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Science and the city, an intersection of intellect and ingenuity

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 25, 2011 - If you wonder why a Shakespeare expert might speak at a conference on cities on the same bill with sociologists, historians and philosophers, you wouldn't be alone.

That's just what the Shakespeare expert wanted to know.

"She really was very upset," remembered Karen Lucas, associate director of UMSL's Center for the Humanities, recalling an encounter from a presenter at the center's annual "What is a City?" event a few years ago. "She said 'I don't know why I'm here.'"

A few days later, she knew.

"After the conference, she went home and she wrote me an email that said, 'I just wanted to tell you that was the most exciting conference I've ever been to,'" remembered Lucas. "'I've always been to conferences of specialists in my particular area and I've never been to a conference where people were from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds. It gave me so many ideas.'"

Generating ideas is just the point when it comes to "What is a City?" a unique event now celebrating its 17th year at UMSL. This year's theme for the day and a half of presentations and Q & A sessions is "Science in the City." But the event, set to kick off at 9 a.m., Thursday, has tackled other subjects in previous incarnations. Earlier years have addressed such topics as parks and gardens; film, fiction and photography; social diversity and change; and cultural tourism. In 2010, participants looked at the role of food in city life.

The important part, said Lucas is the ethos, a multidisciplinary approach that covers a particular aspect of urban existence from various areas of study. This year's lineup will include sessions on everything from floodplain development to science education to environmental literacy.

"That's what happened to one speaker, but I think it also happens to a lot of audience members," Lucas said of the Shakespearean presenter who had been invited to talk about the Bard's plays being set in cities. "They come because they find one particular thing on the schedule and they think 'I want to hear about that.' But they find themselves sitting through the other talks and thinking 'I never thought I'd be interested in this but now I see how it relates to my other interests.'"

The idea was originally the brainchild of the late James Doyle, a chair of the university's philosophy department who became the center's first director. Lucas said Doyle was looking for a way to discuss the humanities as it pertains to urban life. The result was a morning-long confab on architecture. It proved popular and expanded to its present length dealing with a different subject each year.

"It was the Greek idea of the polis," said Dorothy Doyle, whose husband died in 2002. "A city is where intellects come together, and it's a creative, exciting place. He thought of the city as more than just politics and business and athletics."

Dorothy Doyle said it can be easy to neglect the cultural aspects that truly drive a city and make it memorable.

"When you think back on great cities, the ones you still remember, they all celebrated the arts and ideas, the fields that the humanities sponsor," said the University City resident. "That's what this conference has been about, to try and enlarge the notion of what cities have to offer and where you get creativity and genius. It comes from human beings living close together reacting to one another, getting their minds going."

Geoffrey Harpham, director of the North Carolina-based National Humanities Center, will be one of those minds. He'll be speaking on the unusual subject of "What the Humanities Can Tell Science That Science Could Never Have Figured Out on Its Own - and Vice Versa."

"It's a topic that a few people are thinking about intensively, but not a lot of people have thought about," he said.

Harpham said he's deeply interested in the interplay between the humanities and science but he knows of very few conferences like the UMSL event.

"It's unique in my experience, but I hope it's not unique in the world. It's obviously a crucial subject that people need to be thinking about seriously," he said. "The country is becoming more and more urbanized all the time."

Though some presenters like Harpham come from out of town, most are local. This year will feature speakers from Saint Louis University, the Missouri Botanical Garden and the St. Louis Zoo.

Diane Touliatos, director of the Center for the Humanities at UMSL, said she hopes the conference will encourage people to find out more about such local institutions and may be a method to further knowledge about the natural world.

"There is a deficiency in science literacy," said Touliatos, a curators' professor of music at UMSL. "If you look at how Missouri ranks among the states (in science education), we're 47th. In some schools, science labs are too costly so they are just doing the minimum, if anything. It's sad. It's very important that science be incorporated into anything you do."

Joe O'Connell said he'll certainly be attending this year. The manager of neighborhood planning for St. Louis County said he has enjoyed the opportunity in past years and is now looking forward to Thursday's opening session, "City Life: On Thinking of the City as an Artificial Organism."

"They take the discussions a lot deeper than those we would have at work," said O'Connell, himself a former presenter. "It's stimulating and gets you thinking about the county or city so you are looking at your own backyard a little differently."

There's also another big advantage, said O'Connell. There's no charge.

"In this day and age, working in a government setting they've slashed travel and conference attendee money," he said. "Here's one that's offered for free. I like to take advantage of it."

Writer Jane McClaren presented in 2010 on changing how America eats. Now living in North Carolina, the native St. Louisan said she found the experience rewarding.

"It's educated, informed people passionate about ideas coming together in a format that's accessible not only to the academics and experts, but also to the public," said McClaren, author of Honest Eating. "You've got a great mesh of ideas. I learned a ton and I'd written a book about food and our relationship to it."

Nancy Kranzberg, president of the center's board for the past dozen years, said that's precisely the point.

"I just think it's an exciting event that draws in people of diverse populations and ages to come together and really brainstorm," she said. "I think it gets people talking with friends, neighbors and other organizations they are involved in so that positive things can happen."

David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis.

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