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A Reading from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, and Discussion with Catalyst Collaborative@MIT

On February 10, 2016, Jonathan Fanton introduced reading of Academy Member Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, which was followed by a panel discussion of the history and science of this play. This evening featured a reading by members of the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT and a discussion led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors David Kaiser and Seth Lloyd.

This discussion served as the 2034th Stated Meeting of the American Academy.

Good evening. I am Jonathan Fanton, President of the American Academy. It is my pleasure to welcome you, and to call to order the 2034th Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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.

Our program this evening marks the sixth consecutive year that the Catalyst 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 H.M., which explored issues of memory and brain science; and Mr g, an adaptation of a novel of the same name by Academy member Alan Lightman, which offered a look at the birth and fate of our universe through the eyes of its creator.

The text for this evening’s reading and discussion, Arcadia, is a play by Tom Stoppard, who was elected to the American Academy in 1986. Stoppard wrote Arcadia in 1993. In The New York Times review of the play’s first American run, critic Vincent Canby called Arcadia Stoppard’s “richest, most ravishing comedy to date, a play of wit, intellect, language, brio and…emotion,” for its explorations of the tensions between the past and the present…between order and chaos…between certainty and uncertainty.

The play begins with the character Septimus challenging Thomasina to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem, which in turn leads her to the topics of determinism, chaos theory, and the laws of thermodynamics. (It may interest you to know that mathematician Andrew Wiles, who did prove Fermat’s Last Theorem, was elected as an Academy member in 1994.)

Open and energetic intellectual discourse like the kind that characterizes Arcadia is one of the hallmarks of the American Academy. As many of you know, the American Academy was founded in 1780, during the American Revolution, by John Adams, James Bowdoin, John Hancock, and other leaders who helped to establish the new nation, its government, and its Constitution. The Academy’s founders believed that a strong republic must be grounded in open dialogue, as well as engaged scholarship, and an informed and active citizenry. I suspect they would be particularly pleased that tonight we are treated to a reading from a work of art that explores scientific topics in such a compelling fashion—at the same time that it puts the physics of Sir Isaac Newton and the mathematics of chaos theory alongside the poetry of Lord Byron.

Given the mission of the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT—to encourage conversations about the nature of scientific discovery—I would like to mention briefly one of the Academy’s new projects, called The Public Face of Science.

Scientific and technological innovations touch every corner of American life. These innovations deeply influence the economy, health and medicine, national resources and their use, and the core policy choices made by Americans about how they live their lives and participate in a democratic society. Many factors inform Americans’ views on science and the scientific process, including political leanings, age, race, education, and religious beliefs. Public misunderstanding of science—even mistrust of science—has a powerful effect on policy development and other public decision-making processes on critical issues, including the teaching of evolution in the classroom, the vaccination of children, and climate change.

From 2008 to 2010, the Academy conducted a project entitled Scientists’ Understanding of the Public. This project asked what scientists know or should know about the public and its concerns. In doing so, the members of the project examined how to improve the scientific community’s appreciation of public concerns about science and technology.

In our new project, The Public Face of Science, we will focus on public attitudes about science. This three-year initiative seeks to develop novel, deep-reaching assessments of exchanges between scientists and the public. The objective of these studies is to build a clearer understanding of the interactions that the public has with science, technology and medicine. As with all Academy projects, this initiative will involve a broad range of experts, both inside and outside the Academy’s membership. The members of the project will be drawn from the physical, social, and life sciences, as well as law, humanities, journalism—and the arts.

Our plans include an in-depth examination of how individual attitudes and beliefs—as well as depictions of new discoveries in the media—shape public support for scientific research. We will also undertake a set of case studies of how scientists are consulted during public decision-making, for example in the legal system, during natural disasters, and in the development of educational standards.

In this project—as in all Academy work—we provide a neutral space for reasoned and reasonable conversations about the ways in which research and scholarship interact to advance the common good, and in this instance, to bridge the distance between science and the public.

In a different but equally compelling way, this evening’s program speaks to the same objective, of bringing the power of scientific discovery closer to the public.

At this point, Dr. Fanton turned the program over to Lee Mikeska Gardner, a member of the Advisory Board of the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT, and artistic director of The Nora Theatre Company.

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