Formative experiences of read-write science

20.52, Friday 4 Mar 2022

Neutrinos are tiny and everywhere. The neutrino family makes up three of the dozen fundamental particles of matter in the Standard Model. They’re made in nuclear reactions.

Locally that’s the Sun. The solar neutrino flux is about 65 billion neutrinos, passing through just one square centimeter of area on earth, every second.

(So look at your hand. Imagine you can see them.)

Neutrinos barely interact with matter. A neutrino could pass through 3000 light years of human meat before hitting anything. (Now imagine that).

So they’re hard to detect.

Neutrinos didn’t have mass and then they did.

Back in my physics undergrad I remember sitting in a lecture hall and being told to update our photocopied handouts because neutrino mass had been discovered over the summer.

(That link above is to Physics World, July 1998).

An experience like that absolutely changes your view about what science is.

The excitement in the room!

To edit printed notes by hand like that – you internalise this picture of science as a living breathing edifice, not distant and immutable. The idea that physics is a giant wikipedia becomes normal in your head.

Three other similar formative moments also from my undergrad, all previously discussed:

  • That time I learnt that my tutor’s scepticism about cold fusion was because he’d just grabbed the required kit for the Fleischmann-Pons “discovery” and tried it himself, and I realised that getting involved yourself is a totally possible thing to do (and even if you don’t or can’t, the possibility of replication is what keeps everyone honest).
  • That time I saw (we saw!) a blue LED for the first time, that pure blue essentially a new colour, fresh from its discovery in Japan, and viscerally grokked that science was a continuously changing thing – and that we were part of it.
  • That time we spent two days in lab laddering up abstraction layers from semiconductors to transistors to gates to shift registers to the separation of data and code to microcontrollers, at each stage first figuring it out with our hands, testing it, and then replacing our jury-rigged kit with standard components, until eventually we ran a small program on a computer and could see in my minds eye the whole edifice beneath, and experienced the vertigo, and I understood just a little bit for myself about how our world had been painstakingly constructed.

Often when I read people talking about science, I feel like they’re talking about something which isn’t this. I don’t recognise that unapproachable unitary authority, that something other. By luck and privilege and a bit of choice, my personal picture of science isn’t that. It’s malleable, contested, read-write not read-only.

One of my toddler’s first experience of capital-A Art was drawing on the floor.

In the summer of 2021, the giant central space of Tate Modern, the Turbine Hall, was taken over by Mega Please Draw Freely by Ei Arakawa. The entire floor became a whiteboard; kids who entered were given bold wax crayons.

By the time we went the floor was a colossal tapestry of 10,000 colourful drawings – by kids, so nothing felt out of reach or like it couldn’t be replicated. We went back a few times, taking an hour or so to draw and to look.

So, for her, a gallery isn’t a place you go and see. Her template is that it’s a place you go and see and simultaneously a place you leave your mark for others to see.

What a way for art to imprint on my little girl!

Gaudi’s cathedral has been under construction since 1882. So residents of Barcelona can see it grow and embellish in front of their eyes. If you want you can dedicate your life to it too: I highly recommend this short movie about the Japanese sculptor Etsuro Sotoo.

Imagine what it does to your view of infrastructure, seemingly set in stone, and institutions - even one as eternal as the church - if they grow in front of our eyes and because of OUR HANDS.

Maybe we’ve lost something by not having a grassroots cathedral project in every city.

I wonder what the absolute smallest most certain way would be to give this read-write formative experience to everyone, for science, for infrastructure, for institutions and all the rest.

What triggered this anecdote was Tom Carden on Twitter who said this:

Every popular science book should come with a registration card so you can be part of the mass recall when science advances.

…and maybe that’s it?

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