Lost and Found 

A science symposium attempts to reconstruct dead species, languages and cultures.

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The Darwinian motto “survival of the fittest” seems to carry a correlative: In the march of living things ever onward and upward, whether toward the best-feathered nest or the sharpest SUV, history’s losers aren’t worth more than a few lines of patronizing obit. But a symposium at the University of Utah featuring three of the most original thinkers in widely divergent fields gives the lie to the line that the extinct isn’t worth examining. “Some Re-Assembly Required: Restoration and Human Production in Images, Words and Bones” is the university’s third annual Symposium on Science in Literature, including a live radio broadcast March 25 on NPR’s Science Friday.


Artist Rachel Berwick, an associate professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, brings the art installation “A Vanishing” to the Salt Lake Art Center as well as participating in panels. Five hundred fifty amber casts of passenger pigeons, a species extinguished in 1914, suspended on thin brass rods cast shadows of the past on gallery walls. Berwick explains, “It is one of the first species we were aware of our hand in causing its extinction. It’s a sobering thing, looking at our role in its demise.”


Canadian novelist Leslie Forbes is interested in how we restore the invisible—things whose presence we can’t observe in the ordinary sense, but can detect. “Each of my novels is a sort of cloud chamber for me,” she notes, “within which I try to detect who or what is to blame for the destructive collisions all around us, and what creative collisions of art and science we might substitute. They emphasize the need to constantly recollect the past, to retell it for a new audience, restore the past to the present and thus shed some light.”


Michael Novacek, Curator of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, notes that paleontologists are trying to recover lost worlds most tangibly through fossils. “Ninety-nine percent of all species that have ever lived are no longer with us. Trying to develop a sense of their world is an extraordinary journey,” Novacek said.


University of Utah English professor and symposium co-director Katharine Coles remarks, “Novacek’s work provides the intellectual satisfaction in puzzling out what the world was like long before our species emerged. It’s the perennial question of our place in the world and where we came from.”


Coles explains the importance of the theme: “Our culture is struggling to come to terms with the level of extinctions in this century, and how to use technology without bringing about our own extinction.” Novacek concurs, “Perhaps the most powerful lesson is that life is not a permanent fixture. The story of the rise and fall of biological empires is like that of political empires. Today’s lessons are especially poignant, as humans are affecting the global environment.” Novacek’s fossils may foretell our own future.


Indeed, all of them are interested in the pressing question of what is being lost on an ongoing basis, Coles discovered. Forbes’ work deals with the loss of diversity on a botanical level. Berwick deals with restoration from many viewpoints—from studying the coelacanth, a fish thought to be extinct before some were found alive, to the 17th-century explorer Humboldt, who discovered a parrot that survived the massacre of a South American tribe and passed on the tribe’s language. Berwick recreated the incident by teaching parrots the language for an installation, and Forbes’ radio play Humboldt’s Last Word will be read at the symposium.


Forbes maintains, “A conversation between these three [disciplines] will inevitably introduce a new grammar for communicating each one to a wider audience.” Coles adds, “Conversations are most interesting with people from different backgrounds talking across boundaries. We live in an age of increased specialization, when scholars in the same field, let alone between the arts and the sciences, often don’t converse with each other. This kind of conversation opens minds and makes new connections.”


SOME RE-ASSEMBLY REQUIRED March 24-26 University of Utah & Salt Lake Art Center NPR Science Friday broadcast March 25 Gould Auditorium 12:30 p.m. 581-7236

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