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Posts Tagged ‘science’

I recently saw this comic from Twisted Doodles, which I think poses quite a conundrum for our usual simple picture of how science is studied and brought forth into the public:

From http://www.twisteddoodles.com/post/86414780702/working-in-science – used in this post with permission

From Twisted Doodles. Used in this post with permission.

If you are a non-scientist reading this blog, your idea of what science is for, and what it’s good for, is probably something like the left column – and in fact, I hope it is! But as someone who works day-to-day on understanding LHC data, I have a lot of sympathy with the right column. So how can they be reconciled?

Science takes hard work from a lot of people, and it’s an open process. Its ultimate goal is to produce a big picture understanding of a wide range of phenomena, which is what you’re reading about when you think all the good thoughts in the left-hand column. But that big picture is made of lots of individual pieces of work. For example, my colleagues and I worked for months and months on searching for the Higgs boson decaying to bottom quarks. We saw more bottom quarks than you would expect if the Higgs boson weren’t there, but not enough that we could be sure that we had seen any extra. So if you asked me, as an analyzer of detector data, if the Higgs boson existed, all I could say would be, “Well, we have a modest excess in this decay channel.” I might also have said, while I was working on it, “Wow, I’m tired, and I have lots of bugs in my code that still need to be fixed!” That’s the right-hand column.

The gap is bridged by something that’s sometimes called the scientific consensus, in which we put together all the analyses and conclude something like, “Yes, we found a Higgs boson!” There isn’t a single paper that proves it. Whatever our results, the fact that we’re sure we found something comes from the fact that ATLAS and CMS have independently produced the same discovery. The many bits of hard work come together to build a composite picture that we all agree on; the exhausted trees step back to take a broader perspective and see the happy forest.

So which is right? Both are, but not in the same way. The very specific results of individual papers don’t change unless there’s a mistake in them. But the way they’re interpreted can change over time; where once physicists were excited and puzzled by the discovery of new mesons, now we know they’re “just” different ways of putting quarks together.

So we expect the scientific consensus to change, it’s definitely not infallible, and any part of it can be challenged by new discoveries. But you might find that scientists like me are a bit impatient with casual, uninformed challenges to that consensus — it’s based, after all, on a lot of experts thinking and talking about all the evidence available. At the same time, scientific consensus can sometimes be muddled, and newspapers often present the latest tree as a whole new forest. Whether you are a scientist, or just read about science, keep in mind the difference between the forest and the trees. Try to understand which you’re reading about. And remember, ultimately, that the process of doing science is all the things in that comic, all at once.

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Modern science has assumed many of the roles traditionally played by religion and, as a result, is often mistaken for just another religion; one among many. But the situation is rather more complicated and many of the claims that science is not a religion come across as a claim that science is The One True Religion. In the past, religion has supplied answers to the basic questions of how the universe originated, how people were created, what determines morality, and how humans relate to the rest of the universe. Science is slowly but surely replacing religion as the source of answers to these questions. The visible universe originated with the big bang, humans arose through evolution, morality arose through the evolution of a social ape and humans are a mostly irrelevant part of the larger universe. One may not agree with science’s answers but they exist and influence even those who do not explicitly believe them.

More importantly, through answering questions like these, religion has formed the basis for people’s worldview, their overall perspective from which they see and interpret the world. Religious beliefs and a person’s worldview were frequently so entangled that they are often viewed as one and the same thing. In the past this was probably true, but in this modern day and age, science presents an alternative to religion as the basis for a person’s worldview. Therefore science is frequently seen as a competing religion not just the basis of a competing world view. Despite this, there is a distinct difference between science and religion and it has profound implications for how they function.

