Window to the World
Douglas Zook views the world with the mind of a scientist and the soul of an artist. Zook, a professor of science education and global ecology, is passionate about nature, conservation, and symbiosis. He is also an avid photographer, and often integrates his own images into lectures as a tool to help students better understand and respect the natural world.
In 2010, Zook spent six months in Kraków, Poland, as a Fulbright Distinguished Scholar, teaching graduate students at Jagiellonian University—alma mater of Copernicus—and assisting colleagues at the university on an ecological restoration project, revitalizing soil contaminated with toxins left by the mining of heavy metals. “You can’t recover the ecosystem to the degree that you could turn it into a forest again,” says Zook, “but what you can do is prevent, for example, the water that falls on that soil from draining off and going into river systems and residential areas miles away and carrying those metals with it.”
“When I began to look at my photographs on my computer, I noticed that these particular images were in some cases more beautiful and intriguing than the actual objects that they were reflecting.” Douglas Zook
In his spare time, Zook roamed Kraków, taking pictures. He returned to the city this past spring, not only to continue to help in the research to restore damaged landscapes, but also to exhibit his photos at the university’s Auditorium Maximum, in a special event arranged by Jagiellonian University in collaboration with the city of Kraków.
Titled A Hidden Kraków Revealed, the exhibition’s 31 photographs have a painterly quality and offer a unique perspective in that they are all reflections off windows around the city. “When I began to look at my photographs on my computer, I noticed that these particular images were in some cases more beautiful and intriguing than the actual objects that they were reflecting,” says Zook, who was invited to exhibit his photos after showing them to the chief city councilor of Kraków. “The Old Town is uniquely surrounded by the extraordinary Planty Park, so there’s an intermix of trees and vegetation with gothic and Renaissance architecture. I showed the images to my global ecology class to help them appreciate that nature is prevalent even in urban environments, that it can be quite beautiful, and express itself in ways we often don’t even realize.”
Zook has also used the photos as a springboard for a scientific discussion on glass. “Buildings in Kraków are much older than buildings in Boston,” he says. “Buildings from the sixteenth century aren’t uncommon. So a lot of the glass, while not necessarily that old, goes back much further than glass windows in Boston.”
“The main component of glass is silicon dioxide,” he continues, “and older glass isn’t as refined and clean as newer glass. It has more metal particles, and as a result you get different reflective properties, which make the images off many Polish windows more dynamic.” The interplay between art and science translates to a larger scale, too. “Glass, which of course came from geological action within the Earth, allows us to see a different face of the planet at any given moment and space in time,” says Zook. “So these photos generate all kinds of questions.”
His fascination with “nature and plants and creatures” dates back to childhood, Zook says, but he did not consider science as a career until several years after he graduated from BU with a degree in communications. He returned to study biology, and became fascinated with symbiosis while taking a course with Lynn Margulis—a course he now teaches. “It was all about microbes and bacteria and fungi and algae and how they’re all interconnected and interdependent,” says Zook, who has a master’s and PhD in biology from Clark University. “It was eye-opening and intriguing, and I got involved in symbiosis to such a degree that I served as the president of the International Symbiosis Society for 10 years.”
For Zook, art and science have, metaphorically speaking, a symbiotic relationship. “Right now I’m in my home office looking at a beautiful maple tree,” he says. “It’s a simple tree, but it’s a glorious artistic expression. However, I can also get into the science behind the tree, and think about the amazing process of photosynthesis, for example. When you can make those kinds of connections, it opens many more doors. Or I suppose in my case, many more windows.”