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Teaching the Beauty of Science

Understanding is a lot like sex. It’s got a practical purpose, but that’s not why people do it normally.
Frank Oppenheimer (as cited in Girod et al., 2002, p. 575)
The concepts of art, beauty, creativity, and passion merging with science are not novel. A large body of literature exists drawing the relationship between science and aesthetics, and many who have committed their careers and their lives to scientific pursuits have a clear understanding of this relationship. Why, then do so many science curricula draw on completely opposite concepts to try to instill scientific knowledge? We teach science by telling pupils to step back from the world and analyze it with cold logic and rigorous methods, and while these are certainly necessary techniques to acquire accurate data, they are by no means the driving force that propels scientific discovery. Great science and world-changing ideas come from those who are immersed in their work, they are passionate about it, and they find many aspects of nature, and even some experiments themselves, beautiful.
So instead of drilling facts and figures and definitions into young minds, how do we teach them that science is beautiful? How do we help them experience the delight of an elegant experiment and beautiful results? Girod et al. provide a few thoughtful suggestions on this in their 2002 publication, “Teaching for Aesthetic Understanding”, which I will explain my interpretation of below:
1. Crafting Content
       I find this point to be particularly impactful. It is the idea that science concepts are often taught as content to be learned rather than experiences to relish. Many concepts that we teach and take for granted today were once revolutionary. For example, identifying DNA. Imagine living in a world that did not understand how traits were conserved between beings, and then identifying the physical record that contained individuals’ traits. It’s a pretty revolutionary concept that is often blankly stated in textbooks and classrooms. The first step in creating aesthetic understanding is to reframe existing concepts as the captivating ideas they once were.
2. Crafting Dispositions
      This point emphasizes the usefulness of thought experiments for all levels of scientists, and suggests more questions should be asked in a “what if” format to encourage creativity and understanding. For example, “what if this rock could talk?” could be used to trigger a conversation of geological processes in a much more memorable way than simply asking someone to identify a set of geological processes.
3. Emphasis on the artistic Expansion of Perception
      This point suggests that teachers should emphasize the concept of “re-seeing” something that the student already knows. Very often, humans see things that they have seen before, and their brains generalize and simplify these images in our head. After walking past a park, someone might say they saw trees, and their minds eye will fill in a generic “tree”. This is a concept often used in intro art classes, wherein the artist must learn to draw what they see, and not what their brain knows they’re seeing. For example, when asked to draw a flower in front of them, many students will default to drawing a cartoon form of a flower they know to represent “flower”, rather than actually drawing the contours their eyes see. This same concept transfers to science – for example, many people know the heart is responsible for pumping blood to the rest of the body….but if we look closely at a real heart, we see there are 4 chambers, and a couple holes between them….what’s all that for? (a curious observer might ask). “Re-seeing” objects stimulates questions and curiosity, and is the initiation of learning.
These are just three starting points for attempting to teach aesthetic understanding, and while the ideas in this blog post aren’t developed enough to replace an entire science curriculum yet, having teachers use techniques in this vein would go a long way in stimulating genuine curiosity and engagement with science.

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Publish or Perish: Incentivizing Personal over Societal Gains

I challenge you to find a member of higher education who has not hear of the phrase “publish or perish”. Whether our immediate supervisors push this mantra or not, we all know if to be true. “Grant reviewers can’t read, but they can count” I have been told by a mentor, implying that the committees reviewing my status as a researcher may not take the time to review the quality of my work, but they sure will place judgement on the number of manuscripts I’ve published in peer-reviewed journals.

I think it’s just as universally recognized that publish or perish is not a sustainable mantra to live by, nor one that maximizes benefit for society over the individual, yet it is pushed in higher education just the same. While in theory, this concept may seem to spur great productivity, instead what often results are publications that are so obscure, context-specific, or just plain obvious, that they may not have been worth the time or effort required to get paper to publication. I’ve seen firsthand when scientists make the argument that, yes, it seems like everyone in the field is aware that z will occur when you add x and y, but no one has published it yet and so it’s ripe for the picking. However, is spreading this information to a field that already recognizes it to be true worth your time and resources to run the experiments and the publishers time and resources to review and print it? Maybe, if it’s a foundational concept. But if this is something that has already been assumed for decades, then maybe you are providing some level of comfort to other researchers, but for the most part, you have not enlightened society on the whole or provided a new platform from which new work can develop.

Of course, there certainly are topics that seem obscure and are hard to pinpoint a direct and immediate application for. In fact, some of my own work may fall into this category, and indeed, many advancements have been made with relatively old findings that technology was simply not ready to utilize yet. My concern is that the argument that “this will be useful to someone eventually” is a very easy façade to hide behind, and authors should sincerely consider how meaningful each “quick” publication is to society as a whole.

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Science and Social Media

How should we use social media as scientists in academia? I honestly don’t know. I’ve done a fair amount of reading on the subject, and there certainly seem to be a lot of theoretical benefits to existing in the social media realm as a scientist. My own personal experience suggests some platforms may be more useful than others, and I have definitely lost more time than I would like to admit scrolling through media, telling myself it’s not a waste because, after all, I only follow scientists, so this is basically work, right? Wrong, but we’ll get to that.

Social Media for Scientists”, printed in Nature in 2018, neatly laid out some pros and cons of using platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to disseminate research and interact with one’s colleagues. I thought it made many good observations of possible benefits of these platforms, including:

  • Sharing recent or insightful publications
  • Hearing conference goings-on without necessarily attending, via live tweets
  • Finding collaborators
  • Lively discussions with colleagues in your field
  • Posting job openings

As I said, these are all well and good in theory, and are in fact reasons I joined Twitter in the first place. But I have to admit, this may be the point at which this blog becomes a rant, because I don’t feel like I have benefitted in any of these ways. I must also preface this by noting that the current social media-verse is saturated with political drama, which in my opinion is valid even for science outlets to be publishing because of the denial of the current administration to face scientific facts. However, this definitely limits my ability to scroll through social media without getting lost on political tangents and eventually being completely diverted from science. I imagine this to be a transient phenomenon, but it is nevertheless one that steers me away from using Twitter to disseminate scientific information.

Additionally, not all fields are conducive to social media. I’m not exactly sure why yet, but cardiac electrophysiology (molecular or clinical) simply does not have much of a presence in Twitter or elsewhere. Is this because the majority of the field’s leaders are relatively old men? Perhaps. In any case, while I love reading about all kinds of science, I find very little content from my own field, which makes it even harder to justify the endless scrolling. Other fields, particularly neuroscience, that have “sexy” figures and lot of bright, colorful imaging techniques, as well as a massively growing community and a diverse, youthful population of PIs, seem to have much more success in social media.

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