Academe in the Anthropocene
How scholars at Humboldt are encouraging us to rethink our relationship to nature, and one another
A large blue foot set against a surreal indigo background, a rotating purple cube, grey pillars—visitors to a digitized conference held in November at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin are bedazzled by an array of stimuli, which they can move with the click of a mouse. The irony that an event, called The Analog in the Digital Age, took place necessarily online was not lost on the organizers. But they decided to take advantage of the situation and to plumb and probe the question of what the shift online entails.
The experience was meant to be “delirious,” says Wolfgang Schaeffner, a professor of the history of science and media technologies at Humboldt-Universität, lead scientist of the interdisciplinary Humboldt Lab, and the event’s organizer. It was not intended to make up for the cancelation of the in-person event but rather to shed light on how our interactions have changed during the pandemic, to highlight advantages over problems.
The innovative response to a challenge is emblematic of the approach undertaken by the Humboldt Lab, a project based at Humboldt-Universität, one of Germany’s most respected public higher educational institutions. Situated at the Humboldt Forum, a Baroque architectural masterpiece recently rebuilt as a center for intellectual debate in Berlin, the Lab houses and makes available to the public dozens of scientific collections—including aural recordings from the start of the 20th century—and is a showcase for the university’s most exciting scholarly research. It also brings together the fruits of seven interdisciplinary clusters of excellence sited in different universities across Berlin, Humboldt among them. (Schaeffner’s cluster alone, called Matters of Activity, combines 100 researchers from 40 disciplines.)
Slated to open officially in January 2021, the Lab will act as a place of enquiry and debate for scholars and the public alike, taking both to a place far away from their comfort zones. Its founders hope to inspire the young, and to bring in doubters, those who feel excluded from public discourse, to contribute to discussions about the world and its future. With research and teaching as its twin pillars, Schaeffner says, “a third pillar could be knowledge exchange with society.”
The Humboldt Lab forms just one part of a broader long-term strategy called OPEN HUMBOLDT on which the university recently embarked as part of a commitment to foster dialog between science, society, art and culture. Sabine Kunst, who became president of Humboldt-Universität in 2016, says the multifaceted initiative will position the university to assume a leading role in contemporary discourse. “OPEN HUMBOLDT stands for a university that is explicitly open to social and cultural topics and actors,” she says. “By consciously engaging in a dialogue with society and culture, we qualify ourselves as a place for debate and listening. We will strengthen and promote the multidirectional and transdisciplinary dialogue at various locations and through interesting projects.”
Forging a dialogue between the sciences and the arts, between the scholarly world and the public one, builds on a long tradition at Humboldt. Established in 1810, it is named after two of Germany’s most renowned scholars and educators, Wilhelm von Humboldt, the university’s founder, and his brother Alexander—a scientist, explorer and polymath, who predicted space exploration and climate change. Believing in the importance of sharing knowledge he had obtained on his global travels, Alexander von Humboldt delivered a series of public lectures in 1828 drawing together his prescient ideas about astronomy, anatomy, mathematics, botany and other fields. He later published a book with the title, Cosmos, charting a complex vision of how the natural world and the human connect. “Everything is related to everything,” he asserted.
Following in Alexander von Humboldt footsteps, the Humboldt Lab’s first exhibit, “After Nature,” explores humankind’s impact on the environment. The exhibits study different aspects of anthropocene—the idea that human activities are affecting the world more than natural events—and reveals what we are losing. One display presents seashells from the 17th to 19th century, which were part of the “chambers of curiosities” that wealthy individuals would collect to demonstrate their sophistication. The variety of shells testifies to the ocean’s richness; while a commentary reminds (or informs) the viewer that rising temperatures and acidification of the sea are hindering the processes by which such shells are formed.
Another, “Apples from the Arnoldi Fruit Cabinet,” traces the study of “pomology”—the exploration of how the fruit is grown, which became popular in the 18th century, with illustrated books and wax models recording different species of the fruit. Apples were first cultivated in Kazakhstan more than 12,000 years ago, and although there are 20,000 species of apple, just 30 of them feature in commercial German markets, often transported long distances rather than locally grown. Modern apple farmers focus on taste and appearance, and the fruits contain fewer vitamins than those of the past.
One of the most striking exhibits in After Nature is the Orobates, a reconstructed robotic model of the orobates pabsti, a lizard-like early reptile that lived 300 million years ago. Led by John Nyakatura, a professor of comparative zoology, the team reimagined the movements of this early tetrapod by comparing its fossilized remains with modern-day salamanders and iguanas. Zoologists from Humboldt worked with robotics experts from Lausanne, Switzerland, to create a model of how the orobates would have walked—illuminating not just the conditions in which the animal lived but also how other creatures, like birds and mammals, evolved. The results were published in Nature in January last year.
