Science begins with questions, but what do people want to know about science?
William & Mary News looked into the most asked questions about science – as recorded by AnswerThePublic.com – and selected a few for our faculty to answer extensively.
In this Q&A, William & Mary’s Andreas Stathopoulos and Gene Tracy answer two of these questions: “Why is science communication important?” and “How do science and technology affect society?”. William & Mary is a leader in the evolution of liberal arts and sciences; its scientists are addressing such broad themes by conjugating scientific rigor and critical thinking.
Stathopoulos, a professor of computer science, researches high performance and scientific computing; he has a key role in a multi-institution investigation of quantum chromodynamics funded by the Department of Energy.
Tracy is Chancellor Professor Emeritus of Physics. His latest book, “The Icarus question: Essays about science, technology, and the search for home in a changing world,” was inspired by his courses at William & Mary, where he taught from 1984 to 2022.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why is science communication important?
Stathopoulos: Explaining and popularizing science is important for building trust in science and technology. A potential problem is that an audience without the necessary level of education may judge the presentation based on the charisma of the speaker or writer and not on facts — a scientifically flawed approach. This is exactly the method used by anti-science movements, or by groups that promote anti-scientific ideas for their own benefit. Hence, education must come first.
Tracy: We naturally tell stories and organize experiences through stories. So, I think telling stories is a thing that scientists can learn to do better to help non-scientists understand what they’re doing.
When we brought the COLL Curriculum online, I created a course called Cosmology and the origin of wonder, which required me to learn all of the history of astronomy that I didn’t know before. I found it was best if I wrote myself these extensive notes and then I thought, “Why don’t I turn these into something more polished, and then see if I can get it published and use it in my class?” And so, five or six of the essays in my book are motivated by the course.
Q: How do science and technology affect society?
Stathopoulos: I do not consider technology an outside factor that affects society. It is a manifestation of the current state of the civilization, and they coevolve together.
The word “technology” comes from the ancient Greek “τέχνη,” or “knowledge to make things” – before this knowledge come the inquiry and study. This is what we call science today and includes understanding the world around us.
The progress in technology and science has accelerated exponentially over the last two centuries making it hard for people to fully assimilate the advances. At some level this is fine, but there are two contradictory problems with this frantic rate of progress: the danger of rushing out new technology and a growing disconnect leading to fear or rejection. While skepticism is a crucial part of inquiry, it can be an impediment without the appropriate knowledge as manifested in the anti-technology and anti-science movements of recent decades.
Tracy: For centuries, there have been deep philosophical questions about how to correlate the scientific world and the world of experience where human meaning resides. AI is just starting to grapple with this: You have the machine, a sort of physical manifestation of the science world, and yet you’re trying to get it to interact in a meaningful way. The question is, how does human meaning emerge from a world that scientists think they understand at some basic level and doesn’t look anything like the immediate experience of it?
And so, the scientific knowledge we prioritize as a society evolves with time. If you look at the physics curriculum now, it’s not the same it was when I first came here, and it’s certainly not the same it was 100 years ago. We need to give some knowledge a lower priority because there’s something new to learn at each stage in the development of a society. As long as those forms of knowledge are remembered by the wider knowledge networks we live in, individuals don’t need to remember it.
Universities are nodes in these networks and that’s part of the reason why they make our civilization possible. They are central to this story because they have a three-part mission: to preserve knowledge, to pass it on to the next generation, but also to enlarge it.
Antonella Di Marzio, Senior Research Writer