The artist and the physicist meet up to discuss science as a public enterprise.

Neither theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss nor artist Natalie Jeremijenko can be easily categorized. Krauss’ deep commitment to public understanding of science advocates for the role of the scientist in the cultural and political landscape. Jeremijenko’s scientifically informed, socially conscious art asks who is, and isn’t, participating in science. Seed recently invited them to Butter restaurant in NYC to discuss how their views on science as a public enterprise might compare: How do they each define progress? Who do they feel is responsible for science? And what, exactly, is “thinking like a scientist?”

Click on the image to watch highlights from the Salon. Click here to watch the full conversation.

NATALIE JEREMIJENKO: So, I know you wrote a book called The Physics of Star Trek, and I wanted to ask you about it.

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Yeah, sure.

NJ: Because when I came to the States and was working at Xerox PARC there was a language that I didn’t speak. Even though I was fluent in Fortran and Pascal and C++, I couldn’t speak “Star Trek.”

LK: Right—ha.

NJ: I didn’t know what these people were talking about.

LK: Yeah.

NJ: When it came to a lingua franca for the entire lab, between computer science and the languages lab and the CSCW lab and so on, the point of reference that everyone shared was, “Oh, like they did in Star Trek.” So I literally crammed when I got there, borrowed all the DVDs to try and catch up so I would know what the hell they were talking about, what a transporter was.

LK: You didn’t see it in Australia?

NJ: Well, I suppose there were Trekkies there.

LK: It’s big there. I’ve discovered that. It’s Trekker, not Trekkie though. I had to learn that. Actually I had a similar experience in some sense. And you hit on my motivation for writing the book, which is that a lot of people didn’t—and don’t—find physics interesting, but they found Star Trek fascinating. I’ve been involved in teaching and writing for a while, and I often tell teachers—though I think it’s true for anyone: teachers, car salesmen, artists—that the biggest mistake they make is to assume people are interested in what they have to say. You have to think of a way therefore, as I put it, to “seduce” them into thinking about what you have to say. The Star Trek universe was a way to seduce readers into thinking about the real universe, which I happen to think is much more interesting than the Star Trek version. But I had no idea myself, at the time, how deeply it was ingrained in the consciousness, not just of Americans, but of Australians now, and Canadians. And I had to cram, too. I was terrified of alienating 20 million Star Trek fans, maybe more. The interesting thing about it was I assumed that it was mostly 14-year-old boys, but what I discovered was the show was intergenerational, it was gender nonspecific, and, at least in my experience, there were not only doctors, but also lawyers and people from all persuasions that were into it.

NJ: Right, yeah.

LK: And then I started thinking about why and, you know, very often science fiction presents a dystopic view of the future, where science is bad and scary. And one of the things about Star Trek—and it’s one of the reasons I think it was so popular—is that it’s based on this notion, which may or may not be true, that science cannot only make the world a better place, but it can make people more civil and understanding; it can civilize us. And what a weird view of the future, that science can actually do that. I don’t know if that vision isn’t the most unrealistic thing about the show in some sense. I think science should civilize people. Has it civilized people? That’s not clear to me at all. But that’s one of the reasons why engineers and scientists are so drawn to Star Trek I think. Because science, in some way or another, is the hero.

NJ: Well, there’s clearly the idea that science and technology can transform society, or do. But popularly, we mistake technological transformation for social transformation. So we recognize social change through concrete technological change. In a movie, we can recognize the year the car was made, or whether they’re using cell phones or transporters.

LK: Yes—ha.

NJ: But actually I studied it very hard to figure out what was appealing, because it was this ubiquitous reference, but when I watched it, it seemed like a reasonably fascist, militarized society, right? They go on these colonizing journeys to dominate other planets. The characters were either imprisoned in the Enterprise or in some barren landscape, usually under attack, and with no cultural exchange, no trading of knowledge, no fun. Everything was very austere, and nylon. And yet it was intriguing, it had to do with the possibilities; what you could do with scientific knowledge. So that’s what I found interesting, that these scenarios developed by science fiction are actually often profoundly socially conservative. Social change doesn’t cause, or drive, the technological change. It doesn’t even inspire it. But it’s there.

LK: Right, yeah, society isn’t reimagined in quite the same way as the science, or technology, is.

NJ: But it brings up the question of what the cultural role of scientists is, and whether science can provide a hopeful view of the future, or participate in reimagining society. At PARC they often quoted Alan Kay that the best way to predict the future is to invent it, and we thought we were doing that.

