Remarks by W. Ian Lipkin at the
Sarah Lawrence college Inaugural Symposium
The title of this symposium takes me back to Professor Finch's course in philosophy during my freshman year. I remember sitting in what is now the dance studio but was then the stacks of McCracken library reading Heraclitus and "getting it." Such eureka moments were sprinkled through my time here and continue to the present. A politically correct thing at some institutions of higher education might be to say that college was the richest experience of my life. That's not true at SLC. So many of us gravitate toward creative endeavors that for the average graduate (now there's an interesting concept!) life may even accelerate in excitement as a voyage of exploration. This does not mean we look less fondly at our time here. To the contrary we are grateful that SLC jumpstarted a lifetime of learning and discovery rather than only providing an opportunity for wistful reminiscence.
Although I also spoke at Michele Tolela Myers' inauguration—perhaps there is a pattern here—I am neither a chancellor nor a college president; thus, I don't have any sage advice for Karen Lawrence from a peer who's been there. My role I suppose is to reflect on the intersection of science and a liberal arts education. To do this I will address two points: Why scientists should study the arts and humanities, and why artists and humanists should study science.
First the practical advantages...
On Monday I joined a small think tank of editors at Nature Magazine to discuss what makes a contribution worthy of placement in the top tier of 1-2% of the world's scientific output. While two of my peers focused on the reproducibility of the experiments and the extent to which those experiments support the authors' conclusions, I argued that facts were essential but not sufficient. The best papers also tell a story. They have twists and turns and surprises. This requires creativity, clarity in thought and presentation. What could be better training in story telling for a scientist than a liberal arts education? Similarly, the capacity to visualize structures and interactions of structures in three and even four dimensions is increasingly important in the earth and life sciences. It is no surprise therefore that many scientists use sculpture and moving images to understand and represent their work.
Art, whether studio or performance, classical or avant garde, ultimately boils down to perception and interpretation. This is the grist of neuroscience. Economic and social decisions are informed by models that have their basis in observations deemed significant either through formal statistical analyses or informal ones. The sooner we appreciate that science is the foundation of the way we move through and appreciate the world the more efficient we can be in realizing our dreams. When I was at SLC in the 1970s, Jung, and our own Joseph Campbell, were considered to represent what passed for core curriculum. Their vision of archetypes provided a blueprint for the Star Wars trilogy of George Lucas and the Harry Potter series of J.K. Rowling. Work with monkeys has revealed that fear of snakes is hardwired into our nervous systems and provides insights into how reptilian creatures in science fiction and fantasy resonate with our subconscious. We have only just scratched the surface in functional imaging and in exploring the chemistry and biophysics of vision, audition, smell and taste. The artistic palate can only expand as we understand more about how we perceive the world.
When all this discussion is said and done, however, the most important reason to integrate art and science is that they're both cool.
Before closing, I will share with you two quotes. The first is the full Heraclitus quote from which the title of this symposium was taken. It alludes to the constancy of change in us as well the world in which we live. "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man." Fulfillment in life, art, business, and science requires that we embrace change in ourselves in our personal and professional worlds. The second quote is from Albert Einstein. During the period when he was active as a professor, a student remarked, "The questions on the exam this year are the same as last year." "True," Einstein said, "But this year all the answers are different."