Reaching Out

Science can be understood as a place of exchange, as a conversation juice, as a realm of inquiry. A natural consequence of this is the need of reaching out.

Science outreach incorporates a variety of activities aimed at promoting public awareness and understanding of science, and making informal contributions to science education. While there have always been individual scientists interested in science outreach, it has recently become more organized. For example, the National Science Foundation employ two criteria in the merit review of proposals: (i) the intellectual merit of the proposed activity; and (ii) the broader impacts of the proposed activity. The latter is a clear reference to science outreach and includes advancing discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning; broadening participation of under-represented groups; enhancing infrastructure for research and education; broadening dissemination to enhance scientific and technological understanding; and benefiting society. Science outreach can take over on a variety of forms. Some of these are conventional, such as lectures, workshops, and, of course, those found within the informal environment of a science museum. But there is also room for unconventional examples.

While science outreach has exploded in recent years, in part because STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—education is in the government’s mind the key to innovation, a similar trend is not as obvious in the arts, specifically in contemporary art. Unfortunately, contemporary art often seems to have lost touch with the general audience, and retreated to an airless echo chamber. As social critic Camille Paglia puts it, “the art world suffers from a monolithic political orthodoxy—an upper-middle-class liberalism far from the fiery antiestablishment leftism of the 1960s.” Nevertheless, and righteously, there are many advocating for constructively integrating an A—for the creative arts—into STEAM, where it belongs when thinking about the true meaning of innovation. As biochemist and writer Isaac Asimov once put it: “The true artist is quite rational as well as imaginative and knows what he is doing; if he does not, his art suffers. The true scientist is quite imaginative as well as rational, and sometimes leaps to solutions where reason can follow only slowly; if he does not, his science suffers.”

I have a high regard for both the scientist and the artist, and have interacted with many people that identify themselves as one or the other. In my experience, no matter how challenging it may be, more often than not, the scientist seems more willing to talk about their work and its context, in terms that everyone can approach, than the artist does. This is something that bothers me because an opportunity is missed; the opportunity to show that artists’ way of thinking and proceeding may be equally relevant in today’s world, and both necessary and complementary to that of scientists.

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