, Dr. Earle emphasized that we know more about the planet and are more able to alter its environment than ever before. With a forewarning yet hopeful tone she concluded, “You can’t care if you don’t know… but now we know.”