Quarks, Parks, and Science in Everyday Life:
Filmmaker Chris Allen’s Documentary where Art Meets Science in a Vacant Lot
“The miracle is that mathematics is the language that nature talks.”
Freeman Dyson, Mathematician, from the film Quark Park
“Where will the next generation of scientists come from?” lamented Hai-Lung Dai, Dean of the College of Science and Technology at Temple University during a recent graduation ceremony.
If, once upon a time, science and scientists ignited the world’s imagination rivaling movies and movie stars for airtime, today it might seem that we’ve lost access to the childlike joy of curiosity (and deep methodical satisfaction of problem-solving) so essential to scientific inquiry and appreciation.
In 2006, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) reported that American 15-year-olds ranked below average in scientific literacy, falling behind many other industrialized nations including The Republic of Korea, Canada, Sweden, Poland, and Hungary.
That same year, a grassroots organization of citizens, scientists, and educators worried about decreasing scientific literacy in the United States, formed the Coalition for the Public Understanding of Science(COPUS). The National Science Foundation (NSF) panel from which COPUS’s mission emerged, says:
For sixty years in this country [the United States], there has been a symbiotic relationship between science and industry. That system is now in jeopardy. The nature of science is being successfully challenged, reducing the interest in and support for it, and thus reducing the flow of people and ideas to industry. Science is poorly understood and often misrepresented to the public, the news media, and to political decision-makers.
The ultimate goal would be to increase public appreciation of science, the scientific process, and the impacts that scientific advancements have on our quality of life.
The Birth of Quark Park
In Princeton, NJ, the very same year, landscape designer Peter Soderman; architect, Kevin Wilkes; and later, landscape artist Alan Goodheart, decided to take action and address the American public’s lack of scientific knowledge by creating a garden devoted to science.
“We have a problem in America with the widening gap between profound scientific knowledge and the empirical existence of everybody’s daily lives,” says Wilkes. “We thought that maybe through the combined pathways of art and science we could bring children of all ages into a garden of revelations and insight.”
They found a surprisingly powerful setting in which to showcase wide-ranging scientific research a vacant lot in the heart of the Princeton commercial district and transformed it into a garden.
“I thought, well, fifty scientists who live in Princeton have actually won the Nobel Prize,” remembers Soderman. “How extraordinary for one town’s culture, and it was germinating right in front of me. It was the right time for Mr. Wilkes and me to start building a garden.”
The first seed for Quark Park was planted by the Dean of Faculty at Princeton University, David Dobkin who was impressed with Wilkes, Soderman, and Goodheart’s first collaboration, a garden of follies called Writer’s Block, which featured local poets including Pulitzer Prizewinner Paul Muldoon, historians such as James McPherson (another Pulitzer Prizewinner) and internationally regarded playwrights such as Emily Mann. Writer’s Block won two major architectural awards in the state of New Jersey.
Dobkin, with a background as a mathematician and computer scientist, suggested, “If you do it again, you should do scientists because science doesn’t get that kind of play in public.”
Quark Park highlighted the scientific work of Princeton-area scientists, including Professor of Molecular Biology and Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman, and Templeton Prize-winning mathematician and physicist Freeman Dyson. By fusing the talents of architects, artists, and landscapers, Soderman, Wilkes and Goodheart created an interactive outdoor gallery where you could taste, touch, and smell the mechanics of science. And scientists appreciated the opportunity to interact with the public.
As George Scherer, a Princeton University materials scientist and one of the leading researchers on stone preservation says, “Anything that makes people realize that science is entertaining as a career and valuable socially is a good thing. We have a serious problem attracting American students into Graduate school. I saw Quark Park as a real opportunity to introduce people to how science works and how it can benefit people.”
Today, the lot where Quark Park stood, once a magnet for locals and out-of-town visitors, is now luxury condominiums.
Yet, the thrill of Quark Park is permanently chronicled in a new documentary by Chris Allen, including clips from interviews with scientists such as Freeman Dyson and Princeton University President Emerita, Shirley Tilghman; and artists such as Kate Graves, Jonathan Shor, and Robert Cannon.
