First Person: From iambic pentameter to differential equations, Faith Tucker '11 explores liberal arts in the real world
Friday, Nov 4, 2011
by Faith Tucker ’11
There are two sides to every coin. And there are (at least) two ways to describe any natural phenomenon.
Take one of Walla Walla’s stunning sunsets, for example. A physics professor may describe this typical Whitman backdrop as the electromagnetic radiation from the Sun undergoing Rayleigh scattering as it passes through the atmosphere low on the horizon, causing the shorter blue wavelengths of light to be scattered away while leaving the longer red wavelengths to reach the observer. However, an English professor may describe the very same event as a poignantly emotional moment that arouses a sense of finality and subdued reflection as a chapter of life comes to a close. And then there’s also your guilty conscience, for which sunset marks the lamentable end of Ultimate practice and serves as a stark reminder that you really must start that Encounters paper now.
Sunsets aside, Whitman taught me that life is indeed interdisciplinary. After graduating in 2011 with a double major in astronomy and religion, I have struck out to put my crisp new degrees to work. I’ve weathered many a quizzical glance at the mention of my disciplines of choice over the last four years: it seems people don’t consider knowledge of constellations and polytheistic mythology to be particularly marketable. Go figure.
Yet so far, I’m finding the myth that a liberal arts education is impractical as untenable as the notion that any onion could ever compare with a Walla Walla sweet.
For the last two summers I interned at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington DC, working in astrophysics education and public outreach. When not hanging around the world’s largest high bay clean room (where the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s extraordinary successor, is being painstakingly constructed) or road-tripping to Cape Canaveral to watch the last Space Shuttle launch in history, I managed to find time to try my hand as a science writer and educator.
That takes me back to the hypothetical sunset in question. The duality, or multiplicity as the case may be, of descriptions for a single phenomenon is an example of what British scientist and novelist CP Snow once described in his book titled “The Two Cultures.” In his experience, modern society seemed hopelessly split into two camps – the humanities and the sciences. Each “culture” had its own distinct interpretation of the world around them, but neither had even the most basic knowledge of the other discipline. Conflict ensued. With one foot in each camp, Snow gives the following personal example:
“A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”
To Snow, writing in England during the 1950s and 1960s, the division between science and the humanities was thought to be a major obstacle in overcoming many problems facing the world. Since that time, the ever-flowing river of technological and scientific advancements has only broadened the expanse separating the banks of the scientific community from that of those for whom iambic pentameter may come more naturally than differential equations. More than ever, there is a need today for people who can bridge this divide, clearly communicating the science that is shaping society and its relevance to those outside of the scientific community. And this is exactly what Whitman equipped me to do.
It is within this growing gap that I have a found a thrilling avenue in which to engage my supposedly impractical liberal arts education. Science writers, along with all science educators, take the often impenetrable language of science and interpret it for the general public, alerting them to important discoveries and developments in an understandable and accessible manner. A successful science writer must not only have a thorough scientific background, but he/she also must be a skilled communicator, a world-class nutsheller, and a master of metaphor – a tall order to say the least! While at NASA, I had the opportunity to hone these skills while writing a series of blogs on the interdisciplinary nature of astrophysics, which can be found here.
It is important to remember, however, that science education does not occur in a vacuum; science is constantly coming in contact with countless other cultural forces, including religion. For many, the subject of science and faith is either taboo or oxymoronic, but there are some who hope to challenge the assumption that these two branches of knowledge are inherently in conflict. In light of my unorthodox choice of majors and my experience in science education at both Whitman and NASA, I have found myself uniquely equipped to step into this discussion of the overlap of science and faith in the U.S. today. I’m currently interning at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in a program called the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion, which works to promote healthy, constructive dialogue between the scientific and religious communities. This has been an extraordinary opportunity to put my passion into practice, and it is only possible because of the interdisciplinary exploration of the world that Whitman afforded me.
Sunsets have many different but complementary understandings, each viewpoint lending depth and insight to the others. This multiplicity of perspectives is true of the whole physical universe and is why it’s important to facilitate communication between all “cultures,” whether scientific, literary, religious or otherwise.
Snow felt that the gap in understanding between the scientific and non-scientific communities was an impediment to solving the many problems facing the world. If this is indeed true, then surely an interdisciplinary liberal arts education provides vitally important skills for our growing global community. A bridge is needed to connect the increasingly separate realms of science and the humanities, and I for one hope that my life’s work helps to straddle this divide for the benefit of all communities.