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Jun. 01, 2011

World Science Festival: Rethinking Science

by Guest Blogger

Guest blogger Shelby Kay-Fantozzi, a junior at American University, shares her reflections on the 2010 World Science Festival. The 2011 World Science Festival begins today in New York City. Some events will also be live streamed online.

Rethink Science, demanded the slogan of the World Science Festival.

And I obeyed.

In the course of 3 days at the WSF, my image of science busted out of lab rooms and lecture halls, threw textbook diagrams out the window, and raced to the edge of the universe and back. Listening to some of the greatest thinkers and adventurers of our time speak about the wide range of their respective fields, I came to realize not only how important science is, but how it permeates almost every aspect of our lives.

Any textbook will be quick to inform us that science breeds progress. But we’re not reminded often enough that from science comes beauty, honesty, passion, safety — and yes, progress, but not just advancement of technology. It also yields more and better food for the hungry, solutions for our abuses of planet earth, and innovations that help us explore worlds yet unknown to us.

I also found that science can stir up just as much emotion as politics or poetry. On one hand, it can be the subject of heated debate or controversy. On the other hand, it provides role models for our children. Heck, I’m 18, and the two NASA astronauts I met at the festival are my heroes too. I hope Brian Greene and Tracy Day, the co-founders of the World Science Festival, have done for others what they’ve done for me -- opened a floodgate of new feelings for and impressions of science. My curiosity has been piqued!

My first night in New York, we went to Battery Park to see the tennis-court-sized 1:1 model of the James Webb Space Telescope. Neil Degrasse Tyson was supposed to give a short talk at the event, and when we arrived late, we were delighted to find he was still there answering questions. Like a preacher, he was surrounded by a flock of followers, fellow believers in the power and beauty of our universe. Tweets about the night say he stayed until 12:30.

All kinds of people had questions for him –- grown adults, college students, a seven-year-old boy who could recite something like 60 digits of pi. The questions ranged from the academic to the political to the ordinary (Where’d you get your hat?). As people asked him a variety of questions, he kept using the term “science literacy.” Unsure at the time of what it meant (there’s a great — if bureaucratic — explanation here), I asked him “Why should everyone be science literate?”

His response (paraphrased here) was applause-worthy:

Why is it that you could go to a party full of artists and mention science, and most of the people there would say “Oh, I never got science” and laugh it off? “Oh, I never liked math,” and the conversation moves on. But if you went to a party full of scientists and mentioned Shakespeare, would anyone turn to you and say “Oh, I never learned how to read?” And IF they did, would anyone laugh along? No, they’d all look at that scientist like he was crazy. So why are liberal arts and science treated so differently? You need to be literate in both to understand the world around you, to protect yourself from untruths and the people spreading them.

When did we start believing that one could get by with a creative mind, and without a discerning one? With a closed mind, and without an inquiring one? Thinking like a scientist — being curious yet critical, seeking not just to know, but to understand, being able to ask questions as well as you answer them — makes you a better thinker in realms far beyond science.

Our interest in this type of thought has recently faded. We watch news channels that lean towards our political interests, trust pundits on spoken word alone, never bothering to question the information they provide us. Perhaps that’s why when someone “laughs off” math or science, we laugh with them (if a little uneasily). Maybe the presence and significance of science in our lives is less obvious to us due to this shift towards lazy thinking, or worse, not thinking much at all.

The solution to this alarming issue lies in education. Childhood is the time that our enthusiasm for science is either cultivated or destroyed. Ask anyone and they can probably recall some lynch pin — a terrible class or a wonderful teacher — that either sent them running or inspired them. The responsibility of ensuring that math and science are no laughing matter lies with those who have an influence on us, meaning not just our teachers, but also celebrities, and those charged with representing science in the media. If science were afforded the same amount of attention that liberal arts receive, maybe it would have a better chance of being properly appreciated and advancing farther — and faster — than it already has.

___________________________

Shelby Kay-Fantozzi is a junior at American University. She is in Air Force ROTC and works at the National Space and Aeronautics Museum in Washington, D.C. Ultimately, she would like to work for NASA.

About Guest Blogger

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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