I’ve been spending some time in my childhood home in Santiniketan (Bengali for ‘Abode of peace’), a small town in the state of West Bengal, India. The best introduction to what it’s generally like for North Americans can be found in this New York Times article from earlier this year. Aside from being a quaint (by Indian standards) university town, Santiniketan is also home to a surprising number of art and architecture snobs and treehugger types (I say that in the most-loving way possible – my mom is one of them), and sometimes, Amartya Sen. This creates a milieu of discourse very difficult to find in the rest of India. It’s unique in that the university administration has significant influence over any urban planning initiatives, often at odds with the ambitious desires for luxury apartment and condo developers from Kolkata and elsewhere. Santiniketan’s appeal to arty environmentalist types as well as urban vacationers cannot be summarized in one (last-minute) post such as this, but I will try my best to encapsulate the gist of the drama as it unfolds in my upcoming few weeks here. The photographs I have taken so far of this place are available here and I hope to capture more of this intriguing (and rapidly changing) place in my upcoming two weeks here in mid-January. Tomorrow, I’m off to visit the Western Ghats.
Alan Turing, the imminent British mathematician and war hero, was recently given a royal pardon for the homosexuality charges that was a precursor to his suicide in 1954. The reaction to this has been been rather mixed, from those seeing the gesture as a way forward for LGBTQ rights across the Commonwealth and beyond, to those who believe singling out Turing does not negate the suffering of many, and such a symbolic gesture does not take into consideration the devastation and misery caused by anti-homosexuality laws around the world, especially in places where British imperialism was key in instituting such laws. I firmly gravitate towards the latter attitude, especially considering the recent events in India, which inherited the archaic British laws during the colonial period; and would furthermore like to add, that the pardon itself is an affront to Turing, and if the Crown has any real wish to correct past mistakes, it should begin by apologizing, not pardoning Turing, as he did not commit any crimes.
In 2009, Section 377, a colonial era legislation criminalizing gay sex in India was struck down by the Delhi High Court. After receiving appeals from various religious groups and others, the Supreme Court of India upheld the ban on gay sex in December 2013. This was met with furor and disappointment from LGBTQ and allied communities around the world. Amidst this, the so-called ‘pardon’ of Turing feels ostensibly very, very wrong, since countries that have inherited the British legal system from colonial times continue to suffer from its ill-effects, including stigmatization of and violence against LGBTQ people. I’m currently in India visiting my family after 2 years. I can see firsthand how many of my friends are affected by this colonial legacy, and even for non-queer folk, this is simply an affirmation of patriarchal values.
Pardoning Turing goes beyond him as a singular entity in history, and however symbolic this gesture may be, it’s incomplete, if it is indeed the Crown’s wish to normalize non-heterosexual relations. Let us not forget that Alan Turing died in the early years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, and in that context, this farce of a pardon is callous and offensive to the countless people who have suffered in the UK and beyond due to this absurd stigma against non-heterosexual sex. If the Crown really intended to create a world wherein there is greater acceptance of LGBTQ people, it should begin by apologizing for past mistakes, not ‘pardoning’ those who transgressed against ludicrous laws.
My favourite, incidentally, is this one.
My final, and perhaps most notable lesson in science outreach and communication comes from my friend, journalist Angela Chen. Angela has a BA in comparative literature from the University of California at San Diego. She is currently a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.
While Angela reports on a variety of issues, she has a noted interest in science and science journalism. I was very curious to find out what got someone such as Angela interested in science, since she comes from a discipline that seems so far removed from academic science, and yet is very well-informed and conversant about contemporary science discourses.
Angela mentioned that her major interests in the science world were concentrated in the behavioural realm, namely, neuroscience, psychology, and anthropology; the so-called softer sciences, distinct from the more quantitative disciplines of physics and chemistry. “Growing up, I always thought that I was a humanities girl. I typecast myself, even though from a very young age, I loved reading books by Oliver Sacks, and by freshman year of college I was reading a lot of Steven Pinker, like The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works…”, Angela said. “I think that’s what got me into science, approaching it from kind of a top down level; looking at how science explains these big concepts of philosophy of free will, the meaning of language…the questions that you would think were in the domain of humanities. Seeing empirical evidence for that was really powerful.” From thereon, Angela proceeded to investigate intersections of arts and science, and then increasingly became more comfortable in the realms of pure science.
Like many others, Angela became interested in science by reading books by scientists meant for a popular audience. As someone with a science background, I can be quite sensitive to subtle simplifications that detract from a larger explanation, and such strategies are often used by science popularizers. Angela, however, sees it quite differently. We discussed Malcolm Gladwell as someone who is notorious for “cherry-picking” science and giving haphazard explanations along with his anecdotes. Even though nowadays Angela does not have very high opinion of Gladwell’s works, she contended that they are sort of the writing that can get people to investigate and understand the importance of scientific literacy. “With science communication, there is always a spectrum, from good to bad”, said Angela. “Take for example, Jonah Lehrer, whose books are basically pop science, even before the plagiarism scandal, in a similar genre as Gladwell’s. Oliver Sacks’s books however, were never questioned for their scientific validity, and they too belong to the same genre of popular science books. So there is definitely potential for popular science books to become hooks for greater scientific literacy, if done well.”
