This column first ran in The Tablet in March 2017
What do you tell a room of bright young high school science students? That has been my challenge recently, visiting Jesuit high schools across North America. Pope Leo XIII wanted the Vatican Observatory to show the world how the Church supports science; while the other Jesuits have been doing the science, I’ve been “showing the world”.
The hardest but most important message for these students to hear is the need to look beyond the math and sciences they love, to treasure as well other course work that they might find more difficult to appreciate. Unlike in Britain, schools in America are less likely to narrow their focus purely into “arts” or “sciences” tracks, but the students themselves may well gravitate into the sciences because they feel awkward in the disciplines where they feel less talented.
Science is a field of exciting ideas; but it’s the arts that provide an essential education in how to communicate those ideas. Communication is exactly the skill that every scientist needs to master. If you can’t tell people what you did, you might just as well not have done it. Your colleagues must be able to understand your results; but more, you need to be able to explain compellingly why your results matter. (And why anyone should give you a grant to do more of it.)
This means public speaking… art… writing. Writing means reading; you only learn to write well by reading things that are written well. But even more, the exercise of analyzing a poem or a play is exactly the same skill you eventually use to analyze data. (Or someone else’s scientific paper.) The place where I learned how to “analyze data” was in fact in high school English literature class, where we learned how to pull apart a poem, see how the different lines and words worked, and put it back together.
I found when I was teaching university physics that my best students had all had Latin in high school. I don’t think that was only just because the best students in American high schools are tracked into Latin classes! But there’s more to it than being trained in the rigorous logic of Latin grammar; an ability with any foreign language gets you used to looking at things you have taken for granted from a completely different context and point of view. (One school I visited, Belen Jesuit Prep, is fully bilingual; it was founded in Havana and transplanted to Miami in 1961.)
A basic knowledge of art and the fundamentals of graphic design are essential. When competing teams wind up doing similar work (a fairly common occurrence, in science) the team whose paper is most cited is usually the one with the clearest and most compelling diagrams. A good plot is something that can make your paper, and your reputation.
At scientific meetings nowadays, most work is presented as posters; thus every scientist needs to learn how to do layout properly. And if your work is chosen for one of the valued oral presentation slots, you’ll need to know how to prepare a Powerpoint presentation that can communicate both your ideas and the excitement behind them, free of useless and distracting bells and whistles. This of course also points up the essential need to be comfortable speaking on your feet, to know how to connect with an audience.
Astronomy is not stars and planets. Astronomy is human beings talking about those stars and planets. Sharing ideas and questions and dreams. The very arts that make us richer people, make us better scientists. Or, maybe, it works the other way around.