“We try to understand how evolution unfolded, from animals like this, which was a very very very early ancestor of ourselves,” Nyakatura says of his work. “We derived from animals that looked like this at some point. It is interesting to trace this back, to study the mechanisms behind it, and so on, a preoccupation to scientists ever since Darwin.”
The growing threats facing the natural world have, ironically, brought an increased interest in his field, he adds. “In times of the anthropocene and human-induced change, of climate, of biodiversity, we need zoologists who are able to identify species, before they go extinct.”
Shared knowledge – and responsibility
In their aim of uncovering new ways of thinking, the projects at Humboldt Lab seek to improve how humans interact with the world around them. Underlying this goal is the idea that research needs to be more inclusive—that an awareness of the broader context in which certain products operate might have helped people avoid some of the pitfalls of the innovations and so-called improvements of modern life. For Professor Schaeffner, the car is one such invention, giving its owner warmth and comfort and an easy form of transport but unleashing untold environmental havoc in the process. “We have to change everything, fundamentally,” Schaeffner says. “And find a responsible way of exercising our intelligence.”
In his talk at the conference last week, Schaeffner described how design is finding new ways of using materials that build intuitively on natural structures, and seek a less harmful impact on the environment. In this model of design, items won’t just be used once and thrown away. “We have a problem with every artifact we use,” Schaeffner later tells me, holding up his plastic pen as an example. “This writing device seems to be very useful but … think [about how] billions of these elements are produced and transformed very fast into garbage.”
The answer to how this shift may be achieved is collaboration and interdisciplinary exchange, learning from those with different forms of knowledge rather than developing products in specialized but sometimes blinkered conditions. If the public are more involved in formulating questions for research, they are likely to feel an interest in its outcome, Schaeffner suggests. “Our idea is not only to look back in history, but also how to make better artifacts in the future,” he says. “In this it is good to ask everybody, to incorporate his or her fantasy, ideas and knowledge that prevents us from the worst ideas … [as] we realize too late.”
Forging fresh perspectives
Reaching the public, tapping into the broader social currents and connecting with skeptics is therefore central to the creators of the Humboldt Lab. Schaeffner and his colleagues hope it will help to create and strengthen a knowledge society, encourage people to rethink their assumptions, sparking conversations between researchers, artists and the public. In this view, truth is a process, which should be a shared endeavor, drawing people in and seeking out opposing perspectives. “Above all today when people get more and more angry about, ‘I have the truth, don’t tell me anything different,’” Schaeffner says, the challenge is, “How to transform this in a more intelligent and open way to make it possible also to include these people.”
Critically the Lab hopes to connect with young people. That’s why it has sought out new ways of showcasing the university’s work, looking beyond traditional formats to dynamic, interactive forms of communication, and gaming. Local schools may be asked to share ideas about how youngsters can take part. As Schaeffner puts it, “They are our future.”
When the Humboldt Lab opens, visitors will be invited to participate in formulating the questions for future exploration. Organizers will allow this feedback to guide the exhibition’s development. Meanwhile interactive designs will encourage audience engagement, forging a dialogue with the public. The pandemic lends some uncertainty to the nature of the launch – whether it will be virtual or physical – but this scholarly venture, described by project leader, Maria Ollesch, as possibly the most ambitious cultural project in Germany, is likely to hew to its original ambitious goals: To establish an ongoing dialogue with the public in an era of scepticism about science and the nature of expertise; to challenge preconceptions and invite debate; to solicit new ideas; and to seek solutions.
Even in its format, the exhibition will confront conventional wisdom. Viewers will be able to experience the show through the eyes of the objects themselves, looking out at those who look in. Fatigued as we may be by Zoom, the digital format means, “You can have experiences you will never have in physical meetings or through physical presence in the space,” Schaeffner observes. “This is how we want to show that it’s maybe not about complaining […] but to be aware of what is the advantage and what is the disadvantage.”
By obliging people to communicate virtually, the pandemic has laid stark the problems of the digital age, and compelled us to reflect on the role of digital communication in our lives, confronting its drawbacks in a way that we might not otherwise have done. The Humboldt Lab will urge its virtual visitors to mull such questions, while offering them access to new ways of seeing. “We developed this for the Humboldt Lab with the idea not to give you a second-best version,” says Schaeffner. “But so you have experiences you would never have in a physical meeting or presence.”