PER-PER-PERSUADE ME TONIGHT

LK: So do you think that scientists need translation devices to function within their own environment?

NJ: Yes, I think so.

LK: To talk to each other? Or also to translate what they’re doing to themselves?

NJ: Both I think, and to translate between disciplines. Joan Fujimura wrote a great book on how the molecular biology department was created at Berkeley. Organic chemistry and biology spoke totally different languages. They had no way to translate between the atomic spins and the biological phenomena that they were dealing with. And her claim was that it was the lab techniques that became the translation device for figuring out what techniques could represent something else, around which they could say, “Well, we would call this this, and you would call that that.”

Lawrence Krauss Credit: Julian Dufort

LK: It’s interesting. The boundaries have already vanished a lot between physics and chemistry but they’re really going to vanish between physics and biology, in the sense that biologists have been using the techniques of physics a lot. I remember when I was a graduate student and I got depressed, which I often did when I was a graduate student, and I wanted to quit physics. And I thought of going to do a PhD/MD program in Boston, and I remember speaking to a man who was chair of a biology department at Harvard and he said, no, don’t do biophysics, because that’s a field that’s not of interest to either biologists or physicists. And that was probably true in the late 1970s, early 80s, but it’s different now. And the reason, I think, this idea of translation devices is interesting is because we have these disciplinary departments that don’t reflect the emerging research, which is cross-disciplinary. It’s not just the techniques of physics that are being used in biology, the biological systems themselves are becoming interesting to physicists. Molecular motors are now interesting. Questions are emerging like, are there new physical systems in biology that you can study as a physicist? Are there new laws that guide how those are either created or function that don’t exist in nonbiological systems? And so the techniques are the same, but the questions are new. Still, it is extremely difficult to translate. You have to find techniques to explain to yourself, as a scientist, and to your colleagues what you’re doing and why it’s interesting. Again, I think it comes back to this idea of seducing.

NJ: You’re really into seduction.

LK: Yeah, well, because I think, for better or worse, it describes a lot of what we do in our lives, right?

NJ: That’s a very romantic view, I think.

LK: Isn’t it the same thing that you’ve called “strategies of persuasion?”

NJ: Yeah, I suppose, but without the innuendo.

LK: Well, yeah. You’re right. But persuasion, if it’s effective, is really seduction, right? Because when you’re persuading someone, what you’re really doing is convincing them to think what you want them to think, but to be happy about it—instead of forcing them.

NJ: Well, you’re right. So let’s agree, it’s a persuasive
strategy.

LK: OK, I’ll call it persuasive strategy, but I’ll have to get used to that. But I think this happens within a field as well. I remember, I was on a visiting committee at MIT, and these students tend to think they’re going to be successful because they’re good at what they’re doing. But in fact, a large barometer of their success will be how well they can communicate what they’re doing. Not just to the outside public, which most scientists don’t necessarily have to do—though I think that’s important, too—but within the field, or to your company. It isn’t just what you do, it’s often how you present it. And, traditionally, we’ve spent very little time educating our students on how to communicate. So strategies of persuasion, I think, are vitally important within the field. But—and I should be very clear about this—while I understand science as a sociological phenomena, I do believe in objective reality and I do believe that, ultimately, important science wins out in spite of the social constructs and the social or peer pressures to do certain things. So I think that ultimately people realize what’s truly significant and recognize it, even if it takes a little bit longer because it’s not presented well. I don’t think it’s all persuasion.

NJ: Professionally, you have to believe that.

LK: Maybe. But no, I think that’s what makes science special. As a scientist and someone who tries, for better or worse, to extol the virtues of science in a society that doesn’t appreciate many of those virtues, I think that ultimately the good stuff wins out even if it takes a while to do it. Because the final arbiter of success isn’t people. In science, it’s experiments. It’s the ability to make it work. If it works, then people buy into it, whether they like it or not. And I really think that’s profoundly important. That, and the oft-misunderstood fact that science doesn’t prove things to be true. Science only proves things to be false. That’s all it does. But that alone is something that doesn’t happen in almost any other area of human activity. The fact that you can say, “That’s garbage, don’t talk about it any more.” The earth isn’t flat. We don’t need to have critical thinking classes to debate or discuss it. You just go around it, end of story. And the ability to throw out ideas that aren’t productive is, to me, what makes science unique and what allows for progress. You don’t have to keep wasting your time on the wrong things, because the wrong things are obvious. The right things may not be obvious, but the wrong things should be. And if I could just convince people of that, I think it would go a long way to getting people to have a perspective of science that is useful.

