Last night I finished physicist Sean Carroll’s latest book, a page-turning blend of human drama and lucid, personable explanation. Near the end, Carroll ventures a different kind of explanation, more subjective but just as well-earned as what preceded it: “Passion for science,” he writes, “derives from an aesthetic sensibility, not a practical one.” Understanding the world more deeply is about getting closer to its beauty, “like being able to read poetry in the original language, instead of being stuck with mediocre translations.”
It’s not a new idea; the link between science and beauty was a big deal for Sagan, for example, and runs back to Lucretius. But “aesthetic” means more than just “beautiful.” To put something in the aesthetic category is to emphasize the whole feel of it, the idea that that we come to it not just for what it is but also for how we’ll experience it: not just the sense but the sensibility (sorry, Jane). When we make or enjoy an aesthetic experience — say, writing or reading a book about something the author loves and the reader finds giddily mind-blowing — we’re engaging in something like play.
The aesthetic is the wider category around beauty and the arts and lots of other things we share and seek out for their intrinsic pleasure. Including science.
That’s what initially grabbed me, and had independently grabbed Dave Kaiser and a few of his colleagues at MIT: What’s changing in science engagement is the sensibility, the set of cultural and social assumptions that shape it. That spirit of play is becoming more overt, spinning out new forms.
All of which belies, or at least complicates, the pragmatic, utilitarian ways we usually talk about science communication and informal science education. Play? Maybe, but only as a means to some pedagogical, civic, or policy end. What counts are content and outcomes, not aesthetics.
So Carroll’s line went off like a flashbulb for me, illuminating both a landscape and a problem. The actual practice of public engagement is evolving faster than our frameworks for understanding, funding, and evaluating it. In the 21st century we’re (re)embracing the idea that science is and should be part of contemporary culture, which is where it lived before the wave of specialization and professionalization in the nineteenth century. We’re seeing a flowering of science engagement experiences that are funny and irreverent, emotional, self-revealing, process-revealing, spontaneous, artful, ‘indie,’ often social and participatory, candid about where knowledge leaves off and mystery lurks, and so on.
But we’re still talking about it in 20th century terms, as we did when public engagement was mostly a serious, reverential business: guarded about authority, institutional, “objective,” unilaterally professional, usually scripted and fairly formal in tone, and focused on the facts and ideas that “ought” to be communicated.
The problem preoccupied me. Sure, some of the coolest new science programs were winning support from foundations like Sloan (full disclosure: a funder of the Evolving Culture of Science Engagement initiative) and the NSF. But the field didn’t seem to be interested in talking about how the forms, settings, and sensibilities of public science engagement were changing; the conversation stayed in the familiar territory of education, workforce development, countering anti-science bias and denialism, and other policy imperatives — all of which are important, but none of which seemed to fully account for the rising creative energy and diversity in the field or the response of audiences.
So I started talking to people about how we might spark a slightly different conversation, ideally in a way that would raise further questions about how engagement really works and lead to empirical research and a new perspective in the field. At just the right moment I happened to meet Dave, who was visiting my adopted town of Santa Fe to give a talk about hippies and quantum physics. Dave looped me into the conversation he was already having with John Durant and Tom Levenson, and together (with the indispensable addition of Ben Wiehe) we began to hatch plans that became a two-day, transatlantic gathering of some of the most innovative science engagement practitioners, researchers, and funders we could find.
That gathering and the report we just released (okay, it took us a while; we all have day jobs) are only the beginning. The initial group we gathered has identified a wide range of open questions and contested assumptions that beg for further analysis, debate, research, and experimentation. Now comes the fun part, and we’ll need additional collaborators and new perspectives.
It’s an exciting moment for me, and I’m sure for my colleagues and all our advisors, funders, and other partners in the initiative, as well. Whether you’re already involved or are new to this conversation, we’d love to hear from you—especially if you’re helping push science engagement (or our understanding of it) in culturally new directions.