247 — June 24, 2008
IN THE NEWS
THE NEW YORKER
...And when we look at the wealth of opportunities hovering on the horizon — stem cells, genomic sequencing, personalized medicine, longevity research, nanoscience, brain-machine interface, quantum computers, space technology — we realize how crucial it is to cultivate a general public that can engage with scientific issues; there's simply no other way that as a society we will be prepared to make informed decisions on a range of issues that will shape the future. ...
Introduction by Marc D. Hauser
The Festival was terrific. Our session on "The Science of Morality" (Patricia Churchland, Daniel Dennett, Antonio Damasio, and myself) went very well, I thought. Having been to many of the European festivals, I am so glad you launched this. I ran a course last year at Harvard called "Consumable Science" that explored the causes of apathy re: science in the US, and discussed the different vehicles for getting science to the public. The World Science Festival is a great start, and I congratulate your co-founder Tracy Day and yourself.
I have one suggestion. Why call it the "World Science Festival"! It is the "New York Science Festival". Surely an inspiration for your event (as well as for my Harvard course) was Vittorio Bo's Genoa Science Festival, Rome Science Festival, Trieste..., etc. If the spread of festivals in Italy, from Genoa across the country, is any indication, how cool would it be if New York spread to Boston, to Chicago, LA??? Every city will (and should) want one. But calling the New York event the "World Science Festival" leaves Boston or Washington, or New Orleans with either no options, or with "World Science Festival 2".
But this is clearly a "small" issue in the context of a great event. And whether you continue to call it the "World Science Festival" or go with the "New York Science Festival", it's a world-class event all the way. Bravo!!
BRIAN GREENE, a professor of physics at Columbia, is the author of The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos, and the co-founder of the World Science Festival and Chairman, Science Festival Foundation.
PUT A LITTLE SCIENCE IN YOUR LIFE
A couple of years ago I received a letter from an American soldier in Iraq. The letter began by saying that, as we've all become painfully aware, serving on the front lines is physically exhausting and emotionally debilitating. But the reason for his writing was to tell me that in that hostile and lonely environment, a book I'd written had become a kind of lifeline. As the book is about science — one that traces physicists' search for nature's deepest laws — the soldier's letter might strike you as, well, odd.
But it's not. Rather, it speaks to the powerful role science can play in giving life context and meaning. At the same time, the soldier's letter emphasized something I've increasingly come to believe: our educational system fails to teach science in a way that allows students to integrate it into their lives.
Allow me a moment to explain.
When we consider the ubiquity of cellphones, iPods, personal computers and the Internet, it's easy to see how science (and the technology to which it leads) is woven into the fabric of our day-to-day activities. When we benefit from CT scanners, M.R.I. devices, pacemakers and arterial stents, we can immediately appreciate how science affects the quality of our lives. When we assess the state of the world, and identify looming challenges like climate change, global pandemics, security threats and diminishing resources, we don't hesitate in turning to science to gauge the problems and find solutions.
And when we look at the wealth of opportunities hovering on the horizon — stem cells, genomic sequencing, personalized medicine, longevity research, nanoscience, brain-machine interface, quantum computers, space technology — we realize how crucial it is to cultivate a general public that can engage with scientific issues; there's simply no other way that as a society we will be prepared to make informed decisions on a range of issues that will shape the future.
These are the standard — and enormously important — reasons many would give in explaining why science matters.
But here's the thing. The reason science really matters runs deeper still. Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that's precise, predictive and reliable — a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations — for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth — not because they are declared dogma but rather because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences.
As a practicing scientist, I know this from my own work and study. But I also know that you don't have to be a scientist for science to be transformative. I've seen children's eyes light up as I've told them about black holes and the Big Bang. I've spoken with high school dropouts who've stumbled on popular science books about the human genome project, and then returned to school with newfound purpose. And in that letter from Iraq, the soldier told me how learning about relativity and quantum physics in the dusty and dangerous environs of greater Baghdad kept him going because it revealed a deeper reality of which we're all a part.