The prime distinction was recognized at least as far back as Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274). The idea is this: Science is based on public information while religion is based on private information, information that not even the NSA can spy on. Anyone can, if they wait long enough, observe an apple fall as Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) did, but no one can know by independent observation what Saint Paul (c. 5 – c. 67) saw in the third heaven. Anyone sufficiently proficient in mathematics can repeat Albert Einstein’s (1879 – 1955) calculations but no one can independently check Joseph Smith’s (1805 – 1844) revelations that are the foundation of Mormonism, although additional private inspiration may, or may not, support them.  As a result of the public nature of the information on which science is founded, science tends to develop consensuses which only change when new information becomes available. In contrast, religion, being based on private information, tends to fragment when not constrained by the sword or at least the law. Just look at the number of Christian denominations and independent churches. While not as fragmented as Christianity, most major religions have had at least one schism. Even secularism, the none-of-the-above of religion, has its branches, one for example belonging to the new atheists.

The consensus-forcing nature of the scientific method and the public information on which it is based lead some to the conclusion that science is based on objective reality.  But in thirty years of wandering around a physics laboratory, I have never had the privilege of meeting Mr. Objective Reality—very opinionated physicists, yes, but Mr. Objective Reality, no.  Rather, science is based on two assumptions:

  1. Meaningful knowledge can be extracted from observation. While this may seem self-evident, it has been derided by various philosophers from Socrates on down.
  2. What happened in the past can be used to predict what will happen in the future. This is a sophisticated version of the Mount Saint Helens fallacy that had people refusing to leave that mountain before it erupted because it has not erupted in living memory.

 

Science and religion are, thus, both based on assumptions but differ in the public versus private nature of the information that drives their development. This difference in their underlying epistemology means that their competing claims cannot be systematically resolved; they are different paradigms.  Both can, separately or together, be used as a basis of a person’s worldview and it is here that conflict arises. People react rather strongly when their worldview is challenged and the competing epistemologies both claim to be the only firm basis on which a worldview can be based.

To receive a notice of future posts follow me on Twitter: @musquod.

 

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Last week, I was in Arlington, Virginia to give a talk at a cybersecurity research workshop called LASER 2013.  Why did they want to hear a particle physicist speak?  Well, this particular workshop is focused on “properly conducted experimental (cyber) security research,” so they want to hear from people in other fields about how we run experiments, publish the results, and think about science in general.  So I gave a talk, slightly over an hour long, that used the Higgs boson to illustrate the giant experiments we do at the LHC, the social organization required to do them, and their results.  I said a lot of things here that you don’t normally say explicitly as part of a particle physics conference, and I also heard what sort of experiments one can do in cybersecurity research.  We had some very interesting discussions about how experimentation and data analysis really work, and I really appreciate the opportunity I had to participate in the workshop.

You can watch my whole talk here, and I would definitely appreciate your feedback:

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–by T.I. Meyer, TRIUMF’s Head of Strategic Planning & Communication

“So, did the 8 pieces of artwork actually generate any new insights for the physicists about neutrino oscillations,” asked the gentleman in the fifth row of the auditorium. I was on stage with my colleague Professor Ingrid Koenig from Emily Carr University of Art & Design. We were leading a 75 minute session at the Innovations: Intersection of Science & Art conference, curated by Liz Lerman and organized by Wesleyan University in central Connecticut.

The gentleman, chair of Wesleyan’s department of environmental science, repeated his question, “So you said this project was about seeing if you could have art influence physics rather than just the other way around. Well, did it work?”

Damn good question. I looked at Ingrid for a moment and then responded: “Nope.” But then I continued. No, we did not achieve success in using physics-inspired artwork to change the course of particle physics. But yes, in addition to learning that we posed the wrong hypothesis, we did achieve three other outcomes: (1) We constructed and executed one of the first research experiment at the intersection of art and science; (2) We documented a carefully controlled interaction of artists and particle physicists; and (3) We launched an inquiry that now has a national laboratory (TRIUMF) musing about how to exercise its influence in local and national culture for the advancement of society.

What was all this about? We were invited to lead a session at this conference because of the “RAW DATA” project for which TRIUMF and Emily Carr collaborated. For the full story on our “experimental research project,” please see this handsome website. One thing we discussed in the Q&A period (of course!) was the next step in the research. Perhaps rather than focusing on an experiment where the “work” of scientists was transferred to artists (whose “work” in turn was transferred to other artists and then back to scientists), we should construct an experiment where a “practice” or “process” of science (and art) was transferred. For instance, one thing scientists and artists both deal with is uncertainty and ambiguity. It was suggested that there might be something valuable uncovered if we had scientists and artists sharing their approaches to dealing with and communicating uncertainty.