Filming Quark Park: Chris Allen
An NYU film school graduate (who has shot film in Chicago and the South of France) Allen felt pulled to tell the story of Writer’s Block and Quark Park in his hometown: Princeton, NJ.
“I was deeply inspired by Writer’s Block and Quark Park because they brought people together in creative ways, says Allen. “My hope for the film is that it may open someone’s eyes to more possibilities through seeing what Soderman and Wilkes did, starting with nothing but an idea. Ideas are easy, but the courage to fulfill them against heavy odds is an inspiration.”
Molecular biologist and Quark Park participant Paul Schimmel agrees. “The park presented the uplifting nature of science and how science is based on human thought. To communicate with the public this sense of wonder, this sense of awe, in a way, a sense of reverence, and at the same time a sense of fun, to poke fun at itself. All of those things, artists can do better than scientists, much better.”
One moving shot from the film lingers on sculptor Robert Cannon’s interpretation of Schimmel’s work. It captured the wind moving through sunlight, swirling glass prisms reflecting DNA codes caught for fleeting seconds in random flickering shadows upon a silver screen. This vision, beneath a blue sky, seems to portray the ever-changing intellectual energy and creative fluctuations behind the pursuit of art and science, one vast formula behind our multifarious lives that will continue to surprise and inspire us.
WRR: You draw from many different interviews with scientists, writers, artists and poets including Freeman Dyson, Tracey Shors, Paul Muldoon, and Paul Schimmel. How did you know what to include and what to cut?
Basically I’m trying to tell a story and not bore anybody. I start by watching the footage to get a feeling for it. I want to keep the film moving, so I don’t stay with any one interview for very long and try to find other interviews that build on the point.
There is no narration in the film, so it is told by the interviews and the footage of the parks being built. Once I put a segment together, using everything that seems to belong, I look at it critically and start cutting. Something that is really great may have to get cut because it just doesn’t fit.
In the end, you can’t make a perfect film, so I don’t try to. With over 30 interviews and hours and hours of footage to work on, there are an unlimited number of ways to put it all together. Anybody else would make a different film out of that footage, but this is the one that looked best to me.
WRR: What can film do unlike any other medium?
Pretty much everything film does is unlike any other medium. It is experienced in a set time frame and it’s all about image, motion and sound to create feeling. Unlike music, it’s also visual. It can be emotional, funny, dramatic, as can other art forms, but I think what it can do that’s unique, is to transport you to another time and place and recreate the feeling that was there.
WRR: You use Paul Muldoon’s poetry in the film. Tell me what drew you to the poem, Why Brownlee Left, as it is a very moving piece of the film?
Why Brownlee Left
by Paul Muldoon
Why Brownlee left, and where he went,
Is a mystery even now.
For if a man should have been content
It was him; two acres of barley,
One of potatoes, four bullocks,
A milker, a slated farmhouse,
He was last seen going out to plough
On a March morning, bright and early
By noon Brownlee was famous;
They had found all abandoned, with
The last rig unbroken, his pair of black
Horses, like man and wife,
Shifting their weight from foot to
Foot, and gazing into the future.
The poem was actually shot for another project. Paul was recording his poetry for a spoken word CD release and I was shooting video of his reading. While I was editing Quark Park, the role he played in helping Peter and Kevin Wilkes was being discussed, and I thought it would be great to include one of Paul’s poems, both to introduce him, and to underscore the idea of writers as inspiration. There were about 30 poems and I started watching them to see if anything would work. I wanted one that wasn’t too long, as it was sort of a departure from the film, and somehow Why Brownlee Left seemed to fit.
I asked Paul if I could use it and he said “Go for it!”
I’ve worked with video and poetry before, and love the way they can combine, and so I looked for imagery that supported the feeling of the poem. It isn’t a direct telling of the poem or anything, but it somehow evoked an emotion, and it worked, both with the footage I used and with David Sancious’s music. Some of the best things seem to happen by chance, and that’s how Paul’s poem got into the movie.
WRR: How did you choose the music in the Quark Park film?
The music was taken from performances at Quark Park by David Sancious and The Tony Levin Band. The park was packed to capacity for these acts, and you could see why. I shot both performances and knew I wanted to include them. At first, I wanted to use a song or two as background and show that it was being played at Quark Park. But the more I auditioned the music, the more of it I wanted to use. I’m thrilled with the soundtrack.