It's striking that science is still widely viewed as merely a subject one studies in the classroom or an isolated body of largely esoteric knowledge that sometimes shows up in the “real” world in the form of technological or medical advances. In reality, science is a language of hope and inspiration, providing discoveries that fire the imagination and instill a sense of connection to our lives and our world.
If science isn't your strong suit — and for many it's not — this side of science is something you may have rarely if ever experienced. I've spoken with so many people over the years whose encounters with science in school left them thinking of it as cold, distant and intimidating. They happily use the innovations that science makes possible, but feel that the science itself is just not relevant to their lives. What a shame.
Like a life without music, art or literature, a life without science is bereft of something that gives experience a rich and otherwise inaccessible dimension.
It's one thing to go outside on a crisp, clear night and marvel at a sky full of stars. It's another to marvel not only at the spectacle but to recognize that those stars are the result of exceedingly ordered conditions 13.7 billion years ago at the moment of the Big Bang. It's another still to understand how those stars act as nuclear furnaces that supply the universe with carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, the raw material of life as we know it.
And it's yet another level of experience to realize that those stars account for less than 4 percent of what's out there — the rest being of an unknown composition, so-called dark matter and energy, which researchers are now vigorously trying to divine.
As every parent knows, children begin life as uninhibited, unabashed explorers of the unknown. From the time we can walk and talk, we want to know what things are and how they work — we begin life as little scientists. But most of us quickly lose our intrinsic scientific passion. And it's a profound loss.
A great many studies have focused on this problem, identifying important opportunities for improving science education. Recommendations have ranged from increasing the level of training for science teachers to curriculum reforms.
But most of these studies (and their suggestions) avoid an overarching systemic issue: in teaching our students, we continually fail to activate rich opportunities for revealing the breathtaking vistas opened up by science, and instead focus on the need to gain competency with science's underlying technical details.
In fact, many students I've spoken to have little sense of the big questions those technical details collectively try to answer: Where did the universe come from? How did life originate? How does the brain give rise to consciousness? Like a music curriculum that requires its students to practice scales while rarely if ever inspiring them by playing the great masterpieces, this way of teaching science squanders the chance to make students sit up in their chairs and say, “Wow, that's science?”
In physics, just to give a sense of the raw material that's available to be leveraged, the most revolutionary of advances have happened in the last 100 years — special relativity, general relativity, quantum mechanics — a symphony of discoveries that changed our conception of reality. More recently, the last 10 years have witnessed an upheaval in our understanding of the universe's composition, yielding a wholly new prediction for what the cosmos will be like in the far future.
These are paradigm-shaking developments. But rare is the high school class, and rarer still is the middle school class, in which these breakthroughs are introduced. It's much the same story in classes for biology, chemistry and mathematics.
At the root of this pedagogical approach is a firm belief in the vertical nature of science: you must master A before moving on to B. When A happened a few hundred years ago, it's a long climb to the modern era. Certainly, when it comes to teaching the technicalities — solving this equation, balancing that reaction, grasping the discrete parts of the cell — the verticality of science is unassailable.
But science is so much more than its technical details. And with careful attention to presentation, cutting-edge insights and discoveries can be clearly and faithfully communicated to students independent of those details; in fact, those insights and discoveries are precisely the ones that can drive a young student to want to learn the details. We rob science education of life when we focus solely on results and seek to train students to solve problems and recite facts without a commensurate emphasis on transporting them out beyond the stars.
Science is the greatest of all adventure stories, one that's been unfolding for thousands of years as we have sought to understand ourselves and our surroundings. Science needs to be taught to the young and communicated to the mature in a manner that captures this drama. We must embark on a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living.
It's the birthright of every child, it's a necessity for every adult, to look out on the world, as the soldier in Iraq did, and see that the wonder of the cosmos transcends everything that divides us.