The purpose of the conference was to pull together scientists, artists, and teachers from across North America to compare emerging trends and look for common opportunities for teaching at the intersection of art and science as well as for performing research at the intersection of art and science. In many regards, universities are starting to respond to the teaching opportunity but are less organized in exploiting the research opportunity. For instance, a key thread at the conference was the distinction between “art working for science” and “science working for art” when the real question might be, “What can science and art do together?” Lofty goals, of course, especially when sometimes the first step of bringing the fields together might actually be some “service” for the other side.

Better yet, I was not the only particle physicist there! Sarah M. Demers, an ATLAS physicist from Yale of some fame, participated as well, based on her experience co-teaching a “Physics of Dance” course with famed choreographer Emily Coates. The duo gave a fascinating presentation that started out with an inquiry “How do I move?” or rather “Why can I move?” Starting from the observation that atoms are mostly empty space and gravity ultimately attracts everything, they discussed why we can stand up at all (electrostatic repulsion between the electrons orbiting the atoms of the floor and those orbiting the atoms in my shoe on my foot in my sock). Then the question became, “How can I actually move my body at all if everything is repulsive and forces are balanced?” The answer came next, articulated by the dancer/choreographer who talked about how we use friction to generate a net force on our center of mass and can then use electrical impulses to stimulate chemical reactions in our muscles to push against ourselves and the floor. And then the talk moved to how to present and experience the Higgs field and the Higgs boson…in the form of a dance. WOW.

Throughout the 36 hours of this intensive, multi-dimensional conference (yes, we did “dance movement” exercises between sessions to help reflect and internalize the key points of discussions), I took copious notes and expanded my brain ten-fold.

A few other comments from my notebook.

There are really only two things that humans do: experience or share. We are either experiencing reality or we are sharing some aspect of it via communication (and yes, one can argue that communication does occur within reality!). Doing something is an experience, making a discovery is an experience, listening to music is an experience. And teaching, publishing a scientific paper, or making art for someone else are more in the sharing category. So, there are aspects of science and art that are both in “experience” and the “share” category.

Furthermore, science and art do not actually exist as stand-alone constructs. They only exist in our minds as modalities for thinking. They are tools, or perhaps practices, that assist human beings in “dealing with” or “responding to” the world. From this perspective, they are just some of the several modalities for organizing our thinking about the world, just like mathematics or engineering are also modalities.

During some of the breakout discussions, we sometimes got excited and use the terms art, creativity, and self-expression interchangeably. Unpacking these terms, I think, sheds considerable light on the path forward. Self-expression is just that…the process of expressing one’s self. Creativity is about being generative and often includes powerful threads of synthesis and analysis. Art, however, transcends and includes both of these. Art is meant to be “seen” by others, if I can simplify to just one verb. An artist, when creating a piece of art, is considering some audience, some community, or maybe just one person and taking into account how they might react to or interact with the artwork. It’s like the distinction between having an insight (smoking is why I have poor health) and a breakthrough (I have stopped smoking and haven’t had a cigarette for 6 months). In a strange way, this is parallel to what we do in science. An experiment or theory is just a nice idea, but until I write it up and send it out and have it approved for publication, it is just in my head and doesn’t actually advance science. Granted, scientific publications are perhaps more targeted at scientific peers while art’s discussion and acceptance might be determined by some other audiences beyond just artistic peers. But in a way, art is meant to be out there and wrestled with by people. And so is science.

So, what random musings do YOU have about science & art? Are they different?  Are they the same expression of a similar human yearning or inquiry?  Can they be combined?

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What Went on My Research Page

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

Remember when I was wondering, “What Goes on My Research Page?” Well, I finally decided what to put on it and got it posted:

Seth Zenz – Princeton University Department of Physics

Let me know what you think!

