Artists in the House of Science
When I was in 3rd grade, the teacher asked us to draw pictures of what we wanted to be when we grew up. I knew immediately. I drew a huge room with computers for walls, tables lined with test tubes, explosive chemical reactions, whiteboards filled with equations, and at the bottom, in huge purple crayon, I wrote “Scientist.”
To little me, the scientist was the human god. They created electricity and plumbing, they wrote the equations that got us to the moon, they tamed volcanoes and discovered dinosaurs, they even created the computer in the back of the classroom where I played Number Munchers during recess. Smart, rigorous, and infinitely benevolent, the great scientists created a better, more exciting world for all of humanity.
So. It was with this great expectation of magnificence that I began working with Emergence at ASU, a research group at the Beyond Center that studies the origin of life. I had set up a meeting with Sara Walker, a theoretical physicist, astrobiologist, and NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow. So naturally, I expected vats full of primordial ooze, giant algorithms that explained human behavior, and at least a conscious robot or two.
“We actually understand more about atoms than we do about ourselves,” Sara says.
A group of us sit in her office, one wall lined with books, the other with whiteboards. I was ready to learn the secret origin of how life started on earth, but Sara doesn’t look like she has the answer. “Truthfully, we know almost nothing about ourselves. We’re less concerned with data than we are about ways of explaining.”
This was…different than I had expected. I saw no robots, no synthetic brains. Out here, on the hairy edge of science, they are as lost as the rest of us!
“So some of what you do is figuring out the right question?” I ask.
“Yeah. That’s like 90% of what we do.” She says, laughing. “It takes so much creativity to try to figure out how the world works.”
It takes so much what? Creativity? I’m sorry, but that’s our buzzword. The artist’s buzzword.
When I left my dreams of science behind and dove into the world of theatre in high school, I said goodbye to the world of rigor and equations. Growing up, the artistic world of creativity, openness, and whimsy was the opposite of algebra, statistics, and baking soda volcanoes. I loved art because I didn’t need to worry about all the rigor, I could just play with color, story, and above all creativity. So, now, sitting in the house of science, ready to get blown away by intricate experiments and computer simulations, I find myself face-to-face with the creativity? You’re telling me that if scientists don’t know something, they just make it up and see what happens? That’s what I’ve been doing in the theatre!
“Usually we work toward the simplest explanation for how things work,” she says. “But I like to work from the explanation that empowers people the most. That we can create reality–we aren’t just subjected to it.”
She leans back in her chair and smiles. “So, what else do you want to know?”
This is the first post in a series about Catalyst Collective’s residency at Emergence@ASU. For the inaugural post go here. More posts will be coming every two weeks. Coming up next: 1,000 Ways of Asking.