Scientific education … A social experiment in the Paris subway

IMG_1771Coming back from COP 21 in Paris on Wednesday in the packed RER B – the surburban subway that takes the participants to the COP21 in Le Bourget from downtown Paris – the train stops abruptly at station Gare du Nord and a woman behind me pushes me. I fall down on the lap of a man sitting by the sliding door. “Do you want to dance?” this man asks me jokingly. An answer spits out of me : “No, thank you, I don’t like this music and furthermore I have a bulky backpack”.

Standing back up, I briefly notice a set of equations advertised on the black walls of the metro, like on the blackboard of a school. I turn towards my colleague, a climate scientist who had not noticed the equations, and tell him that it’s funny to see advertised, in the metro, the equations we use everyday when working on climate. That’s a real surprise! As the train starts moving and picks up speed, I continue looking at the walls and see more equations until we enter in a dark tunnel.

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I don’t really get it. Why would the french public transportation system post such complicated equations on the normally barren walls of a metro station? What purpose would such postings have? Who decided to put such complex equations on the walls of a metro station, on the way to COP21?

I am baffled and turn toward the man who had invited me to dance and ask him what do these equations evoke in him. Do they make any sense to him and are they related to anything he knows? Has he ever seen the little symbols that represent what we call partial derivatives? “They don’t make any sense to me” he responds “and “I have no idea what they represent”. I explain to him that these equations are the basis for the simulation of climate with computer models. He politely listens.

So there and then, I decide to collect material such as photos and interviews for a short article about how the French people are being educated in the metro.

The next day I decide to go back to the Gare du Nord and take pictures of all the equations and the writings. At the extreme left of the huge platform, this unusual display of the equations of fundamental atmospheric science starts with a Japanese name: Syukuro Manabe.

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Is the name of this famous meteorologist and climatologist who pioneered the use computers to simulate climate supposed to evoke curiosity that will make the metro traveler look on his cell phone for who this mysterious person Manabe is, while waiting for the train, in stead of playing games?

To get answers to my many questions, I resolve to go and ask people waiting for the next train. While most people are oblivious to the equations and concentrated on something else, their life or their music, a small group of young folks is definitely looking at and talking about them. So I get closer, introduce myself and ask them if they know to what these equations relate and whether they bring something to mind for them. None of them knows what topic they cover. But one of them responds: “They bring bad memories”. The only student who has been exposed to equations of that nature has a poor experience associated with them. After I explain that the equations have to do with the modeling of climate, his friends suggest that he is the only one among them who should realize that these equations are related to climate. Surprised, I inquire why he should. They tell me that it is because he went to La Republique last week-end to demonstrate for climate action. So science knowledge in their mind is connected with climate activism. Interesting!

As I continue interviewing the train passengers on that platform, that morning, I find little interest from them. No one rebukes me but they generally are unaware of and unmoved by the equations. One woman believes that these equations are graffitti soiling the walls. No one has an answer that would justify putting such complex equations on the walls.

Is it the time of the day and the venue that causes that lack of interest, perhaps? It is mid morning and people are hurrying up stay on schedule. This strange episode in the Paris metro reminds me of an experiment that was made in the Washington D.C. metro when a famous violin player was posted at the bottom of the stairs near at the door of a station during rush hour on a cold January morning. This player, Joshua Bell, is a star professional musician, one of the finest violonists in the world today, who draws huge crowds who pay for expensive tickets in the most famous concert halls. However, in this most unusual venue few people stopped to listen to Joshua Bell (4 in total). Only a small musically inclined 3-year old child stayed for a few minutes, apparently appreciating the magnificent music and perhaps recognizing the musician’s talent on display in this most unexpected context.

So perhaps the lack of interest, on the part of the traveling public, in this strange exhibit of equations, is just because nobody expects to see anything mathematical painted on the walls of a station in the Paris metro. Thus, I speculate that the failure to arouse the public’s curiosity might not be due entirely to the fact that this display is about climate science.

What was the intention? Was it to attract the attention of busy Parisian metro commuters? If so, it failed miserably, because from what I saw and heard, people were not interested or even not aware that the equations were there. The few who asked themselves questions didn’t seem to have the intellectual curiosity to look for an answer. In their defense, the message is very enigmatic and it wasn’t easy to find the answer anywhere on these walls. Perhaps if the rationale was to stimulate interest in the climate science behind these equations, would it have been better with words instead of mathematical symbols? There were two sets of words on these walls, in fact, but they didn’t help. The words were: “Syukuro Manabe” and “general circulation model.” Maybe this combination of words holds the key. Had the words been in French, they would have been more understandable to Parisian metro travelers, Written in English, the display might instead have been addressed to the COP21 participants. Was the intention to educate them? I somehow doubt it.

Maybe the scientists involved intended to imitate the very successful street art that is found on walls everywhere in Paris and in other cities? That’s a way of making work, or art, or science, visible to many. COP21 is an internationally famous event devoted to negotiating solutions to the existential threat of climate change. Such a prominent focal point can be seen as an opportunity to explore a wide variety of initiatives over a short period of time. Many artists had the opportunity to make art especially for this event and to have it exposed in various venues. A similar painting of an equation by Liam Gillick at the Istanbul Modern Museum of Art can be seen by a ferry ride on the Bosphorus.

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