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I’m Going to Tell You…

Friday, October 19th, 2012

–by T.I. Meyer, Head of Strategic Planning and Communication

Public science lectures, events, cafés: They are everywhere!  This past weekend, the ATLAS group at TRIUMF went to Science World in downtown Vancouver and gave a science talk about the Higgs, hosted a virtual tour of the ATLAS control room, and answered thousands of questions. Nearly 10,000 people passed through the doors that day.  This past Tuesday night, Perimeter Institute director Neil Turok presented his third CBC Massey lecture, this one in Vancouver at UBC’s Chan Centre.  The sell-out crowd was nearly 1,000 people.  Last night near the waterfront station, TRIUMF science director Reiner Kruecken gave a talk about nuclear astrophysics at the public session of the APS Northwest Sectional meeting.  And on November 1, the director of the NIH Human Genome Research Institute Eric Green will be giving a public talk about genomics and its future influence on clinical practice at GenomeBC.

Why is all of this happening?  Can’t people just get enough of science and technology from YouTube, university classes, and specialized television programs?  Heck, why did *I* go to some of these events?  Is it the same reason I choose to attend certain music concerts or watch a play in person in the theatre?

I thought about this for awhile, and this is what I started to see.

Humans are social creatures.  Maybe I am showing my age, but I still prefer being in a group and learning about something rather than sitting at home in a darkened room and just clicking and scrolling on my computer.  I actually have different brain chemistry when in a group and listening to someone.  At the Massey lecture, there was even something fun about my seatmate whispering questions to me during the talk (for instance, If the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, does that mean the Solar System is actually getting bigger right now?).  It would have been weird to have Neil Turok come over to my house and record his lecture in my living room with just me as the audience, right?

There’s something curious and fascinating about leading scientists and thinkers in person. I saw the Premier of British Columbia in a coffee shop this morning; she was just getting a cup of coffee like I was, and yet it was still “cool.”  Listening to Neil Turok was special because he peppered his discussion of “What banged (in the Big Bang)?” with personal anecdotes, with humor, and with observations about history.  I can get that same feel when I listen to the broadcasts on CBC Radio of course. I got to hear it “first” and “in the raw.”

There’s something neat about hearing something live, in the moment.  And I got to hear what was happening “right now” rather than waiting for the lecture to be broadcast or waiting for someone to write a Wikipedia article about it.

     

    What do you think?  Why do people still throng to gather ‘round and listen to and talk about science and particle physics?  What can we do to provide even more of what is needed and wanted?

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    What Goes on My Research Page?

    Thursday, August 30th, 2012

    It is time, it seems, for me to put up my first real departmental research page. This is a place to put up a picture, describe my research interests, and maybe link to some papers. It shouldn’t really be too difficult to write something up, as I have seem to have acquired a disturbing amount of practice in rambling about my research and putting up web pages about myself. But looking at others’ research pages has left me with a nagging question: what, really, are my research interests?

    “CMS and ATLAS are two of a kind: they’re both looking for whatever new particles they can find.” — Kate McAlpine, Large Hadron Rap

    In most fields, I would talk about a very specific set of problems I was interested in, and say what sort of experiments I was doing to figure things out. But the big detectors at the LHC try to look for everything, and I work on them because I’m interested in finding anything new that’s there. Am I especially interested in electroweak symmetry breaking because I work on the Higgs boson? Am I a precision tracking enthusiast because I’ve worked on pixel detectors? Well, yes, to some degree both those things are true — but the fundamental motivation for my research is to contribute to the overall program of understanding what the universe is made of, by whatever means my skills and the available opportunities allow.

    Still, I suppose I had better be a bit more specific. Anyone have any suggestions?

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    For the antepenultimate[1] essay in this series, I will tackle the thorny issue of the relation between science and philosophy. Philosophy can be made as wide as you like to include anything concerned with knowledge. In that regard, science could be considered a subset of philosophy. It is even claimed that science arose out of philosophy, but that is an over simplification. Science owes at least as much to alchemy as to Aristotle. After all, both Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) and Robert Boyle[2] (1627 – 1691) were alchemists and the philosophers, including Francis Bacon, vehemently opposed Galileo. Here, I wish to restrict philosophy to what might be call western philosophy—the tradition started with the ancient Greeks and continued ever since in monasteries and the hallowed halls of academia.

