Drawbridges to the Ivory Tower

SHREYA VARDHAN

People can only value knowledge for its own sake when they are actively engaged with it.

Debate 4, Shreya Vardhan FeaturedAlbert Einstein’s paper on special relativity is a masterpiece. Staggeringly imaginative and ingenious, it is an accomplishment of the human mind as spectacular as Beethoven’s symphonies or Shakespeare’s plays. Yet without prior knowledge of physics and mathematics, even the most dedicated armchair scientist might find a Sunday morning perusal of the paper rather perplexing. Artists, bankers, and presidents curious about their world will not be able to devote years to the mathematical or technical training required to appreciate the full glory of modern science, just as many among Beethoven’s audience might not have possessed his musical skill. But these spectators of science, just like the listeners, deserve to be acquainted with the ideas and possibilities of our age.

Thanks to researchers who have taken on the challenge of making esoteric subjects accessible, people who have been vexed by the actual text of “On the electrodynamics of moving bodies,” and or by sketchy, trivia-strewn webpages about special relativity, can hope for greater satisfaction. Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos or Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time have come to the rescue.

Not only would one of the primary goals of research—the expansion of human knowledge—remain incompletely fulfilled if the acquired knowledge were confined to the scientific community, a lack of public interest could also hurt research in the long run. Words like “superstring theory” and “evolutionary biology” are tossed around quite a bit, but they can hardly be expected to catch taxpayers’ imaginations or to encourage funding if the concepts behind them remain largely unknown. People can only value knowledge for its own sake when they are actively engaged with it.

There is no doubt that the future of research will be determined by the minds it attracts. As nothing can be more inspiring to a future neuroscientist or anthropologist than the nature and scope of the subject itself, the efforts of researchers to elucidate their discoveries can help bright young people identify their own interest in similar work. Further, to ensure that the rapid advances in fields like biotechnology, renewable energy, and computer science are effectively used for their intended purposes, researchers must interpret their findings to policy-makers, administrators, and the millions they can affect.

These ends can only be achieved by those who have both the expertise and the passion for research. The internet does offer a vast array of “popular” science, but some resources run the risk of twisting research findings, rather than to champion academically rigorous work. TED talks by academicians are among the more effective sources on the inernet. I am a convert myself: Murray Gell-Mann’s talk on the “beauty” of physical laws helped draw me into physics, which has now become my intended concentration.

The accessible and simplified sources of knowledge that “popular” scientists create run parallel to the actual technical work meant for academia; the accusation that they are “dumbing down” research is thus rather elitist. The attempt to translate mathematical curiosities into words, or to view biological findings in context does not diminish the value of the discoveries—it just adds another fascinating dimension for our benefit.

Sheya Vardhan is a Brevia staff writer. She can be reached at shreyavardhan@college.harvard.edu.