Friday, August 1, 2008

5: Science as a Modern Language

Our senses of sound, light, touch, smell, time and heat are our interfaces to the world; Life in all its psychedelic excess pours into us through them. Yet though we think of our nose as smelling, our eyes seeing and our ears hearing (etc), in reality they are just interface devices (I/O) converting physical phenomena into nerve-signals; it is inside our brains where these concepts are actually expressed. Equipped with appropriate I/O, the brain learns to interact with the variety and beauty of that media; without it, that media simply doesn't exist. The blind man does not see black, he doesn't experience anything of the visual spectrum at all!

Language is a good illustration of this. We all have ears, and can hear the sound of a language; but unless our brain is trained to it, we cannot understand what our ears pick up. We accept this, and also that understanding a spoken language does not directly transfer to an ability to speak it; even less to express its nuance in writing. It is unlikely an accomplished English born Poet will become an accomplished Japanese one ... yet he/she may learn to appreciate Japanese poetry in Japanese.

The world of music is another example. It is generally considered that sound itself has colour, expression, depth, meaning, (etc); words, when present, are a part of the sound and do not have to be understood or understandable (Cf: Opera and Amy Winehouse). We feel able to make artistic judgement on the merit of specific music ... but don't find it at all unusual that we cannot write, play music, or sing ourselves.

Of course we all have seen 'acclaimed' visual works and questioned the art that is actually in it! And have perceive the presence of a certain-something in other works, though found it hard to quantify it. And we readily accept that we could not satisfy our own expressive need in that medium.

It seems the more closely an 'art form' approaches human life-experience, the more more easily it is understood and valued by the masses. Music, Sport, Film/Visual and Architecture stimulate our innate understanding; and accordingly we feel qualified to judge quality and to offer relevant opinions. Even though the subtleties therein may still only be appreciated by experts; and those able to create great examples, few.

... To appreciate anything, one's brain needs to have the appropriate I/O for that world, and to be trained to an appropriate level in the languages involved.

So against this background we should not be surprised that the average person does not understand the many and subtle nuances of Science and Technology. Whilst they appreciate the functionality that they enable (from houses and automobiles, through to telephony and computation), the beauty within will remain a mystery to the great majority ... It has after all, no alignment with the innate human experience!

Science and Engineering are worlds with languages; expressing and realising exotic concepts ... That work! Its acolytes understand enough languages-of-science to understand what is being described. Its practitioners will in addition understand a few languages well enough to be imaginative and creative in them. And of course there are the few truly great artists who produce scientific works of great depth, beauty and elegance ... Works-of-art that fellow scientists appreciate and value, but more than 90% of people will never even comprehend the existence of.

... But great works of graphic art do exist, despite the blind man's inability to experience them.

So spare a thought for the 'scientifically blind' who will never experience these worlds; worlds so full of colour and depth, smell, sound, nuance, subtlety, imagination, heat and magic. Who will never know the dawn of scientific understanding; the birth of a new idea; the elegance of a well reasoned algorithm; the pleasure of a well proportioned architecture; the sound of a engineering solution; the smell of a successful design; the satisfaction of creation; the heat of the chase; the passion of ...

... Living amongst so many exciting worlds, is there any wonder that Scientists and Engineers can sometime seem distracted and distant in this one?

A basic education in Science and Mathematics provides the 'ears' to hear the music and the 'eyes' to see the colours. It enables ordinary people to experience the tip of the iceberg of the scientific multiverse that surrounds us. For some that learning, it is the starting of a journey of great pleasure and satisfaction; for others an awakening of awareness and appreciation. But a scientific education is never wasted ...

... A day without science, really is a life without sunshine!