WRR: How did you get started in film?
CA: In 1965 I talked my mother into using her Green Stamps booklets (remember those, old-timers?) to buy an 8mm movie camera. It was supposed to be a present for my dad, but I just grabbed it and started shooting. I graduated from NYU film school (after a long circuitous route), and have worked in film and video ever since. After a long stint in corporate video, I started my own production company, Open Sky Cinema, in 2001 and have been producing documentaries since then.
WRR: Scientist Paul Schimmel, a participant in Quark Park, described the Quark Park initiative as a beautiful expression of a “sense of wonder, imagination, the sense of joy and happiness that the scientist feels, that the artist feels, that society needs to feel.”
You capture that sense of wonder very well in your film. Quark Park was a magical place where “children of all ages” could learn about science. How did you as a filmmaker approach capturing the magic of these gardens?
CA: Really, I just went into this to document what happened. I was enthused by what they were creating and was happy to have the opportunity to record it. I hope the film inspires other people to open up their creative spigots.
WRR: Can you envision communities following the model in other areas of the country?
Certainly, and if people are made aware of this project through the film, I think there may be some who are inspired to beautify an unused lot in their community. It takes a lot of work and a lot of cutting through the red tape. But I know that everywhere you go, people can be found with original, exciting visions of what they would do to turn an empty space into a work of art – be it a folly garden, sculpture garden, a garden of vegetables and flowers, or something completely different.
WRR: What is your underlying mission in the creation of the Quark Park film?
Again, I wanted to document this wonderful process of artists, sculptors, writers, architects, landscapers and gardeners working together for no other purpose than to create something beautiful out of nothingness. That’s a holy endeavor when you think about it. And more so when you realize that all the people involved, volunteered their time with great joy and enthusiasm.
There’s no overt message of spirituality in the film, but it is certainly there just under the surface, and that is the critical element necessary for anything I devote my time to. My association with the project was very rewarding in that regard.
In 2006, Kimberly Nagy founded Wild River Review with Joy E. Stocke; and in 2009, they founded Wild River Consulting & Publishing, LLC. With more than twenty years in the field of publishing, Nagy specializes in market outreach and digital media strategies as well as crafting timeless articles and interviews. She edits many of the writers who appear in the pages of Wild River Review, as well as clients from around the world.
Kimberly Nagy is a poet, professional writer, and dedicated reader who has interviewed a number of leading thinkers, including Academy-Award winning filmmaker, Pamela Tanner Boll, MacArthur Genius Award-winning Edwidge Danticat, historian James McPherson, playwright Emily Mann, biologist and novelist, Sunetra Gupta and philosopher Alain de Botton.
Nagy is an author, editor and professional storyteller. She received her BA in history at Rider University where she was influenced by professors who stressed works of literature alongside dates and historical facts–as well as the importance of including the perspectives of women and minorities in the historical record. During a period in which she fell in love with writing and research, Nagy wrote an award-winning paper about the suppression of free speech during World War I, and which featured early 20th century feminist and civil rights leader, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
Nagy continued her graduate studies at University of Connecticut, Storrs, where she studied with Dr. Karen Kupperman, an expert in early contact between Native Americans and the first European settlers. Nagy wrote her Masters thesis, focusing on the work of the first woman to be accepted into the Connecticut Historical Society as well as literary descriptions of Native Americans in Connecticut during the 19th century. Nagy has extensive background and interest in anthropological, oral history and cultural research.
After graduate school, Nagy applied her academic expertise to a career in publishing, in which she worked for two of the world’s foremost publishers—Princeton University Press and W.W. Norton—as well as at Thomson, Institutional Investor Magazine, Routledge UK, and Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic.
