Tear down this wall !

February 15, 2006

Almost alone among the greatest of human endeavours, Science stands as the common ground, a great unifier of all that is there. And whenever I say this, most people counter that I overstate my case and I somehow underestimate the greatness of the other fields of human endeavour.

But, tell me one other field which is comparable to science
Which interweaves Mathematics and Philosophy, Empirical observations and Technology, along with simplicity and artistic elegance,
Which in one stroke of quantum mechanics relates deep questions about reality to Hilbert-spaces and fibre bundles to the diverse chemistry of the various elements we see around us, to Lasers and superconductors, to the semiconductor technologies that dominate the present technological landscape
Which in one stroke of electromagnetism connects the sensations that course through our nervous system to the strong magnetic fields of distant stars, to the deep ocean rocks which by their patterns of magnetisation tell you about the history of the ancient earth, to the faint starlight that cuts across the darkness with enormous speeds and comes to us traversing mind-boggling distances to decorate our night sky,
Which in one stroke of Evolution unifies the weird-looking monsters of the deep ocean to spiders and ants,to that little mushroom that grows by the roadside, to the food we eat, to that herds of bacteria that rushes into your nose as you breathe

Tell me one other field which relates them all like science does, and you will see me immediately retract my initial claim. Science has achieved something which no other thing had achieved before – and the irony of this whole success is how that achievement is virtually unknown and how people in general are so hesitant to acknowledge this success !

In the public discourse, where many a failure is paraded and applauded as great victories , oddly enough the real success of science is never acknowledged or even when it is acknowledged people are eager to follow it up with a long list of qualifiers – “Science is great, but you see there are other things in life that science doesnot cover you know…” Granted ! But, why this stepmotherly treatment to science alone ? Why don’t I hear with every appreciation of sports something similar ?

When is the last time you heard – ” This guy is a great batsman. But you know there are other things in life that cricket doesn’t cover you know… ” ?
Now,what would you think of a cricket commentator who adds such a sentence after every single appreciation ? You would think the commentator is insane ! But, that is precisely the way many people comment on science !

So, What indeed is the origin of this trend where it is not as fashionable to be a fan of science as to be a fan of some music ? Well, the reasons are not difficult to find. I can safely say that the blame almost completely lies on the scientists themselves. This “unfashionableness” of science in public discourse is the exact mirror image of “unfashionableness” of public discourse in science ! Majority of scientists look down upon popularisation of science – How else do you explain the general apathy towards popular lectures in many academic departments around the world ? How else do you explain the people who accuse some of the best popularisers of science of “playing to the gallery” or “selling science” ?

How else do you explain the looking down of the school teachers by the academic elite ? I think I can safely bet that when I or my fellow colleagues in physics think of what subfield to choose in physics, “physics education ” rarely crosses our minds. You know somehow to all of us, it is there somewhere down-under in our list and most of us even have a problem acknowledging it as a field.

Oh, mysterious indeed are the chains of fashion ! This only reminds me of those of us who would assert (based on fashion of course) the superiority of computer science over physics without knowing either ! To ensure that you don’t mistake me for somebody who decries blindly all that is fashionable, let me put on record this – I do understand that every fashion has a reason behind it, right or wrong ! And yes fashions simplify the world for us – creating for us a virtual reality cast in black and white which tries to mimic the colorful reality. But, what of those who should know better ? If scientists don’t respect science education who else would ? If scientists look down upon popularisation of science who else can attempt to increase the quality of science in public discourse ?

“But,..”- I can hear you counter ” Why should we attempt at all to increase the quality of science in public discourse ? ” Well, rather than me answering it directly I’ll just ask you to read the posts which triggered this post. Read what Carl Zimmer and PZ Myers have to say and especially read the comment section at PZ Myer’s Blog .

(Just so that you can follow the discussion over there – Carl Zimmer is the author of many popular science books related to biology and PZ Myers is a Bio-Prof. And presently biologists are fighting against a ridiculous attempt named “Intelligent Design(ID)” in the U.S. to undermine science and the scientific method in general and evolution theory in particular. It is in this context that Zimmers went to a screening of the movie titled “Flock of Dodos” related to this issue and Zimmer’s post is about his opinions on what was portrayed in it. And PZ Myers is commenting on Zimmer’s post. )

If you read them, you would hopefully realise that there is indeed a strong case to be made for scientists to come down from their ivory towers to addres the public. To quote Zimmers

The evening ended with a student in the back making the case that, like it or not, evolutionary biologists do work that has profound implications for people’s lives. “If I have to quote Spiderman,” he said, “it’s a great power you have. And with great power comes responsibility.”

Great responsibility indeed ! It is hightime that this prison-like wall that the science has erected around itself be brought down. I can understand fences for protection, after all I do understand the dangers of PR in science. But, when the caution to “not to play to the gallery” becomes a paranoia against the “masses”, it is time to cry out- “Oh Scientists ! Tear down this wall !”

Update(18th Feb, 2006) : The debate rages on ! Have a look at the continuing debate at Zimmer’s blog and PZ Myer’s reaction. Just read the points raised on comments- you would see some interesting arguments raised on either side. Indeed as one of the commetators at Zimmer’s Blog says

Carl, you should be particularly proud of your blog today. I think it really shows how valuable blogging can be.

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