Editorial: Intimate Science and Hard Humanities (Leonardo, February 2009)

Intimate Science and Hard Humanities
Leonardo Journal Editorial by Roger Malina to appear 2009

Re-reading Darwin’s Origin of Species on its 150th anniversary, one is struck by the lucidity and humility of the argumentation and the transformative power of its conclusions. Yet the theory of evolution is still not widely understood or accepted. Arrhenius first wrote about the impact of increasing CO2 on global climate in 1896, and yet among governments the issue was still argued until recently. The projects of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution are incomplete. Scientific knowledge is not culturally appropriated. In many ways science has become a cargo cult. Many people use the cell phone for daily survival but could not explain the difference between a photon and an electron.

One reason may be that common science does not make common sense. The information I study as a scientist is nearly all mediated through scientific instruments. I can tell when my instrument is hallucinating. I develop new words to describe phenomena I encounter. I can manipulate concepts not grounded in my experience as a child. But this intimacy with the world mediated through instruments is not the daily experience of most people.

In an interesting new development in the art world, a generation of artists is now collecting data about their world using technological instruments but for cultural purposes. Shared tool-using leads not only to shared terminologies but overlapping epistemologies and ontologies. These artists both make powerful art and help make science intimate, sensual, intuitive.

A second reason for the disconnection of modern science and public understanding is that science is carried out mostly in guarded monasteries. There is little willingness to consider that a larger public could be involved and thereby change the direction and content of future science. This institutional isolation of science is a historical accident, largely due to the societal compact of science and government following World War II.

There are, however, encouraging signs of new types of “micro science” made possible by the Internet and the new public access to scientific data and instruments. To coin a phrase, micro science is to the National Science Foundation what micro-credit is to the World Bank. I am not calling for a renewal of amateur science but for embedding mediated contact with the world in everyday life.

Intimate science by artists and micro science at all levels of society are important components of the “hard humanities”—the arts and humanities disciplines essential to the cultural transformation necessary within the next two generations. Controlling climate change, abandoning dependency on fossil fuels and creating the conditions for sustainable development will require as deep a transformation as our ancestors accomplished over tens of thousands of years in moving from agrarian to urban societies.

The work of the Leonardo community in promoting art-science and art-technology collaboration is part of the toolkit for survival. We know what a landscape artist is, and indeed landscape artists over several hundred years have helped shape the relationship between humans and nature. But what is a “climate artist”? Two hundred years from now we will identify the climate artists working today who made possible the transformations now beginning. Climate artists will use their senses, mediated by technological tools, to reshape our relationship to the world around us. The “hard humanities” also include social sciences, which are suddenly required to be prescriptive. Anthropologists find themselves in industrial innovation workshops; historians are called upon to explain the ways that societies can transform themselves. Artists working with social scientists and humanities scholars also engage in intimate and micro science that, as in the Renaissance, will help reshape our relationships to the societies we build.

Over recent months a number of us have been developing the concept of “open observatories” that disseminate tools, techniques, data and knowledge for micro science, intimate science, people’s science and crowd sourcing [1]. These open observatories would allow small communities to develop locally generated knowledge, to evolve rapidly and respond to the changes that will be needed to confront climate change, end oil dependency and create sustainable development [2]. Open observatories would include the work of artists collecting data for cultural and artistic purposes, as well as the work of community leaders and researchers seeking ways to mediate personally meaningful access to scientific knowledge. They will help make new science indigenous and intimate.

Roger F. Malina
Executive Editor, Leonardo

The initial network includes the PUC RIO Art Department (Rio de Janeiro), Leonardo/Olats (E.U.), Banff New Media Institute (Canada), Exploratorium Invisible Dynamics project (San Francisco) and Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore.

A number of movements are related to these ideas, such as the Bricolabs