Angela has written a number of articles that are based on contemporary scientific studies, including ones about the biology of the sports fan, and superstitions. She mentioned that explaining the methodology of these studies remain the biggest challenge, whereas the results are relatively easier to communicate to the public. She believes that not coming from a science background actually gives her a bit of an advantage, as she does not tend to get bogged down by jargon and can easily distill the essentials of a study to the layperson’s understanding. She is also privileged to often communicate directly with scientists and researchers, with whom she can clarify any questions she has had about the studies. However, the public at large does not have access to scientists and researchers with the same relative ease, and science communicators remain ultimately responsible for effectively relaying scientific information to them. Angela mentioned that an understanding of the way culture of journalism works may benefit both scientists and the public, as they could further understand the nuances of the mass communication process. Additionally, reaching out to a number of science journalists and experts on social media is also a good option for the public trying to get better understanding of scientific topics.
Finally, I asked her about the gap that exists in contemporary science journalism, in that a lot of science writers are not up to speed with the culture of science, and similarly, many scientists are not familiar with how the media works. She recommended that this gap can be addressed by each group exploring the goals of the other, and experiencing what it’s like to be in the other’s shoes. Scientists are often concerned with the refinements of the procedure and methodology, whereas journalists tend to be more interested in the final findings and their implications. Reaching a consensus on the important aspects of a study by reconciling the not necessarily diverging foci of the scientists and journalists could thus indeed produce superior science communication.
My remaining activities in New York City centred chiefly around visiting the Nicholas Roerich Museum and the American Museum of Natural History. I’m not sure I can say anything that hasn’t already been said about the AMNH, but I would highly recommend a visit to the (free!) Nicholas Roerich Museum, for art that is quite unlike what we are used to seeing. Nicholas Roerich himself was an eclectic person whose interests and talents are rarefied commodities these days. He was a Russian artist, writer and thinker who travelled extensively throughout Asia and much of his artwork depicts pastiches of Himalayan landscapes, while drawing from Russian artistic traditions, producing a very unique oeuvre.
To me, Roerich’s genius lies beyond his artistic talents. This is already well-documented by each country he associated with (his homeland Russia; the US, where he lived for some time formed many important friendships and political ties; and India, where he lived during the Second World War until his death in 1947). The places where he travelled were among the interior parts of the Himalayas that were relatively understudied (and still remains understudied) by people with any formal education. By depicting the environment and geology of the Himalayas in his paintings in a fantastical yet vaguely realistic style, he procured further attention to these regions from geographers, geologists and archaeologists. For many people, Roerich’s paintings were among the first glimpses into the landscapes of the Tibetan Plateau and beyond.
What can we learn from Roerich’s artwork and his approach?
We know that in history, many explorers and scientists, particularly those associated with early Columbian voyages to the Americas were not at all formally trained in the scholastic realm of sciences. During the middle ages, science taught in European universities concerned themselves largely with pre-established theory dating back to Classical antiquity. The scope of empirical science (i.e. observation and experimentation) were rather limited. During the exploration of the New World, various kinds of lay scholars documented the geography, climate and biodiversity of the Americas, worlds away from European scholasticism, guided primarily by their observational faculties. This brought about the new norms in science that we see established today, in that it was guided by empiricism. On the other hand, we probably have never seen an age of mass participation in such high-profile citizen science and crowdsourcing since then!
Roerich seems to belong to the same class of citizen scientists that accompanied Columbus in his four voyages to the New World, notably, Oviedo, Acosta, López de Velasco, Sahagún and many more. Although the politics of each of their discoveries are ripe with contention, we learn from them the lasting impact on knowledge and representation of science in visual and written forms that citizen science has, and how it often pioneered empirical investigation in understudied areas.
It may often seem that the contemporary world of scientific discourse is dominated by peer-reviewed publishing in reputable journals, let us not forget that in the history of science, it has frequently been people far removed from scholarly science who have pushed beyond the frontiers of contemporary knowledge.
Yesterday, I arrived in Brooklyn for a weekend-long reprieve from the communal stress due to final evaluations brimming in the University of Toronto’s social climate. My friend, Angela Chen, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal is graciously hosting me here. We undertook some journeys that further informed my quest for effective science outreach.
Earlier today, I visited the newly-minted Museum of Mathematics in Manhattan. For the most part, the exhibits and activities in the museum are targeted for younger children in elementary school, but there sure are things that could appeal to adults, both in their presentation and their complexity. Take for example, the fractal tree!
The fractal tree takes live video images of people and uses their limbs and movements to structure the fractal branches, thereby, illustrating the principle behind fractals. My friends Angela, Jesse and I spent majority of our time exploring such fractal formations, including using multiple people to create more fractals and changing settings for types of trees and seasons. What appealed to me most about the exercise was that it engaged in the concept of fractals in tangible and dynamic way that was far removed from conventional math education. The dynamic element combined some kinaesthetic and visual creativity, and engaging people in those capacities makes them forget momentarily that they were actually manipulating a mathematical model, and its complexity simply became…approachable.
Later, I talked to Angela on her views as a journalist on effective science outreach. More on that later.