[First published as an OpEd piece by The New York Times, June 1, 2008]
ANNALS OF TECHNOLOGY
...Roger Schank was a twenty-two-year-old graduate student when "2001" was released. He came toward the end of what today appears to have been a golden era of programmer-philosophers-men like Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert, who, in establishing the field of artificial intelligence, inspired researchers to create machines with human intelligence. Schank has spent his career trying to make computers simulate human memory and learning. When he was young, he was certain that a conversational computer would eventually be invented. Today, he's less sure. What changed his thinking? Two things, Schank told me: "One was realizing that a lot of human speech is just chatting." Computers proved to be very good at tasks that humans find difficult, like calculating large sum quickly and beating grand masters at chess, but they were wretched at this, one of the simplest of human activities. The other reason, as Schank explained, was that "we just didn't know how complicated speech was until we tried to model it." Just as sending men to the moon yielded many fundamental insights into the nature of space, so the problem of making conversational machines has taught scientists a great deal about how we hear and speak. As the Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker wrote to me, "The consensus a far as I have experienced it among A.I. researchers is that natural-language processing is extraordinarily difficult, as it could involve the entirety of a person's knowledge, which of course is extraordinarily difficult to model on a computer." After fifty years of research, we aren't even close. ...
Steven Pinker: The evolutionary man
Few academics come close to Steven Pinker in his grasp of image and imagery. With his trademark rock-star chic and an ear for a good soundbite, he has risen steadily to the top of the academic pile. In the heavily contested field of evolutionary psychology, Pinker has managed to consistently make sure that his voice is heard above most others, and along the way he has landed one of the top jobs at Harvard, while his books are usually to be found on the bestseller lists. And yet there is a twist. For a man who has dedicated a career to unpicking the secrets of language and thought, he has surprisingly often failed to make himself entirely clear to others. Either that, or he's a person whom some people choose to misunderstand.
Pinker treats his books, for which he is best known by the general public, as an intellectual and artistic licence, a medium that allows him to explore ideas with a freedom not allowed in peer-reviewed journals. So assertion and fact sometimes get conflated out of a desire to get the message across clearly. Yet the truth is that Pinker is nowhere near as confidently dogmatic as he can appear. Rather than trading in certainties, Pinker's real currency is the far less sexy one of statistical probability. ...
THE REALITY TESTS
By Joshua Roebke
In 1908 Karl Kupelwieser, Ludwig Wittgenstein's uncle, donated the money to construct this building and turn Austria- Hungary into the principal destination for the study of radium. Above the doorway the edifice still bears the name of this founding purpose. But since 2005 this has been home of the Institut für Quantenoptik und Quanteninformation (IQOQI, pronounced "ee-ko-kee"), a center devoted to the foundations of quantum mechanics. The IQOQI, which includes a sister facility to the southwest in the valley town of Innsbruck, was initially realized in 2003 at the behest of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. However, the institute's conception several years earlier was predominantly due to one man: Anton Zeilinger. This past January, Zeilinger became the first ever recipient of the Isaac Newton Medal for his pioneering contributions to physics as the head of one of the most successful quantum optics groups in the world. Over the past two decades, he and his colleagues have done as much as anyone else to test quantum mechanics. And since its inception more than 80 years ago, quantum mechanics has possibly weathered more scrutiny than any theory ever devised. Quantum mechanics appears correct, and now Zeilinger and his group have started experimenting with what the theory means. ...
Gordon Brown has been reading Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody, currently the book of the moment among webheads and new media obsessives. At the heart of Shirky's argument about the future of social organisation is the mantra "promise, tool, bargain". Make a plausible promise, find the appropriate tool, and then deliver a bargain to your customer, group member or voter: establish trust, in other words, and nurture it relentlessly.