    Let us start this discussion with Thomas Kuhn (1922 – 1996). He observed that Aristotelian physics and Newtonian physics did not just differ in degree, but were entirely different beasts. He, then, introduced the idea of paradigms to denote such changes of perspective. However, Kuhn misidentified the fault line. It was not between Aristotelian physics and Newtonian physics, but rather between western philosophy and science. Indeed, I would say that science (along with its sister discipline, engineering) is demarcated by a common definition of what knowledge is (see below). In science, classical and quantum mechanics are very different, yet they share a common paradigm for the nature of knowledge and, hence, we can compare the two from common ground.

    Bertrand Russell (1872 –1970) in his A History of Western Philosophy makes a point similar to Kuhn’s. Russell claims that from the ancient Greeks up to the renaissance, philosophers would have been able to understand and discourse with each other. Plato (424 BCE – 348 BCE) and Machiavelli (1469 –1527) would have been able to discuss, if brought together. Similarly with Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) and Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), if Aquinas refrained from having Luther burnt at the stake.  They shared a common paradigm, if not a common view. But with the advent of science, that changes. Neither Aristotle nor Aquinas would have understood Newton. The paradigm had shifted. This shift from philosophy to science is the best and, perhaps, the only real example of a paradigm shift in Kuhn’s original meaning.  Like Kuhn, Russell misidentified the fault line. It was not between early and late western philosophy, but between philosophy and science. C.P. Snow (1905 – 1980) in his 1959 lecture, The two Cultures, identifies a similar fault line but between science and the humanities more generally.

    So what are these two paradigms? Philosophy is concerned with using rational arguments[3] to understand the nature of reality. Science turns that on its head and defines rational arguments through observation. A rotational argument is one that helps build models with increased predictive power. To doubt the Euclidian geometry of physical space-time or to suggest twins could age at different rates were at one time considered irrational ideas, beyond the pale. But now they are accepted due to observation-based modeling.  Philosophy tends to define knowledge as that which is true and known to be true for good reason (with debate over what good reason is). Science defines knowledge in terms of observation and observationally constrained models with no explicit mention of the metaphysics concept of truth. Science is concerned with serviceable, rather than certain knowledge.

    Once one realizes science and philosophy are distinct paradigms, a lot becomes clear. For example, why philosophers have had so much trouble coming to grips with what science is. Scientific induction as proposed by Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) does not exist. David Hume (1711 – 1776) started the philosophy of science down the dead end street to logical positivism. Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) thought Euclidean geometry was synthetic a priori information, and Karl Popper (1902 – 1994) introduced falsification, which is now largely dismissed by philosophers. Even today, the philosophic community as a whole does not understand what the scientific method is and tends toward the idea that it does not exist at all. All attempts, by either scientist or philosophers, to fit the square peg of science into the round hole of western philosophy have failed and will probably continue to do so into the indefinite future. Eastern philosophy is even more distant.

    The different paradigms also provide the explanation of the misunderstanding between science and philosophy. Alfred Whitehead (1861 – 1947) claimed that all of modern philosophy is but footnotes to Plato. On the other hand, Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996) claims Plato and his followers delayed the advance of knowledge by two millennia. The two statements are not in contradiction if you have a negative conception of philosophy. And indeed, many scientists do have a negative conception of philosophy; a short list includes Richard Feynman (1918 – 1988), Ernest Rutherford (1871 – 1937), Steven Weinberg (b. 1933), Stephen Hawking (b. 1962), and Lawrence Krauss (b. 1954).  Feynman is quoted as saying: Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. To a large extent, Feynman is correct. The philosophy of science has had little or no effect on the actual practice of science. It has, however, had a large impact on the scientist’s self-image of what they do. Newton was influenced by Francis Bacon, Darwin by Hume, and just try suggesting to a room full of physicists that science is not based on falsification[4].  Even this essay is built around Kuhn’s concept of a paradigm (but most of Kuhn’s other ideas on science are, to put it bluntly, wrong).