NJ: It’s interesting that you would immediately see me as a relativist, which is fine.

LK: Well, I don’t know, but I was kind of hoping that I could provoke that.

NJ: Well, I’ll string you along, because it’s easy to say that science has this experimental evidence and that the messy, real-world, technosocial kind of stuff—political reality, the world we live in, how we actually know whether a technology is good or not—

LK: —when you say good, what do you mean?

NJ: Well, that’s just it. How do we know, right?

LK: We know whether it works or not, but whether it’s good or not, is a totally different question.

NJ: Exactly. It’s a messy, hard question that’s hard to do an experiment on.

LK: That’s why I don’t do things that are so messy. The universe just works, whether it’s good or not.

NJ: To take scientific knowledge production and methodologies, science itself, and hold them outside of society—the messy, icky world that doesn’t apply—is, I think, the big tragedy. And certainly, I’m not going to claim that nothing is real, everything’s constructed. But, if we understand our scientific and technical knowledge as constructed within these social constraints, I think we can do better science, better technology, and have better ways to get at what we mean by something being good or being progressive, without saying, “OK, scientists know how to tell us the answer on this, and everyone else can shut up.”

LK: Well, that certainly is wrong. I agree with much of what you said, but there’s one thing I guess I disagree with: I think when it comes to technology and society, you’re absolutely right, but I’m not convinced it would help scientists do better science. And of course our perspectives on science are different, because your experience is, I don’t know whether to use the words “more applied,” but it is. And these are emotionally charged words, “fundamental” and “applied.” But I think a scientist does their best science when they’re not concentrating on anything else. I’ve always been sort of a political animal and worried about science in society, and young people ask me, “How can I get involved and what can I do?” And I usually tell them that if they’re any good as scientists, the best thing they can be doing is science, and that as they produce science, the opportunities for them to speak out and to impact on other issues will increase and then they should take advantage of those opportunities. But science, in my mind and from my experience, is best done when you’re not thinking about anything else other than the problem you’re trying to solve.

KILL YOUR DARLINGS, WITH SCIENCE

NJ: So how do you ultimately answer the question that kids came to you with: “How do I participate?” Because the fact is, when it comes to scientific knowledge production, most people don’t know how to participate.

LK: Yeah, exactly. That’s true.

NJ: And in a participatory democracy this is, I think, the interesting question: How do I participate? How does what I say count in any way? How does my contribution have any value whatsoever? And a consumption-based society, where you’re just the dollars you spend, doesn’t give you the sense that you have a unique intelligence that you can bring to bear in understanding or contributing to knowledge production, right? And if I would characterize where we are now, with respect to the ways that we have educated and recruited scientists and the way we do science, it is to privilege what are effectively these royal societies and these internal conversations about science.

LK: It’s a privilege, absolutely.

NJ: But that’s changing. And we’re facing an opportunity to structure participation.

LK: Do you think it’s possible for everyone to contribute to the generation of knowledge? I don’t know if that’s realistic.

NJ: I think so, yes.

LK: Well, I mean, as part of experiments, perhaps.

NJ: Well, OK, let’s give a few concrete examples. There’s globe.gov.

LK: Or SETI@home.

NJ: Or folding@home for protein folding.

LK: But those are largely, I have to say, illusory.

NJ: Exactly. They create this wide, easy venue for contribution where you can donate your spare processor cycles to this larger scientific endeavor. It’s like paying a membership to the Sierra Club or joining the Natural History Museum. You’ve done something and you’ve contributed something, but you haven’t contributed anything that has required your particular, personalized input.

LK: It wasn’t generated from you.

NJ: Right. And so, NSF, the Globe Project, and SETI@home, I think these are not the paradigms of how we can structure participation productively.

LK: Oh, I agree with you.

NJ: So to characterize my own efforts to explore how we can, for example, I started these blogservatories for the One Tree Project.

LK: Yeah, which I was reading about.

Natalie Jeremijenko Credit: Julian Dufort

NJ: Right, we planted 1,000 cloned trees around the San Francisco Bay Area. I put them in public spaces because now anyone can ask questions and blog on behalf of the trees—each of the trees has their own blog. “I saw a bird in there,” “I watered it today,” and so on. So because it’s outside the controlled context of the lab, people can contribute speculations on why the trees look different, and what’s causing that. On the ground, the climatic conditions that are producing such incredible variation in these trees is far too complex for any one person, or any one discipline, to understand. Yet if we draw from the diverse speculations and observations and weird ideas of everyone, I think we have stochastically a much better chance of getting somewhere.

