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2017th Stated Meeting: Mr. g

Watch video of this event.

On February 11, 2015, the Academy welcomed the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT, a partnership of theater artists and scientists that employs the medium of drama to inspire conversations about the way we understand scientific discovery. The event, which served as the 2017th Stated Meeting of the Academy, featured a performed excerpt Academy Fellow’s Mr. g, a story of creation.

In an excerpt from his opening remarks, Dr. Fanton discusses the work of the Academy on the public understanding of science—as well as scientists’ understanding of the public.

Tonight, we are pleased to welcome back our colleagues from the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT, a partnership of theater artists and scientists who create new plays, present classic texts, and inspire conversations about the way we experience and understand scientific discovery.

Tonight’s program marks the fifth consecutive year that the Collaborative has joined us for a reading and discussion. Past readings have included Breaking the Code about the life of Alan Turing; Yesterday Happened: Remembering HM, which explored issues of memory and brain science; Operation Epsilon, which focused on the moral debates among a group of German scientists who tried, and failed, to build a nuclear bomb during World War II; and Sila, in which a group of characters on Baffin Island, in the Canadian Arctic, confront a rapidly changing environment.

The text for this evening’s reading and discussion, Mr. g, is an adaptation of a novel of the same name by Academy Fellow Alan Lightman. Professor Lightman was the first MIT professor to receive a joint appointment in the sciences and the humanities. For much of his professional life, he has written about the ethical and social implications of contemporary science, often for the general public. In his interdisciplinary, public-facing approach to complicated subjects like quantum mechanics and the fragility of memory, Professor Lightman preserves the tradition of engaged scholarship upon which this Academy was founded.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the American Academy served as a convenient venue for the discussion of scientific discoveries, as well as debates about the meanings of controversial theories. Our historical Proceedings, now available on JSTOR, lists hundreds of such debates. Perhaps the most important began in January 1860, when biologist Louis Agassiz and botanist Asa Gray initiated the famous conversations that helped introduce Darwin’s theory of evolution in the United States.

But the origin of species was not the Academy’s only concern at that time. While Agassiz and Gray were developing their arguments, Academy Fellows were also examining meteorites, studying gorilla musculature, and directing public attention to “instances of spontaneous combustion of saw-dust, used to catch the dripping of oil from machinery.” But a common thread in all of the Academy meetings of the early 1860s—a time of sectional conflict, but also a time of scientific conflict—was an intense focus on natural history and geology, as a means of evaluating Darwin’s theories and reevaluating our own place in the universe.

Agassiz, a great scientist and a leading critic of evolutionary theory, once remarked:

“It must be for truth’s sake, and not for the sake of its usefulness to humanity, that the scientific man studies Nature. The application of science to the useful arts requires other abilities, other qualities, other tools than his . . . The practical man stands ever ready to take up the work where the scientific man leaves it, and adapt it to the material wants and uses of daily life.”

Today, as in Agassiz’s time, the Academy is a place where “scientific men”—or, we should say, “scientific people”—can come together with “practical people” to discuss the meaning of new ideas and to transcend the distance between the laboratory and daily life.

In recent years, we have been studying not just the public’s understanding of scientists, but scientists’ understanding of the public. For example, our ongoing project on the Alternative Energy Future examines how social, legal, and economic factors can inhibit the adoption of new energy technologies. The project recommends ways to include new and better social scientific research into discussions of energy policy. The U.S. Department of Energy has cited our publications in its strategic planning documents, and we are collaborating with state energy agencies and environmental grant-makers to encourage more research on energy and human behavior.

Our recently completed initiative on public trust in vaccines describes what we know, and what we need to know, about how public perceptions of childhood vaccines are formed. The project report presents an agenda for future research that could improve how healthcare providers talk to parents about childhood vaccinations.

And we are about to begin work on two new efforts that address the public’s experience of new technologies. Over the next two years, we will assist Academy Fellow Peter Galison as he convenes a series of meetings around the country to discuss the ways in which digital technologies challenge traditional notions of privacy, and thereby challenge longstanding assumptions about what it means to be an individual.

Finally, I am pleased to announce the creation—under the leadership of the Harvard neuroscientist and former provost, Steven Hyman—of a new Academy project on the societal implications of artificial human performance enhancement. Few of us are aware of how rapidly the use of drugs and implantable devices to enhance human performance is increasing, from athletics and academics to the workforce and the military. This new Academy project will encourage greater awareness of their legal and ethical ramifications among scholars, research funders, and policy-makers.

In each of these projects, the Academy’s objective is the same: to provide a neutral space for reasoned and reasonable conversations about the ways in which research and scholarship interact with “the material wants and uses of daily life.”

At this point, Dr. Fanton introduced Debra Wise, co-director of the Catalyst Collaborative at MIT and artistic director of the Underground Railway Theater, to provide additional context for the reading and discussion to follow, and he thanked her for continuing partnership and help in bringing these programs to the Academy.

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