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Rediscovering the born scientists

Documentaries about grand scientific topics like black holes have assumed a certain commonness if you know English

By Zeeshan Ahmad
PUBLISHED June 20, 2021

There is a famous speech by renowned American astrophysicist and science ‘evangelist’ Neil deGrasse Tyson. If you hunt for it, you can quite easily access multiple recordings of it on YouTube. In it, Tyson asserts that children are ‘born scientists’.

“They’re always turning over rocks or picking petals. They’re always doing things that, by and large, are destructive. That’s what exploration kind of is,” he says. “You take stuff apart whether or not you know how to put it back together. This is what kids do.” An adult scientist, he concludes, is a child who never grew up.

Tyson is not the only one to highlight the scientific mind we are all innately born with. John Holt, another American educator and author, has this to say in his book Learning All The Time: “Children observe, they wonder, they speculate, and they ask themselves questions. They think up possible answers, they make theories, they hypothesise, and then they test theories by asking questions or by further observations or experiments or reading. Then they modify the theories as needed, or reject them, and the process continues.”

“The process by which children turn experience into knowledge is exactly the same, point for point, as the process by which those whom we call scientists make scientific knowledge,” he adds.

The story of our race, the human race, is rich in narrative threads, like any epic ought to be. But perhaps our most defining collective trait across our history has been an unbridled curiosity.

This aspect is explored in and in some ways appears a central tenet to recent documentary currently available for viewing on Netflix. “Just as ancient explorers were drawn to the sea, we’re drawn to the horizon. We’re drawn always to the limits,” says one scientist followed in Black Holes – The Edge of All We Know. “The horizon of the black hole is the edge of our knowledge. Of our understanding of the universe. And the great exciting problem is to go beyond that edge,” adds another.

The 99-minute documentary mainly follows the work of physicists on parallel but directly unrelated lines of research that led to two of the most significant developments in our understanding of black holes. The first is the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), a global undertaking that utilised all observatories on our planet to capture the first image of a black hole.

The second concerns the work that led to the final paper renowned astrophysicist Steven Hawking co-authored with three other scientists before his death in 2018. The paper in question explores how black holes may in fact be able to retain information. In doing so it provides a possible key to answering the information paradox – which, as the name hints, suggests that physical information could permanently disappear inside black holes, violating a core precept of modern physics.

Beyond the hefty subject matter and the importance of the work the various scientists followed are engaged in, there may be nothing ‘stylistically’ significant about the documentary in question. Among the many informative documentaries on science – or for that matter, other disciplines – it may be simply one more for those more concerned with filmmaking craft than a chance to engage with the topic.

To my mind, however, this seeming sense of banality about a subject so vast in scope brought to mind a set of certain questions. With knowledge of a language like English, even in a country like ours, one takes for granted the volume of certain knowledge that becomes available. Documentaries on science and history take on a certain commonness and whether one readily consumes them or not, they become part of the background noise of life.

I recall something a friend once spoke of – that ours is a generation more sensitive to climate change and pollution, for instance, because we grew up in a media and education environment that heavily focused on it. It had my mind race across a range of other topics – space exploration, dinosaurs, other cultures, etc – that a certain privileged segment of our society grew up at least superficially aware of and interested in.

It also had me thinking back to what Neil deGrasse Tyson and others have said. If children are naturally born as ‘scientists’, if their curiosity knows no bounds, then what happens when you grow up?

For Pakistan, one may wonder the role such programming could play. Although, to be fair, if an anti-science line of thinking exists in say, a country like the United States where much of this media is produced in, then perhaps the impact of mainstreaming scientific ideas may be insignificant. But then again, the absolute eradication of unscientific thinking has been and will remain an impossible task no matter where you go in the world.

What is important in providing what is otherwise called ‘pop science’ or ‘pop history’ in a language a sizeable number of people utilise is to spark that curiosity that many of us inadvertently grow out of. It may not make scientists out of all of us – it absolutely will not – but it may get us thinking about our place and our role in the grand natural scheme of things.

What goes unappreciated at times, until you take the time out read and listen to the musings of scientists and other researchers is also just how spiritual a pursuit research can be. Even for the ‘non-religious’, for lack of a better term. The documentary in question, for instance, explores this aspect in much depth by having the scientists involved in both researches reflect on their vocation.

It was the British writer Alan Wilson Watts who once wrote that through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. “Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.”

In many ways the work of scientists, as incoherent and inaccessible as their work appears to us laypeople, is the ultimate act of this ‘witnessing’ Watts spoke of. By bringing that research into public domain in a manner in which those without the necessary knowledge and tools can understand, we can magnify that act of witnessing to an even greater scale.

But all of that concerns what such programming, if it became available, could do. What happens in the void? Absence too has an effect the same way as the presence of something does. In the field of mass communication, there is the theory of the ‘spiral of silence’. While the application of this theory has been more notably seen in the context of political beliefs, the same could in fact be used in this case.

The theory, as it is generally understood, suggests that a perception of what the mainstream believes may drive individuals to hide their own ‘unpopular’ ideas out of fear of social exile. Whether that perception holds true in reality, whether the popular belief is in fact popular or not, does not matter. The perception may force a majority to hide their true beliefs simply because they, on an individual level, feel themselves a part of the minority.

In making the case for scientific programming, perhaps the phenomenon is not as nefarious. However, it may, by reinforcing the perception that science is unimportant, it may discourage the genuinely curious, even if they happen to be a majority. We in effect are left with a confirmation bias.

The reverse may also be true. Mass communication studies also speak of the role of agenda setting. Although the notion, in recent times, has lost some of its primacy as a more complex understanding of media processes has emerged, it cannot entirely be discounted altogether.

By giving a certain topic or genre space in primetime television, for instance, we reinforce ideas of what is importance. In Pakistan, our present media landscape is dominated by political news simply because we constantly affirm our bias on its importance.

Ultimately, for whoever is willing and has the means, it could make for an interesting experiment in Pakistan. There is, of course, always some capital to lose, but not much else. Why not catalyse an imagination around our planet, outer space, black holes, our past, even the prehistoric creatures we continue to discover remains of in our own country, among a wider audience in our country. Those who know and can use English will always have a world at their fingertips. The responsibility to bring that world to the rest of us also lies with ourselves.