Kimberly Nagy in this Edition
AIRMAIL – LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
AIRMAIL – VOICE FROM SYRIA
ARTS – ART
ARTS – FILM REVIEWS
ARTS – MUSIC
ARTS – PHOTOGRAPHY
The Triple Goddess Trials: Fire in the Head: Brigit’s Mysterious Spark
The Triple Goddess Trials: Introduction
The Triple Goddess Trials – Meeting Virginia Woolf at the Strand
The Triple Goddess Trials: Me and Medusa
The Triple Goddess Trials: Aphrodite and the Lightbulb Factory
The Triple Goddess Trials: Goddess of Milk and Honey
The Triple Goddess Trials: Kali’s Ancient Love Song
ASHLEY – Renee Ashley: A Voice Answering a Voice
BELLI – Giocanda Belli – The Page is My Home
BOLL – Pamela Tanner Boll: Dangerous Women: An Interview with Academy Award Winner Pamela Tanner Boll
DANTICAT – Create Dangerously- A Conversation with Edwidge Danticat
CHARBONNEAU – A Cruise Along the Inside Track: With Le Mobile’s Sound Recording Legend Guy Charbonneau
de BOTTON – The Art of Connection: A Conversation with Alain de Botton
GUPTA – Suneptra Gupta – The Elements of Style: The Novelist and Biologist Discusses Metaphor and Science
HANDAL – Nathalie Handal – Love and Strange Horses
KHWAJA – Waqas Khwaja: What a Difference a Word Makes
MAURO: New World Monkeys: An Interview with Nancy Mauro
MORGANSing, Live, & Love Like You Mean It: An Interview with Bertha Morgan
MOSS – Practical Mystic–Robert Moss: On Book Families, Jung and How Dreams Can Save Your Soul
OGLINE – BEN FRANKLIN.COM: Author & Illustrator Tim Ogline explains why Ben Franklin would be a technology evangelist today
OLSEN – Greg Olsen – Reaching for the Stars: Scientist, Entrepreneur and Space Traveler
PALYA – Beata Palya – The Secret World of Songs
SCHIMMEL – Moonlight Science: A Conversation with Molecular Biologist and Entrepreneur, Paul Schimmel
SHORS – Journey into the Male & Female Brain: An Interview with Tracey Shors
von MOLTKE and SIMMS – Dorothy von Moltke and Cliff Simms: Why Independent Bookstores Matter, Part I
WARD – On the Rocks: Global Warming and the Rock and Fossil Record – An Interview with Peter Ward, Part One, and
On the Rocks: Global Warming and the Rock and Fossil Record – An Interview with Peter Ward, Part Two
WILKES – Labor of Love: An Interview With Architect Kevin Wilkes
LITERATURE – MEMOIR
LITERATURE – POETRY
LIVE FROM THE NYPL
Fountain of Curiosity: Paul Holdengraber on Attention, Tension and Stretching the Limits of Conversation at the New York Public Library
The New York Public Library at 100: From the Stacks to the Streets
Paul Holdengraber: The Afterlife of Conversation
That Email Changed My Life: Rolex Arts Initiative. Pulitzer Prize Winning Poet Tracy K. Smith Celebrates Rolex Arts Initiative
First Editions / Second Thoughts — Defending Writers: PEN and Christie’s Raise One Million Dollars to Support Freedom of Expression
ON AFRICA: May 4 to May 10 — Behind the Scenes with Director Jakab Orsos: Co-curated by Award-Winning Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Page is My Home: Giaconda Belli – Nicaraguan Poet, Writer and Public Intellectual
Georgian Writer David Dephy’s Second Skin
The Power of Conversation: David Grossman and Nadine Gordimer – The Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture
NEW FROM WILD RIVER BOOKS – Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines
Daring Collaborations: Rolex and LIVE from the NYPL at the New York Public Library
Wild River Books Announces the Stoutsburg Cemetery Project: The Untold Stories of an African American Burial Ground in New Jersey
Wild River Books: Surprise Encounters by Scott McVay
Wild River Review and Minerva’s Bed & Breakfast Presents – “BITTER” Writing in a Weekend: How to Write About the Things We Can’t Change
ALLEN – Quarks, Parks, and Science in Everyday Life: Filmmaker Chris Allen’s Documentary Where Art Meets Science in a Vacant Lot
HOLT – Rush Holt: An Interview with Rush Holt
MANN – Boundless Theater: An Interview with Emily Mann
Keeping Time: A Conversation with Historian James McPherson