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Tongue-In-Cheek Museum Will Meld Science and Art

If Salvador Dali designed a science museum, it might look something like the plans for the Institute of Unknown Purpose, a surreal and playful pop-up institute that will blend science and art.

Imagined by a UC Davis physicist and a British “mad scientist,” the Institute of Unknown Purpose will feature exhibits and activities that explore mathematical and scientific discovery. “We hope to take people out of the everyday world and make them smile. I hope it will somehow be a little beacon of nuttiness,” said UC Davis physics professor James Crutchfield, a co-leader on the project. “At the same time, we want to inspire awe and wonder in science, particularly among audiences not otherwise engaged through mainstream museum or science center experiences.”

Crutchfield is interested in teasing out an individual’s intuitive sense of physics, which is a challenge for classroom teachers. No one has to memorize equations to catch a baseball — the movement comes naturally. But how can people develop their intuition for more complicated physics, like relativity or quantum mechanics? The usual approach is to learn the mathematics behind the physics, said Crutchfield, director of the UC Davis Complexity Sciences Center. “There’s a stage students get to where the mathematics drops away and they have this very visceral understanding of the physical concepts that the mathematics represents.”

The Institute of Unknown Purpose will test ideas for encouraging the public to deepen their physical intuition, Crutchfield said. “The idea of working with tools of unknown purpose — stuff no one has ever seen before — gets people to loosen up and think creatively,” Crutchfield said. “More seriously, discovery is an important thing that people do, and we want to provide an experience that uses the evolutionary inheritance that humans have for intuiting physics.”

Where art and science meet

The concept for the Institute of Unknown Purpose arose from a Keck Futures conference on revitalizing physical intuition, held in fall 2015 in Irvine, California, called “The Art and Science, Engineering, and Medicine Frontier Collaborations: Ideation, Translation and Realization.” The Keck Futures Initiative awarded a total of 11 grants to support interdisciplinary projects that were brainstormed at the meeting. Crutchfield, who has worked on projects in the intersection of art, design and science, and technologist Asa Calow, a hacker-in-residence at the Manchester Digital Laboratory (MadLab) in Manchester, U.K., received a $100,000 grant from the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) to create the Institute of Unknown Purpose.

“In today's intellectually turbulent times, it is more important than ever that artists, scientists, and technologists cast aside all reservations and dedicate themselves to plumbing the farthest reaches of man's role on earth,” Calow said. “It is my hope that the Institute of Unknown Purpose will act in this regard, in making a grand contribution to humanity's ongoing development.”

Both Calow and Crutchfield are “makers” — a cultural movement melding hackers and learning by doing, or do it yourself (DIY). Next month, a creative team of makers, artists and scientists will have its first planning meeting to develop the Institute’s exhibits and discuss future strategy and development. The meeting will start with a one-day Lego Serious Play workshop, and it is expected that part of the meeting will be dedicated to on-site rapid prototyping of new exhibits or activities.

“We hope to promote creative experimentation and play as key elements of scientific research,” Crutchfield said.

The first prototype installations for the Institute will be introduced at UC Davis in 2017. The MadLab in Manchester, U.K., will host the Institute in 2018.

Watch a documentary about the 2015 NAKFI Conference:

— Becky Oskin, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science

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