    This series of essays has been devoted to defining the scientific paradigm for what knowledge is.  The conclusion I have reached, as noted above, is that western philosophy and science are based on different paradigms for the nature of knowledge. But are they competing or complementary paradigms? My take is that the two paradigms are incompatible as well as incommensurate. Knowledge cannot be simultaneously defined by what is true in the metaphysical sense, and by model building.

    To receive a notice of future posts follow me on Twitter: @musquod.


    [1] That is N2LP in the compact notation of effective field theorists.

    [2] The son of the Earl of Cork and the father of modern chemistry.

    [3] This is an oversimplification but sufficient for our purposes.

    [4] Although I am a theorist, I did that experiment. Not pretty.

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    Art and Science: Both or Neither

    Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

     

    I don’t get it. I guess we just have different brains than them.” – two young science students, regarding a piece of art.

    It’s a funny feeling, being an individual with a predominantly artistic mind working in a place dominated by science. I’m not saying I don’t have love for the sciences, but if we’re talking in terms of how my thought process lazily unfurls itself when faced with a problem, I’m definitely more of an artist than a scientist. The very fact that I have used the terms “scientist” and “artist” in a way that does nothing but reinforce the eternal dichotomy that exists between the two groups indicates that the problem is so widespread, indeed, that even the person trying to formulate an argument calling for a cessation of the “war” that exists between the two groups cannot avoid thinking of the two as incontrovertibly disparate.

     

    A page from Leonardo da Vinci's famous notebooks. He remains one of the finest examples of an individual expanding his mind to take in both science and art.

     

    The quote at the top is a real thing I heard. Aside from the disquieting use of “we” and “them,” the most troubling thing about the above assertion is the outright dismissal of the piece of art in question. The finality and hopelessness of the “Different Brain” argument does not seem ridiculous outright because it has been propagated by you (yes, you), me, and everyone else ever in the history of time when we don’t want to take the time to learn something new. Artists and scientists are two particular groups that use the Different Brain argument on one another all too often. In order to see the truly farcical nature that underlies the argument, picture two groups of early humans. One group has fire. The other group does not. One person from the fireless group is tasked with inventing fire for the group. The person in charge of making fire claps his hands; no fire is produced. He gives up, citing that he and his counterpart in the other group must have different brains. His group dies out because of their lack of fire.

    I hope you followed the cautionary tale of our dismissive early human closely, for he is the rock I will build this post on. The reason one group died and the other thrived is quite obvious. It is not because they simply lacked fire; it is that they lacked the ability to extend their minds beyond their current knowledge in order to solve a problem. Moreover, they not only lacked the ability, they lacked the drive—a troubling trend that is becoming more pronounced as the misguided “war” between artists and scientists rages on, insofar as an intellectual war can rage.

    If you were to ask a scientist what he or she would do when posed with a problem, the answer will invariably be something along the lines of, “I would wrestle it to the ground with my considerable intellect until it yields its secrets.” During my time at TRIUMF, I have noticed a deep, well-deserved pride in every scientist in their ability to solve problems. Therefore, it is truly a sad state of affairs when our scientists look at something that puzzles them and then look away. To me, that’s no scientist. That is someone who has grown too complacent, too comfortable, in the vastness of their knowledge that they begin to shy away from things that challenge them in a way they aren’t used to. What’s more is that no one (artists or scientists) sees this as a defeat. As soon as you’ve said, “Oh well, different brain,” you’ve lost.

    Any person familiar with rhetoric will tell you that in order to build a strong argument and persuade people, you have to be honest. Be sneaky and fail to address something potentially damning and your credibility is shot and the argument is void. Since it works so well in politics (snark), I figure I should give is a shot here. The problem of the Different Brain argument does not just lay with the scientists; if I’ve excoriated them, it’s out of fear that soon, a generation of scientists will stop growing and thinking. The artists are guilty of invoking the Different Brain argument as well whenever faced with math, science, or anything, really, that they didn’t want to do. The only difference between the two is that I heard a scientist use the different brain argument in a place of science, in a place where knowledge is the point.

    Different Brain is a spurious concept, which is obvious to anyone with more grey matter than pride, but it’s not just wrong because I say it is. It’s wrong because look around you.

