14 August 2008

From Krulwich's Caltech Commencement address

Robert Krulwich, correspondent for NPR science desk, was invited to Caltech to give the commencement address this year. The speech was put on the Radiolab podcast a few weeks ago and I finally got a chance to listen.

The topic he discussed was the duty of scientists to explain their work and tell their stories in a way that a non-scientists will understand. The speech was outstanding. Here are some of my favorite quotes.

So here's my question, when you are asked "What are you working on?" should you think: There's no way I can talk about my science with this guy, because I don't have the talent, I don't have the words, I don't have the patience to do it. It's too hard. And anyway what's the point?

Which is, by the way, not an unusual position. No less than Isaac Newton, I mean Sir Isaac Newton, when asked, Why did you make the Principia Mathematica, your earthshaking book about gravity and laws of motion, so impossibly hard to read, he said well I considered writing a popular version that people might understand, but, and I am quoting Newton here, "to avoid being baited by little smatterers in mathematics" he intentionally wrote a book in dense scholarly latin with lots of math so that only scholars could follow. In other words, Isaac Newton didn't care to be understood by average folks.

But here's the argument I want to make to you guys this morning. You aren't going to hear this advice often; I suggest you may never hear it again.

When asked about your work, do not do what Isaac Newton did. When a cousin, or an uncle, or a buddy comes up and asks, "So what are you working on?" even if it's hard to explain, even if you know they don't really want to hear it, not really, I urge you to give it a try; Because, talking about science, telling stories to regular folks is not a trivial thing. Scientists need to tell stories to non-scientists, because science stories-- and you know this-- have to compete with other stories about how the universe works and how the universe came to be.

Your teachers [at Caltech] ... were giving you values. A deep respect for curiosity, for doubt, for open-mindedness. For going wherever the data lead no matter how uncomfortable. For honesty, for discipline. And most of all, the belief that anybody no matter where they're from, no matter what their language, no matter what their religion, no matter what their politics, no matter what their age or their temperament -- I mean this place has seen monstrous egos, and bongo players, and people who dress in viking hats-- but if you can learn how to sit down in a laboratory and think in an orderly way, and if you have the patience to stare and stare and stare, looking for a pattern in nature, you are welcome here. It may be boring, it may be sometimes very exhausting, but there's a freedom, there's a freedom in this way of looking that is precious in the world, and that freedom can be attacked or defended with stories.

Unlike Newton, Galileo wanted to tell people what was on his mind. Unlike Newton, he thought that people could understand him-- that's why he got in so much trouble. ... He wrote [The Dialogues] in Italian for a mass audience. ... So, because Galileo's book was so easy to read, and such a page turner, it so threatened the established order that Galileo, as you know, was put under house arrest. And it wasn't just the science that was alarming, I think it was the power of his storytelling.

But the job that we face is to put more stories out there about nature that are true and complex-- not dumbed down-- but still have the power to enthrall, to excite, to remind people that there's a deep beauty, a many-leveled beauty in the world. And what scientists say is not their offhand opinion, it's hard-won information, it's carefully hewn from the world. It's not a bunch of ideas from a tribe of privileged intellectuals who look down on everybody. It's my sense that if more scientists wanted to, they could learn how to tell their stories with words and pictures and metaphor, and people will hear and remember those stories, and not be as willing to accept the other folks stories-- or at least there will be a tug of war.

You are part of and you are celebrating something very rare and very precious and very fragile in our world. This place celebrates freedom. And because you are now free men and women, you have to protect what you've been given, by helping others who haven't been here, who are never coming here to understand the value of what you do, and what your teachers do, and what their predecessors have done.

1 comment:

Michael Paul Bailey said...

Thank you. I was looking for a transcript of this speech so I could copy a particular line. Your post had the very line I needed. Thanks.