Microbial Worlds: Art of the Microscopic

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I once read a book by a microbiologist who said he rarely told his students, and was even less forthcoming in casual conversation, about his view of the world. He says if we could see microscopically, we would observe a world seething – every surface pulsating with microbes. It is disquieting perspective. I understand his reticence.  But University of Alaska Fairbanks microbiologist Mary Beth Leigh, far from cloaking it, celebrates her vision collaboratively in art. Besides being a scientist, she also is a cellist and a dancer. She helped found a series called In a Time of Change that draws together other artists to depict the natural world around us, making the inaccessible or unseen aspects of science intriguing and inviting. The most recent project is Microbial Worlds and it opens this week at Alaska Pacific University’s galleries in Anchorage.  As you’ll hear, the ability to appreciate, let alone observe, the rich variety of life at very small scales is relatively recent in human history.

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This Friday, two researchers team up to talk about the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory in Utqiaġvik, or Barrow. The talk is sponsored by UAF’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute  Dave Norton studied tundra ecology at NARL, as it is known. And Hajo Eicken is Director of the International Arctic Research Center at UAF. Established in the late 1940s, over the years NARL played an important role as a platform for Arctic research. But as I learned when I talked to Norton, NARL also had strategic value in the Cold War between the former Soviet Union and the United States.

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Before it was a backdrop for geopolitics, the Arctic icecap drew the adventurous seeking to be the first to reach the North Pole. Many us grew up believing Robert Perry won that distinction, but as snow scientist and author Matthew Sturm tells us, the draw for fame and fortune led two men to tarnished claims.

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