    I was standing in the middle of Whistler Village with my fiancé, when we spied a poster for a band called Art vs. Science (you’re doing it wrong, guys!). She immediately said, “Science would win.” No question. No pondering. No soul-searching. Gut reaction, like flinching from a feigned punch. She’s a statistics major and biology minor, so she has a “science” brain and her response didn’t necessarily surprise me. I was a little sad, though, because she wasn’t seeing the world like I was seeing it. We debated the problem for a few minutes until I told her to look around.

    The shape of the buildings: Architecture

    The pleasant configuration of the shrubbery: Horticulture

    The signage on the buildings and lampposts: Design

    The food in the bag in my hand: Cooking

    The phone in her hand: Technology

    I asked her to picture a world where science had “won”. What’s architecture without art? A shape. What’s horticulture without art? A forest. Design? A grid. Cooking? Paste. Technology? Sufficient. It’s a tough world to imagine. Look at the next thing you see and try to separate the science and art of it and imagine what it would look like, whether it would function at all. It’s absolutely dystopian.

    It was then that my argument became clear: science and art are inextricable. There can be no dismissing, no deigning, no sighing in the face of it. There can only be and has only ever been unity between the two. The problem is that the two warring sides are too preoccupied with the connotations the words “art” and “science” seem to realize it’s not a question of either/or, but both/neither.

    I was worried about whether this war of the different brains would always rage between the two sides, but three things lent me hope and I hope they will lend you hope, too.

    1.)  These two quotes from Bertholt Brecht (20th century German playwright and poet, whose work I don’t much care for):

    “Art and science work in quite different ways: agreed. But, bad as it may sound, I have to admit that I cannot get along as an artist without the use of one or two sciences. … In my view, the great and complicated things that go on in the world cannot be adequately recognized by people who do not use every possible aid to understanding.”

    and

    “Art and science coincide insofar as both aim to improve the lives of men and women.”

    2.) I was feeling discouraged about my argument for this post and had taken to turning it over in my mind even when I was otherwise occupied, but when I heard Rolf Heuer, the Director-General of CERN, say, only a handful of feet from my face, “Science and Art belong together,” I felt a renewed sense of vigor course through my brain, spurring me on. If one of the foremost scientific experts of our age can see it, I wonder why many of us turn away from it, when it is clearly there.

    3.) In case one thinks that I’ve gone too soft on the artists, imagine a world without science. Think of our society as a book of fiction or a painting. Unequivocal works of art. Yet, what holds the book together? How were the pages manufactured? How were the chemical composition of the paints devised? Science.

    Keeping these points in mind, I am calling for the abolition of the concepts underpinning the Different Brain argument. The war between art and science is one of mutually assured destruction and will turn us into a lopsided simulacrum of a culture if we are not careful.

    –Written by Jordan Pitcher (Communications Assistant)

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    Before I began working at TRIUMF, I knew that science communication was a thing; much in the same way that I knew that there was someone, somewhere manufacturing tissue paper. It was just something that was. Reading an article in Scientific American or, to an extent, Wired, I never paused to consider who had written the article and what made an effective piece of science writing. I simply read it and moved on. Now that I have written a few articles that discuss science—nothing too long or in-depth, mind you—I have caught a glimpse of the harrowing plight of the science communicator and it is one fraught with frustration and self-doubt, but it is not without hope.

    I, along with the majority of the communications team at TRIUMF, attended a talk at UBC called, “STORYOMICS: Proof that Scientists Evolved from Humans,” presented by scientist and documentary filmmaker, Randy Olson. I won’t go into too much detail about what he talked about because, to me, it was somewhat commonsensical. (Note: This may be because I’m an English major, whose sole purpose is to be painfully familiar with the components of a story.)

