Climate Scientist Tries Arts To Stir Hearts Regarding Earth's Fate

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Robert Davies (standing) and the quartet during a performance of "The Crossroads Project." Musicians include (left to right) Robert Waters, Rebecca McFaul, Anne Francis Bayless and Bradley Ottesen. (Courtesy of The Crossroads Project)
Robert Davies (standing) and the quartet during a performance of "The Crossroads Project." Musicians include (left to right) Robert Waters, Rebecca McFaul, Anne Francis Bayless and Bradley Ottesen. (Courtesy of The Crossroads Project)

A decade ago, physicist Robert Davies wasn't all that interested in Earth's climate. His field was quantum optics. But while he was working at the University of Oxford in England, he became intrigued by what was going on at Oxford's Environmental Change Institute, just down the road from his lab.

Davies started going to seminars at the Institute, and was taken aback, he says, by "the broad gap between what science understands about climate change, and what the public understands."

He assumed it was simply a problem of science communication. So, to help remedy the situation, he began giving public lectures on the looming dangers of climate change, and what it could mean for the sustainability of life on this planet. The results weren't what he expected.

"The audiences would understand it on an intellectual level," says Davies. "The science is pretty self-explanatory and very compelling." But they didn't seem to personally connect with the information. They understood it, but they weren't feeling it, he says — and weren't taking any action.

It was as if he were informing people about the dangers of smoking, and then watching them go out afterward and light up cigarettes.

Davies became passionately interested in finding ways to change people's behavior when it comes to climate change.

But how?

He left Oxford, England and quantum optics for Logan, Utah and a job at the Utah State University Climate Center.

One day it occurred to him that maybe music was the answer. His idea was a hybrid event: one that sort of combined a lecture on climate with a musical performance — performance art and performance science.

"We have this amazing professional string quartet — the Fry Street Quartet — as artists in residence at the Caine College of the Arts here," Davies says. "So I approached them to see if they would be interested in participating in this experiment. And they really jumped at it. And so, together, we developed this performance."

They called their production the Crossroads Project; it premiered in Utah in the fall of 2012 and has been performed many times since (including internationally), with more to come.

The team commissioned the composer Laura Kaminsky to write music for the project. It also includes evocative images taken by nature photographer Garth Lenz, and projections of paintings (inspired by nature) by Rebecca Allan, displayed behind the musicians.

"I was just thrilled at the thought of being able to use my art form — the medium of the string quartet — in some way that was relevant to this topic that I was so concerned about," says violinist Rebecca McFaul.

In fact, McFaul was so thrilled with Davies' ideas that she wound up marrying him.

The music is intended to make people think about things like water and glaciers and warming temperatures. But, like all art, it's open to interpretation.

"It can take on so many different meanings for the listener," says McFaul. "There's no right or wrong answers for it. And the idea is just to live through it, and sit with it, and contemplate it."

The project isn't meant to convert skeptics, Davies says. "It's about convincing people who already believe we have these problems to start behaving like it."

There's good reason to think that people will be affected by the Crossroads project: Psychologists know that adding emotion to a message makes that message more memorable.

Whether it will have the impact on behavior that Davies is hoping for is another question.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Scientists have been warning about climate change for decades now. And many of them are frustrated by a lack of action. NPR's Joe Palca introduces us now to a climate scientist who says even people who acknowledge the problem seem to be complacent, and the scientist has an unusual plan to change that. This report is part of Joe's Big Idea, a series of stories about the mind and motivation of scientists and inventors.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: A decade ago, physicist Robert Davies wasn't all that interested in the Earth's climate. His field was quantum optics. But while he was working at the University of Oxford in England, he became intrigued by what was going on at Oxford's Environmental Change Institute that was just down the road from his lab.

ROBERT DAVIES: And just started going to some seminars and was just taken by the broad gap between what science understands about climate change and what the public understands, and took that as simply just a problem of science communication.

PALCA: So he decided to do something about it. He gave public lectures on the looming dangers of climate change and what it would mean for the sustainability of life on this planet. The results weren't what he expected.

DAVIES: The audiences would understand it, you know, on an intellectual level. The science is pretty self-explanatory and very compelling. But it was still very difficult to connect with.

PALCA: It was a little bit like informing people about the dangers of smoking and then watching them go out afterwards and light up a cigarette. Davies became passionately interested in finding ways to change people's behavior when it comes to climate change. But he wasn't sure how. He left Oxford and quantum optics for Logan, Utah, and a job at the Utah State University Climate Center. And then one day it occurred to him.

DAVIES: What if we do this as a performance?

PALCA: Davies figured music had always freed his mind up to see the world in different ways. So he had the idea of creating a hybrid event - a kind of informational lecture/music performance.

DAVIES: We have this amazing professional string quartet - the Fry Street Quartet - as artists in residence at the Caine College of the Arts here. And so I approached them to see if they would be interested in participating in this experiment. And they really jumped that it. And so, together, we developed this performance as a means of helping an audience get the information not just intellectually, but viscerally, to really connect with it.

PALCA: They called the performance the Crossroads Project. In addition to the music, there are evocative images taken by nature photographers and projections of the paintings inspired by nature displayed behind the musicians. The team commissioned composer Laura Kaminsky to write a piece of music for the project. It's called "Rising Tide."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RISING TIDE")

PALCA: Rebecca McFaul is a violinist in the quartet.

REBECCA MCFAUL: I was just thrilled at the thought of being able to use my art form - the medium of the string quartet - in some way that was relevant to this topic that I was so concerned about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RISING TIDE")

PALCA: McFaul says although the music is intended to make people think about things like water and glaciers and warming temperatures, in the end it is what it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RISING TIDE")

MCFAUL: It can take on so many different meanings for the listener. There is no right or wrong answers for it. And the idea is just to - to live through it and sit with it and contemplate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RISING TIDE")

MCFAUL: If you're going to be open to it and sit through it, you go places that you wouldn't otherwise go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RISING TIDE")

PALCA: Robert Davies says the performance gives audiences a chance to form an emotional connection with the information.

DAVIES: That's what they don't get in the science lecture, but they do get in a performance of our Crossroads Project.

PALCA: Davies says the point isn't to convert skeptics.

DAVIES: It's not real ly about convincing people who don't believe we have these problems. It's about convincing people who already believe we have these problems to start behaving like it.

PALCA: People are bound to be affected by the Crossroads Project. Psychologists know that adding emotion to a message makes that message more memorable. Whether it will have the impact on behavior Davies is hoping for is another question. Joe Palca, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RISING TIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.