Science and Storytelling

Vasudevan Mukunth (VM) has two pieces on his blog titled The Rationalist’s Eclipse and another one titled Social Media and Science Communication that talks largely about Science Communication on the ground and on social media. When we wonder about how to communicate Science. The answer lies in the Arts. It lies in the creative ways that the current protests around the CAA/NRC have used on the ground and social media to spread the message like wild fire in posters, speeches, poetry and kolams. I want to point VM to where the answer may lie to the questions he raises in his two blog posts.

I was reading Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings newsletter dated December 26, 2019 and it brought to light some of the modern efforts and failures of Science communication in India that VM highlights in the article above. The large part of the country is still superstitious and I see the role of science communication in India as being making aware people of the applications available to the people of that which has been illuminated by modern Science. Johannes Kepler also lived in a similar milieu. He seems to be grappling with some of the issues that we face in Science communication today. This is not a definitive answer by any stretch, just a possibility.

Now, we come back to Maria Popova’s Braing Pickings dated December 26, 2019. I suggest to you to read, “How Kepler Invented Science Fiction and Defended His Mother in a Witchcraft Trial While Revolutionizing Our Understanding of the Universe” in full.

Some of the quotes from that article are what I am reproducing below:

In his first book, The Cosmographic Mystery, Kepler picked up the metaphor and stripped it of its divine dimensions, removing God as the clockmaster and instead pointing to a single force operating the heavens: “The celestial machine,” he wrote, “is not something like a divine organism, but rather something like a clockwork in which a single weight drives all the gears.” Within it, “the totality of the complex motions is guided by a single magnetic force.” It was not, as Dante wrote, “love that moves the sun and other stars” — it was gravity, as Newton would later formalize this “single magnetic force.” But it was Kepler who thus formulated for the first time the very notion of a force — something that didn’t exist for Copernicus, who, despite his groundbreaking insight that the sun moves the planets, still conceived of that motion in poetic rather than scientific terms. For him, the planets were horses whose reins the sun held; for Kepler, they were gears the sun wound by a physical force.

Maria Popova, Braing Pickings, 26/12/2019

Kepler knew what we habitually forget — that the locus of possibility expands when the unimaginable is imagined and then made real through systematic effort. Centuries later, in a 1971 conversation with Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke about the future of space exploration, science fiction patron saint Ray Bradbury would capture this transmutation process perfectly: “It’s part of the nature of man to start with romance and build to a reality.” Like any currency of value, the human imagination is a coin with two inseparable sides. It is our faculty of fancy that fills the disquieting gaps of the unknown with the tranquilizing certitudes of myth and superstition, that points to magic and witchcraft when common sense and reason fail to unveil causality. But that selfsame faculty is also what leads us to rise above accepted facts, above the limits of the possible established by custom and convention, and reach for new summits of previously unimagined truth. Which way the coin flips depends on the degree of courage, determined by some incalculable combination of nature, culture, and character.

Maria Popova, Brain Pickings, 26/12/2019

The scientific proof was too complex, too cumbersome, too abstract to persuade even his peers, much less the scientifically illiterate public; it wasn’t data that would dismantle their celestial parochialism, but storytelling.

Maria Popova, Brain Pickings, 26/12/2019

The newsletter has writing which is taken from Figuring, a book Maria Popova wrote in February 2019, stretching from the work of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) to Rachel Carson (1907-1964). A book that I hope will be part of my reading journey in 2020.

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