    After the talk, a man named Dave Ng joined us for lunch. While we were chattering away, he said something that, initially, seemed like just an insightful observation. However, It has been ricocheting around in the damp recesses of my brain ever since. The observation was this: when news broke about the faster-than-light neutrinos, everyone covered it. Everyone. Of all the people who covered it, what percentage do you think knew—without reciting the Wikipedia entry for it from memory—what a neutrino actually was? Very few, I would bet. Judging from what I had read at the time, it seemed that everyone had reposted chunks of CERN/OPERA’s press release with bits of fluff around it to make it look like an original work. The main thrust of my scattershot thought process, the philosophical question that has me wandering the desert of my psyche looking for an answer is: can you ever effectively report on/write about something that you don’t have a deep knowledge of?

    I used to write for a university newspaper and, while I did write about current events and physical fitness (which, if you know me, is not my forte), I gravitated towards the Arts and Life section. I wrote about books, movies, television, and video games.  What do all of these things have in common? I know about them. When I wrote about books, I was in my natural element because I understood the underlying principles that govern narrative and I knew the significance of things that the woefully uninitiated don’t pick up on (I once wrote an entire paper on the use of en and em dashes in a play, so don’t even dispute me on this). The writing was full of verve and wit (if I do say so myself). It had a confident, singular voice behind it. Confidence is the key to communicating anything effectively, but it is rare to find someone who is confident speaking about something they are not knowledgeable of. That’s why we see this paradigm: The head of the communications department at TRIUMF, Tim Meyer, is an excellent science communicator…who has a PhD in physics. Randy Olson is an effective science communicator…who has a PhD in biology. The list goes on: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, etc. The point is that there is no doubt that scientists can become communicators. Can communicators communicate science, though? That seems to be a point of contention for scientists and communicators alike.

    Before we go any further, I should probably establish my credentials: My background in science is less than negligible. I took Physics 11 in high school and Biology 100 in university. One of my (many) problems is that I was born with the curiosity of a scientist but without any of the skills to back it up. My interest in science is what made the opportunity to work at TRIUMF so appealing. It promised the opportunity to write about science, which is something that scared me, still scares me.

    I recently wrote about the controversy surrounding the CERN/OPERA faster-than-light neutrino experiment and I was nervous the entire time. The prose was shaky, too reliant on quotes, and meek. It was listless and gray, devoid of all effervescence or joie de vivre. It was a passable science article. I felt how I think many science communicators feel in the beginning: gutted. The lack of “myself” in the article called into question whether I could communicate effectively, or if I had ever done so.

    Science communicators are in the enviable and rare position to be attacked from every angle: from scientists for not being thorough enough and from communicators for being boring and ineffective. Both parties are assailing disparate aspects of the work and no one is pleased. If you heard a funeral dirge in the back of your mind while reading this, prepare for the tinkling, inspirational piano number because, in my mind, there is hope. I’ve only been at TRIUMF for three months, but I already feel like I’ve learned a great deal about science communication.

    1.)       Always collaborate, when possible, with someone who is deeply familiar with the science you are discussing. I know it’s easier to Google, but this is the Internet. I’m a doctor on the Internet. This way, when you cite your sources, you don’t have to cite Wikipedia, you can cite a professional, which will confer a lot of credence to whatever you wrote.

    2.)       Metaphor is your new best friend. You already have a best friend? Too bad. You might not know the dictionary definition of metaphor, but humans have been using it forever (hyperbole) to communicate complex ideas to the many. The more complex the concept, the more important the metaphor becomes.

    3.)       Don’t be afraid to imbue the work with a sense of style. This is what I see most often. People think that because something is about science, it needs to be antiseptic. It doesn’t. If you’re a communicator, you have a unique voice, or I hope you have, anyway.

    With the modicum of experience that I have in communicating science, I realize I’m no professional—yet—and this is by no means an “answer” to the questions posed earlier. These points are, however, a jumping off point for people who may be thinking about communicating science, but are afraid it has to be the written or verbal equivalent of gruel. They are also for the people who are communicating science but it has become so mechanical for them that they can’t see themselves in their work anymore.

    My time at TRIUMF lasts five more months, and the journey will, without a doubt, involve more frustration and failure in the face of this nigh-rhetorical question. Instead of gently weeping into that good night, I will use the words of Charles Kettering, an engineer I just Googled, to give me hope: “99 percent of success is built on failure.”

    –Written by Jordan Pitcher (Communications Assistant)

     

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