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In the Region

Science Comes to Life in a Park Full of Surprises

Published: October 21, 2006


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CHILDREN scramble onto tree-trunk benches to play Mancala, an ancient African game of moving pebbles from one cup to the next. They are unaware that the carved table they are playing on is actually an experiment studying the molecular basis for the deterioration of stone by salt.

Elsewhere, visitors smack granite pillars with metal rods and listen for reverberating echoes (demonstrating music synthesis technology), or spin mirror-coated spirals (representing twisted strands of DNA).

These and other installations make up Quark Park, an oddball mix of outdoor sculpture garden and science museum currently in downtown Princeton. Situated behind Palmer Square, the temporary park contains 14 exhibits, each representing the collaborative efforts of a scientist, an artist and a landscape designer.

The idea was to make normally obscure science more accessible to the public by giving it a three-dimensional, artistic spin, then setting it in a previously vacant pocket park where shoppers, tourists and students could wend their way through a maze of paths to be surprised by sights, sounds and even smells.

Named after the subatomic particle, Quark Park is the brainchild of Peter Soderman, a Princeton garden artist, Kevin Wilkes, an architect from Belle Mead, and Alan Goodheart, a landscape architect, also from Princeton. The same trio created Writers Block, bringing together writers and architects to lend shape to authors’ words. That project, also temporary, in the same half-acre lot as Quark Park, won the 2004 National Honor Award from the New Jersey chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

That award, they said, made it easier to solicit donations from companies like Bristol Myers-Squibb and the Trillium Trading Corporation in Edison, while drawing in some of the area’s art and science superstars, including Shirley M. Tilghman, the molecular biologist who is president of Princeton University.

The project offered Ms. Tilghman the chance to see her field come to life — and help lay to rest some long-held notions about scientists and science.

“I sometimes worry a little bit about the public’s perception of scientists, that they’re different from other people, when they’re not,” Ms. Tilghman said. “This is a wonderful way to say there’s a dialogue between science and art, and there’s nothing dreary about it.”

The button and lighted strand sculpture meant to depict Ms. Tilghman’s interest in how smells are received by the nose was designed by Nancy Cohen, an artist from Jersey City. Ms. Cohen said it took several conversations with Ms. Tilghman and James Sturm, a professor of electrical engineering at Princeton, who helped with the lighting portion of the sculpture, to comprehend the science she was meant to depict.

“It was a challenge to understand it well enough to put a visual form to it,” Ms. Cohen said.

Quark Park is scheduled to be in place at least until Thanksgiving. Later the property’s owners plan to build condominiums on the site.

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