Top Menu

Finding Things Out Only Adds

Since I seem to have started on a philosophical kick this week, how about we consider Richard Feynman’s “Ode To A Flower” commentary in the video below? You can also see it illustrated in an awesome Zen Pencil’s comic.

Like Feynman’s friend, I remember being in my high school science class and thinking that it was robbing life of all its wonder. I would rather be entranced by the fictitious stories that made things seem magical than to learn the dull truth that it was all a result of chemical reactions.

Later, I came to appreciate, as Feynman points out, that science actually gives you the tools to extend your wonder and experience the delight of discovery.

For example, one of the things I have wondered about for 20+ years is whether squirrels in Florida hide nuts for the winter since there is no danger of food scarcity. If they don’t, if you transported a Florida squirrel to Boston, would instincts kick in and lead it to hide nuts or would it be in danger of starving?

It may sound like a silly question, but I keep it tucked away in the back of my mind in case I meet a scientist who can provide the answer. I find it exciting to know that I can discover that answer and receive additional interesting revelations with follow up questions.

Feynman’s short comments illustrate just how valuable the skill of communicating what you do to the uninitiated is. Feynman was great at explaining scientific concepts to people. A lot of scientists aren’t.

By the same measure, a lot of artists and arts organizations aren’t really good at explaining art and the value of the arts either. I wonder how much of that is due to simple lack of practice and how much is due to fear of being accused of selling out or dumbing things down.

I had a recent email exchange with Carter Gillies about this subject. I wondered if the scientific community felt Neil DeGrasse Tyson wasn’t a real scientist because he used his public profile to explain science to the general public. Is he accused of dumbing things down for a general audience? Do people suggest he can’t have time to engage in real scientific work due to all his media appearances?

I assume I don’t need to cite any parallel sentiments in the arts and cultural sphere.

Unfortunately, in these days when people have a high degree of control over the information they receive and are able to more easily ignore and filter out what they don’t want to hear, explaining the value of a subject becomes more difficult even for highly skilled communicators.

Frequently the initial encounter with the revelations and new questions that emerge isn’t easy or comfortable to bear.

Even with the tools to communicate your message to a wide range of people, getting someone like the high school me to accept a less magical view of the world in exchange for one that still had a lot of potential for wonder requires a retail, one-on-one, effort.

While Feynman gave physics lectures to packed lectures halls, the “Ode To A Flower” comment came from a series of one on one discussions he and artist Jirayr Zorthian had about art and physics over the course of eight years.

As an added aside: There is frequently discussion about people needing to see people like themselves on stage. I can’t express the thrill I got when I first heard a New York accent coming out of the mouth of a person acknowledged to be a brilliant scientist. I think it can be easy to underestimate the impact of those types of experiences.

4 Responses to Finding Things Out Only Adds

  1. gasstationwithoutpumps July 20, 2016 at 1:23 am #

    “I wondered if the scientific community felt Neil DeGrasse Tyson wasn’t a real scientist because he used his public profile to explain science to the general public. Is he accused of dumbing things down for a general audience? Do people suggest he can’t have time to engage in real scientific work due to all his media appearances?”

    Tyson is generally fairly well regarded among scientists, at least when he’s talking about physics. When he strays into evolutionary biology, though, he gets enough wrong to be embarrassing. It isn’t “dumbing down” that scientists fear so much as serious errors. Physicists often make serious errors in talking about biology, because they assume (without realizing it) that biology is a model-driven discipline like physics, while biology has much more data driven, with only rather fuzzy, often non-quantitative models.

  2. Amanda Kepner July 21, 2016 at 8:27 am #

    “By the same measure, a lot of artists and arts organizations aren’t really good at explaining art and the value of the arts either. I wonder how much of that is due to simple lack of practice and how much is due to fear of being accused of selling out or dumbing things down.”

    I am so tired of hearing the “dumbing things down” accusation when we try to make arts experiences accessible to a wider audience. What is better? That we entice more and more people to enjoy art experiences by meeting them where they are or have more and more people write us off as elitist and outdated? It is not the responsibility of the public to obtain knowledge before coming to the arts; it is the responsibility of the arts to bring our world unto the public. When you teach math to a 6 year old do you leap in with complicated formulas or start with basic addition? Is that dumbing down math? No, that is providing the building blocks that child needs to continue explore math throughout life. How is explaining the purpose and value of the arts any different?

    • gasstationwithoutpumps July 21, 2016 at 8:25 pm #

      When you explain things to young children, you are *expected* to dumb things down, so that they can follow. Treating adults that way is patronizing. It is possible, and desirable, to reach a wider audience without treating them like they are stupid.

      The inclusion of people not previously part of your audience is not easy—it can be achieved artistically (by using themes and genres comfortable for the wider audience), educationally (by teaching people how to appreciate the art form more thoroughly), economically (by providing special deals for audiences you are trying to reach—like free youth tickets with adult theater tickets), and socially (by combining art events with social gatherings that attract your desired audience).

      Nina Simon has done a lot of these things at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, and Mike Ryan has been doing them at Santa Cruz Shakespeare.

Leave a Reply

Navigation

Send this to friend