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Mechanics of science - at temporary N.J. park

Joy E. Stocke

is editor of the online magazine Wild River Review

OK, I admit it: When the opportunity arose to write a series of interviews about a sculpture garden devoted to science, the name grabbed me: Quark Park.

What I didn't realize is that Quark Park is an ideal (if temporary) collaboration among science, art and civic groups.

I will also admit that I, like the vast majority of Americans, couldn't tell a quark from a quirk. (A quark is a particle that makes up neutrons and protons in an atom.) Still, I was captivated by the vision of Quark Park's creator, landscape gardener Peter Soderman.

"Imagine a vacant lot in the heart of Princeton, N.J.," said Soderman, "just a short walk from the Princeton University Campus: a lot strewn with weeds and debris that will soon be home to luxury condos.

"Now imagine," he added, "temporarily turning that space into a public garden. Only in this case a garden where people can walk through a hippocampus, the part of the brain that deals with memory; or beneath a sea of glass bubbles; or where they can pick up a hammer and strike a granite column to create their own acoustic symphony."

Beginning Saturday, and until the end of November, you can do just that. On a street named for actor, singer, and activist Paul Robeson, a team of 11 scientists - including professor of molecular biology and Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman; and Templeton Prize-winning mathematician and physicist Freeman Dyson - has worked with artists and sculptors to create an interactive outdoor classroom where you can taste, touch, and smell the mechanics of science.

According to the results of a 2003 Gallup Youth Survey, American teenagers say that math and science are their favorite subjects. And yet teenagers' math and science scores lag behind those of their peers in a majority of countries. When the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) gathered results for math and science scores, they found that 83 percent of 12th graders are not proficient in math, and 82 percent lack proficiency in science.

"Personally I believe it's critical for the American public not to alienate themselves from technology and science," says architect Kevin Wilkes, Soderman's partner in the construction of Quark Park.

"In order to be enlightened and aware citizens of the future, we are going to need to have a better knowledge of math, a better knowledge of physics, some rudimentary knowledge of chemistry," says Wilkes, "in all, a general comfort level with science and scientific knowledge so we can make informed decisions about public policy and private goals."

Soderman tends to a fence constructed of thriving 10-feet-tall stalks of corn near mechanical and aerospace engineer Naomi Leonard's installation, an examination of how robotic technology can mirror fish migratory patterns.

"Forty-nine percent of Americans think that oatmeal is a kind of wheat," he says.

If we confuse our grains when eating our breakfast cereal, how can a temporary urban garden devoted to science - of a kind that Soderman envisions replicated in communities throughout the country - enlighten us?

Glass artist Bob Kuster has one answer. "I brought my 7-year-old daughter to Quark Park when I was installing the glass bubbles and school of fish for Naomi Leonard," he says. "And what surprised me most was my daughter's comment that she hadn't realized how science wasn't just one subject, but many subjects."

Kuster's daughter's observation rang true for me, especially on a morning in August when George Scherer, professor of materials science demonstrated how stone can act like a sponge when water seeps into it, eventually flaking and splitting it until hundreds or thousands of years later, the stone finally disintegrates.

"Find a brownstone in any city," said Scherer, "and you can conduct your own scientific experiment. You'll see patches of stone that have worn away. If you run your finger over those patches, you can help Mother Nature along and create your own stone flakes."

I had seen this for myself when I lived in Center City, but I hadn't understood the science behind it. Nor could I have imagined that scientists like Scherer spend years creating compounds they apply to stone to stabilize it.

"We do our best," says Scherer, "But the greatest lesson we can learn is that nothing is permanent."

Amid all the scientific talk stands Peter Soderman's vision: a temporary garden brimming with corn, sunflowers, grasses, grapevines, and lavender. For two months, that eighth of an acre of public space will be devoted to science.

"It's as if the Franklin Institute opened a satellite gallery in Princeton, and a whole lot of artists were invited," said one local paper.

"Not just artists," says Soderman.

We're invited too, and he promises that long after the garden is gone, we'll remember what we learned.

Joy E. Stocke and the editorial team of the Wild River Review ( are publishing a series of interviews with the scientists, artists and landscapers who created Quark Park.

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