This year, as Explorations Camp and Westmount Science join their efforts to offer an ever richer and more diversified program for children and adolescents, I am happy to join this amazing organization as its Science Program Director.
In our world of portable communications and computer technologies, our youth have at their fingertips powerful tools to help them realize and share their creative endeavours. It is sometimes tempting to concentrate on helping them become skilled users of all this wizardry, rather than tediously explaining the hidden mechanics of it all. For won’t we kill their sense of wonder if we reveal what’s “under the hood”, be it the workings of the engine of a rocket, the composition of the pigments in a masterpiece by van Gogh, or the way our brains process a beautiful Mozart concerto? Quite the contrary!
Seeing the world through a scientific mindset is a marvelous and stimulating experience. It adds many new dimensions to the immediate perception of art, music, or nature. Understanding the interactions of matter and light and the functioning of living organisms through math, physics, chemistry, and biology is like discovering spectacular beauties and fundamental truths that lie hidden in the patterns of the universe. It allows us to become true artists and not just artisans.
Science also makes us better citizens. It doesn’t always give clear answers to complex social problems, but it does help us approach them with a critical mindset – and better yet a self-critical mindset. It gives us realistic yardsticks by which to measure the implications of our lifestyles on our environment. It can even help us get away from once useful technologies that science brought us, but that can harm us in the long run. It makes us humble and inspires us to see ourselves as part of the same “stuff” that makes up the world and not as its masters.
No one has expressed all this better than the physicist Richard Feynman, so I will end this note with a favourite quote of mine from his famous Lectures on Physics:
“Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is “mere”. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination – stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern – of which I am a part – perhaps my stuff was belched from some forgotten star, as one is belching there. Or see them with the greater eye of Palomar, rushing all apart from some common starting point when they were perhaps all together. What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it! Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?”