Easier said than done in modern Government. Beneath Wednesday's knife-edge vote on the proposal to extend the detention limit for terror suspects to 42 days lies a profound crisis, and one that will long outlast this particular administration and this particular Prime Minister. As the Counter-Terrorism Bill reaches its report stage, the Commons is being asked to support the extended limit, not on the basis of evidence, but on the basis of informed prediction and an assessment of where the trajectory of events is heading. ...
Signal distortion; Caroline A. Jones on David Joselit's Feedback: Television Against Democracy [Free Registration Required]
...And this points to what I like best about Feedback: Joselit's restoration of art history and the related disciplines of design, art training, and advertising as the missing links in the evolution of our mediatized present; as well as his presentation of art history as itself a productive tool for the analysis of image systems. Abbie Hoffman's Yippie activism, for example, turns out to have always already had formalism's tools in its kit. Joselit reminds us that in Revolution for the Hell of It (1968), Hoffman wrote: "The commercial is information. The program is rhetoric. The commercial is the figure. The program is the ground.... It's only when you establish a figure-ground relationship [that] you can convey information. It is the only perceptual dynamic that involves the spectator." (Although Joselit doesn't go into it, Hoffman's access to formalism's concepts was probably conveyed by postwar art-historical pedagogy, taught via Swiss art historian Heinrich Wolfflin in order to conceal--as Clement Greenberg's followers were successfully doing--its more proximate past in the tactics and analytics of the revolutionary Russians.)
Feedback thus gives us a novel way to map the figures of postwar media art, and entirely new comparatives (not only Hoffman, but Melvin Van Peebles; not only Andy Warhol, but John Brockman). It's a compelling account, especially when coupled with Joselit's terse concluding "Manifesto," which makes the foregoing book itself a kind of historical ground for the present-day figure of activism the author wants to instill. The manifesto is a summons to "artists and art historians alike" to mount a viral activism that might be mobilized against the creepy US imagescape of banner patriotism loaded up behind Animal Farm talking heads. The cryptic signals of "viruses," "avatars," and "feedback" are here used explicitly to call for contemporary modes of activism: How will your "viral" images build publics? How will you deploy icons of personal identity--avatars--strategically? How can your noise become systemic? ...
The use of 'dignity' as the foundation for an ethical law in Switzerland is compromising research.
Although pondering the dignity of dandelions is downright silly, the underlying problem with the Swiss law is that it allows rules to be built on the foundation of a notoriously subjective concept. In March, the US President's Council on Bioethics produced a collection of 28 essays on the dignity of human life and proved unable to come to a consensus. The essays offer statements on the concept that are often contradictory: dignity is earned, but it is also shared by all in full measure. Dignity cannot be taken away — yet it can and has been in cases of slavery. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker wrote a powerful critique of the panel's efforts in the 28 May issue of The New Republic, arguing that 'dignity' has been widely misused to mean whatever conservative bioethicists want it to mean.
Gloria Origgi on why a second language is the best antidote to intolerance
I believe that European multilingualism will help produce a new generation of children whose tolerance of diverse cultures will be built from within, not learned as a social norm.
Are You Optimistic About?:
"The optimistic visions seem not just wonderful but plausible." Wall Street Journal "Persuasively upbeat." O, The Oprah Magazine "Our greatest minds provide nutshell insights on how science will help forge a better world ahead." Seed "Uplifting...an enthralling book." The Mail on Sunday
Is Your Dangerous Idea?:
"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant bok: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London) "A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald "Provocative" The Independent "Challenging notions put forward by some of the world’s sharpest minds" Sunday Times "A titillating compilation" The Guardian "Reads like an intriguing dinner party conversation among great minds in science" Discover
We Believe but Cannot Prove:
"An unprecedented roster of brilliant minds, the sum of which is nothing short of an oracle — a book ro be dog-eared and debated." Seed "Scientific pipedreams at their very best." The Guardian "Makes for some astounding reading." Boston Globe Fantastically stimulating...It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world.... Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." BBC Radio 4 "Intellectual and creative magnificence" The Skeptical Inquirer