Seeking the poetry in science

Late in the month of July 2013 in French Guiana, a team of Indian experts was working feverishly towards delivering their newest baby, the INSAT-3D Weather Satellite. Not too far away at Comic Con International in San Diego, a different group of “experts” was waiting for the launch of another voyage into space. The event was the announcement of the sequel to the landmark 1980 television series, “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage“. Cosmos was a thirteen part documentary series which brought the charismatic astrophysicist and science communicator, Carl Sagan to the American living rooms and opened their mind’s doors to the galaxies in our interstellar neighbourhoods.

cosmos_saganJuly 2013 also saw the Supreme Court of India-appointed Technical Expert Committee recommending the withholding of field trials of genetically-modified (GM) crops till all regulatory gaps were addressed. While the anti-GM coalitions celebrated the recommendation, the pro-GM industry lobby declared the committee “anti-science”. With both sides pursuing their goals passionately, the unwary “layperson” was left confused and disinterested, leave alone informed. Similar is the case with several other scientific debates – climate change, energy, interlinking of rivers, etc. where the citizens are unable to decide what is truly “scientific” and judge if the choices being made by actors in the government, civil society and industry are indeed for the so-called common good. This begs the question of how we ought to bring scientific discussions to a lay platform, much like how Carl Sagan did in 1980.

We need to explore better means of communicating the good and the not-so-good effects of science. Besides peer reviewed academic journals and magazines, which are seldom available to laypersons, are there other ways to break the barriers between “experts” and “laypersons”? In a year which witnessed the release of a draft Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, we need to seek ways of making scientific information easily accessible and more so, understandable to one and all.

The success behind Cosmos was essentially the way it pioneered a harmonious blending of the scientific and the artistic to present a visual sonata to the layperson.  Today, like never before there is an increasing need to discuss the ramifications of science in our daily lives, in a manner akin to Cosmos. Fortunately, socially innovative efforts to blend science and the arts towards making better informed decisions are emerging at a rapid rate across the globe.

Sciencewise-ERC is the UK’s national centre for public dialogue in policy making involving science and technology issues. In its mandate to make policy decisions more democratic, the group ran a successful high school theatre programme to help students assess risks in science and technology. Similarly in the Netherlands, the Dutch Government made an open call for projects on TV, books, science cafes, games, theatre, etc. to provide information on nanotechnology to the public so as to help them understand the risks in using this emerging technology and then decide for themselves. Over the Internet, the extremely amusing PhD TV showcases short videos on natural phenomena and contentious scientific topics. In India, the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bengaluru hosts a Centre for Experimental Media Arts which brings artists, engineers, writers and scientists together, to work on projects which can add value to the world. These few illustrations only drive home the hypothesis that the artist and the scientist can indeed hold hands to help people take informed decisions on scientific processes and products which impact our lives.

Perhaps one day, we, as artists, scientists and citizens will learn to talk, sing and dance with one another. On that day, we will take a bow before our children, who will thank us for communicating science poetically to them. And on that day, our children will use science to promote sustainability, justice and above all… love.

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