from the world's big
What Science Can Learn from the Arts: Data, Visualization, Design
Adam Bly is the founder and editor-in-chief of Seed Magazine and the Chairman/CEO of Seed Media Group. Seed is a bi-monthly science magazine based out of New York and is distributed internationally. The magazine looks at issues located at the intersection of science and society. In 2007, Seed was nominated for two National Magazine Awards.
At 16, Bly was the youngest researcher at the National Research Council of Cancer, where he spent three years studying cell adhesion and cancer. Bly has received many international prizes, including being selected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2007, and has also received the Jubilee Medal. Bly lives in New York City.
Question: What can science learn from the arts?
Adam Bly: So in two ways I think science can learn from the arts – at least two ways. One very concretely in terms of ideas, and the other in terms of communication. The idea is being . . . let’s say a little bit more important. I think we’ve reached a point in science right now at the vanguard of science which I would consider to be theoretical physics and neuroscience; where the ideas and the questions that we’re asking have become such that the tools at our disposal in sort of traditionally scientific ways may be inadequate to achieve the kind of ideas and truths that we seek. It takes $8 billion dollar Super Colliders to move theoretical physics forward now, and that may or may not yield satiating results. We’ll find out next year. Neuroscience has been built over the last little while from the bottom up. It’s a field that is dominated by bits of research, and bits of understanding, and is deficient right now; is lacking for top down kind of masterful theories . . . big theories which certainly physics has. In both cases the study of consciousness requires that we certainly recognize that we ourselves are in the equation as we’re studying consciousness, which necessarily effects the equation. And in theoretical physics, if you believe string theory to be true – or if at least you assume . . . hypothesize and you . . . you use string theory as your dominant theory right now, you need an 11 dimensional universe. And so devising the experimental conditions, and more importantly being able to even intellectually grasp that kind of an idea which our brains as we know them and as we currently use them are incapable of fathoming. An 11 dimensional universe is simply something that we don’t know how to think about, we also don’t know how to talk about, we don’t know how to draw. So we become bounded, limited by our own inadequacies in trying to understand a universe that didn’t build itself for us. And similarly trying to understand the mind, thinking about thinking is no simple task. And so there’s an important marriage, I think, in trying to achieve real understanding of these areas of the natural world in marrying both experiments and experience. There’s a wonderful book going to be coming out this fall called “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” by a writer at Seed named Jonah Lehrer based on a work that he published in a magazine which basically looks at some major thinkers in the 20th century – from Proust, to Cezanne, to Stravinsky, to __________, to others, and looks at how they very much in their expressions of experience, in their writings, in their music, in their paintings, anticipated some of the discoveries in modern neuroscience. I think that when you look at multiple dimensional universes today, many physicists will site a 19th century book by Edwin Abbott called “Flatland” which sort of very beautifully articulated a world of two dimensions where everything . . . one big sheet of paper and all of us were just sort of sheets of paper on another sheet of paper. And based on the size of the sheets of paper and how they interacted, that would determine the hierarchies in society and how we communicated. And then at some point this two dimensional world hears about . . . talks about a third three dimensional world, and they can’t even begin to fathom what a three dimensional world would be like in some distant space land somewhere. And that kind of interplay of not being able to even grasp the idea of a three dimensional universe is quite relevant to theoretical physics and many theoretical physicists today are citing Edwin Abbott’s work in the 19th century. I think metaphor and language is critical not only to communicating – so this maybe bridges both the idea and the communication . . . It is not only critical to communicating scientific ideas outside of science to the people who fund it . . . and so there’s very, you know, practical reasons why science needs new languages, new tools, new visualizations; but also within science. Just to be able to navigate these very complex ideas, metaphor is incredibly valuable. Metaphor is sort of one of the pillars of . . . Being able to understand science is to create metaphors. Our metaphors become profoundly more rich when scientists interact with artists and engage the arts community in the kinds of ideas that they’re navigating. We’re also, as a result of the rise in super computing and the incredible powers that technology is contributing to science, being overwhelmed with data. If you think about the sheer size, the magnitude of the human genome project; or of efforts now to map the brain; or of missions in deep space, and of satellite data that’s coming back; and so on and so forth – great simulations that are being . . . They’re able to happen right now as a result of super computing, we’re able to do a lot more and get a lot more back. But we are still limited by this 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, or by this 15 inch monitor that we have at our disposal. And so somehow expressing data – communicating, visualizing, synthesizing data in ways that is functional and has real value is no simple task. And this is a world that design has a much greater aptitude with than science. And so there’s great potential for designers to greatly benefit scientists in that regard. I think also the arts has a completeness to it in the way that people perceive its relationship with truth. People see art as something, because of its subjectivity; because of its incompleteness in some respects; or fuzzier kind of qualities; because of the way it looks, because of course the aesthetics; and for other factors, we see the arts . . . some of us see the arts as a more full way of understanding love, or peace, or war – sort of very big ideas. And science is, in many respects, lacking for that kind of quality in the way it’s perceived by the general public. And so finding the ways to imbue science and not just make it pretty . . . You know it’s really not about making it prettier before it goes out, you know, to the papers and the press release; but really finding ways to express scientific ideas in more satisfying ways to our . . . to sort of satiate our needs for this romantic kind of quality that we associate with truth I think is really important. And I think that’s something that the arts is . . . are very contributing to the sciences today. I think that the only way that we really do achieve the kinds of understanding that we seek about the questions that are in front of us about the natural world today will come from the consilience of the sciences and the arts. This is something that’s been talked about for quite some time, and of course historically has been one of the great sources of innovation and prosperity in the world. And when you look at the Renaissance and you see what the sort of forces were at play influencing the Renaissance centuries ago, we find ourselves in a sort of similarly interesting . . . and suitable conditions right now, both in terms of the kinds of questions that are in front of us; in terms of we’re starting to see new things about the world because of globalization; because of our abilities to interact on the Web with more people, see more things, experience new things. There are so many different forces acting on the world right now that should be useful in spurring that kind of renaissance. And I think there’s a great desire on the part of many scientists and the part of many artists, and we feel it. I mean this is a world that we live in. This is a world that we’re certainly helping to spur. We feel an energy in the coming together of the arts and the scientists which is fresh and both practical and philosophically satisfying.
Recorded on: 10/17/07
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com.
"Being able to understand science is to create metaphors," says Bly, founder of SEED magazine. "Our metaphors become profoundly more rich when scientists interact with artists and engage the arts community in the kinds of ideas that they’re navigating."
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
Manly Bands wanted to improve on mens' wedding bands. Mission accomplished.
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These new status behaviours are what one expert calls 'inconspicuous consumption'.