Two thoughts

I spent the last week in Santiago, attending the annual SDSS meeting. Usually I return home from such meetings with renewed scientific enthusiasm and a warm fuzzy feeling from seeing folk I like. This meeting provided that, and then some.

The first two days of my week were taken by the Sharing One Sky II meeting – a gathering of science communicators, educators and scientist (often all in one), focusing on astronomy Education and Public Outreach with SDSS data and beyond. I sat there, listening to how this bunch of incredibly dedicated folk is donating much of their time to the effort of sharing our knowledge of the Universe with everyone. There was one particular talk, by Penélope Londa-Peña, that sparked a thought. Penélope told us about the outreach programme at the University of Antofagasta, in northern Chile. Loads of wonderful stuff. Penélope at some point told us about their “astrophysics coffee” programme – a time when astrophysicists and the public come together at a cafe to discuss science. I’ve done this a number of times at a number of institutions; it’s a format that happens globally and frequently. And yet, right then, it became crystal clear just how it is only by the infinite repetition of such events that we can successfully scatter our knowledge away from our ivory tower. And that is literally the vision that came into my mind. A series of beacons across the globe, and a random walk process with photons of knowledge slowly spreading over the world. Each photon is crucially important, but it is the integrated radiation shining on average across the whole surface of the globe that we ultimately want to increase. 

We should care about evidence-based impact, and use it to inform our outreach programmes to some extent. But there might never be a way of truly capturing the global impact of our unified engagement efforts in world-wide culture (athough ideas would be welcome!). And the impact of each project – large and small – will add to that of others in the same way that the photons hitting my keyboard right now, inside this well lit terminal building, come scattered from all sorts of directions. Everything you do is important, even if we can’t fully understand its impact right now. Or perhaps especially because we can’t.

I had another thought that turned out to be important to me, this time right at the closing of this conference. We were lucky enough to have an artist in residence. It was the first time this has happened at an SDSS meeting, and none of us really knew what it meant – Tim (the artist) included. Tim spoke about his art, and influences, and a wonderful astronomy-based project called Shine that he’s been involved in. Again, all wonderful stuff. At one point, Tim revealed to us a transformative moment in his journey to Chile. A moment, of finding recognisable pieces of his culture hidden amongst a different culture, and the parallels of that moment to his journey as an artist on to the world of research astronomy. In this case, that moment was someone playing “My Way” on the panpipes in central Santiago (queue a live rendition of the Spanish version of My Way, by an SDSS PhD student, that was beautiful and brave and filling all in one). What stroke me, was that I was there too. Obviously, I didn’t notice, and when Tim at the time pointed it out to me, I failed to attach any significance to this random fleeting moment.

There are many ways of experiencing the world. The reason why I became a scientist is because I see the beauty of the world through science (though I now sometimes forget that), and what better way of continuing to explore beauty than to be a scientist for a living? But, with the exception of music, I’ve left very little room for other ways of experiencing the world. To the point of almost being blind to it. Seeing Tim deconstruct his approach to this meeting was inspiring because it revealed his way of seeing the world and making connections, and how mind-bogglingly different they were to my own. I’m certain this is also obvious through his art, but not to me, or at least not yet. I think that this is where art can become important in my life. As a teacher, a conduit for a new way to see – if only I take the time to look.

I can’t wait to see where it leads me.

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