LK: OK, yeah. I think it’s a great thing, but are they really making a vital contribution to the progress of science? Or are they having the experience of learning, of becoming aware of the practice of science? I happen to think science and the arts are the same in many ways in that, at their best, they force us to reexamine our place in the cosmos and reassess our role, where we’re coming from. That’s more important than the technology in the end, for me. So, this project
may be forcing people to do that. Realizing that the trees’ variation is extremely great, regardless of the fact that they’re cloned, or realizing that science is based on lots of individual bits of data and adds up, you don’t always know where it’s going. All of those things are great. One of the ways to get people to participate in science, is to get them thinking like a scientist. If I can induce people to think like a scientist in one context, then their approach to problems in other contexts may be better. So for me, participating in science is not participating in the progress of research. Which I think, realistically, is restricted to those people who are doing it on a professional basis. Einstein was a patent clerk, but he was also an educated person who was vitally involved in what was going on. Unfortunately, he still created this unrealistic notion that anyone can make a breakthrough. It’s increasingly unlikely for that to be the case. But, I think what anyone can do, is have the experience of science, and therefore be a part of the scientific process, which is vital to our society. And it seems to me that’s what you’re really giving them—an experience of science.

NJ: Right, because if you asked the National Science Foundation and the Globe Project, “What is thinking like a scientist?” they would tell you in their kind of pedagogical outreach exercises, it’s kids going around and collecting the temperature and the precipitation rate. Basically doing cheap labor, cheaper than graduate students.

LK: And it doesn’t seem to be creative in any way.

NJ: Right, and kids hate it. It may as well be market research, right? They fill out their little surveys, they hand it in. I would argue that’s not thinking like a scientist.

LK: Right. As to what is, I think the key experience—and I wish every single student would have it—is to have some cherished notion that you absolutely believe to be true proved false. That’s the experience of science that I think is the most beneficial and most characteristic of the greatest and most important advances in science. It opens your mind tremendously. We assume these realities about the world, and the progress of science is often associated with taking those realities and showing that they’re wrong. Something you thought was so wonderful and beautiful and deeply ingrained in your being, chuck it out like yesterday’s newspaper. And if you’re able to do that, then you’re really doing science.

NJ: Right, and that’s not at all a part of what the NSF is now funding. Thousands of school kids are now out there “Participating in Real Science,” as the tagline says. Yet they’re not allowed to ask interesting questions. They’re not speculating on why a bird is landing in this tree, and not that tree. They’re not figuring out why they’re unique. And they’re not being questioned. That’s a privileged stance when knowledge is organized around experts, and one that undermines the capacity of people to be able to draw on material to form an opinion on their own.

For example, there’s not a person who hasn’t heard about global warming, right? They’ve all seen An Inconvenient Truth, and moreover, 30 years of environmental activism and work by scientists, activists, lobbyists, and other people have rendered environmental issues global enough to be newsworthy.

LK: Yeah, although people still don’t have any perspective on what the real issues of global warming are.

NJ: Exactly. And what I find interesting is that there’s now this general, global anxiety without the capacity of translating it into anything local and actionable in any way.

LK: True. Yeah, interesting. Especially a big problem like that—it seems like it almost paralyzes people because there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do. And when you talk about buying carbon credits or whatever, it just seems so artificial.

NJ: And what we’ve missed is the idea that science is not the singular expertise. There are lots of interesting ways of asking questions, drawing on material evidence, finding ways to iterate between things we try out. “Well, this theory is still explaining this, we can try it out again.” Or, “This theory has collapsed,” etcetera. There are ways to build a dialogue with the material world, which is the stance of physicists that I like. There are many stances of physicists that I don’t like.

LK: I’d like to hear about those. But I agree, that’s a part that I like. You’re constantly in dialogue.

NJ: But it comes back to the question of who participates and how. How can individuals, without a master’s or PhD in environmental science or boundary layer physics, and without having published a peer-reviewed paper, have access to material evidence, or permission to ask questions and to draw on the facts? That’s where, in the cultural world, science has a monopoly on material evidence.

LK: That’s interesting, I haven’t thought of it that way. In some sense, you’re saying art, to the extent that you call it art—I don’t know whether you want to call it that—gives people an opportunity to experience science that the traditional scientific methodologies and sociology may not. Through art, you can get people to participate in what you would say is a scientific experience. Would you say, to some extent, that’s what you’re trying to do?

NJ: To draw on material forms of evidence, like physicists do. To actually test their ideas on the stuff around them.

LK: So can I summarize it by saying using art to seduce people?

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