Posted tagged ‘Public understanding of science’

Coming late to the Big (Uncanny) Valley

May 20, 2008

One of the things about working at a place like MIT is that you lose your sense of the state of common cultural knowledge.  I don’t think of myself as web or tech savvy — and I’m right, by the standards of my students, and certainly by those of my colleagues over in Building 32.

But I thought everyone knew about the uncanny valley — it has been around for a while, and it has had a run in popular culture that runs pretty deep — think of the role the question of the resemblance between robot and human in Blade Runner, for example.

Not so, though.  This weekend, foreign policy and pop culture maven Matthew Yglesias expressed his surprise that he had to wait for Tyler Cowen and Jason Kottke to tell him about the idea.

Two things.

First, a bit of programmatic self aggrandizement:  Matt! You didn’t have to wait so long.

If you had trawled really hard through the intertubes you could have found the short documentary on this page in which MIT humanoid roboticist and IRobot founder Rod Brooks discusses the valley in the context of Domo, a robot designedmby his student Aaron Edsinger. The artist Pia Lindman weighs in as well, siding with Edsinger on which side of the valley one wants to reside.  The film was made by a team of students in the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing — which is where my self interest lies.

Second, more globally.  What I said above about misidentifying knowledge as shared impinges on a debate, or at least a complaint I hear all the time in what is now a career long (quarter of a century +) participation in endless lamentations on the state of public understanding of science.

That is: very little of what seems, obvious, even basic, in most disciplines is in fact common cultural currency.  Often, when something does seep out, it does so with a conflation between the definitions of words used in technical senses, and the meanings of those same words as understood in daily conversation.  Think “marginal,” for example, or even “quantum,” — or for the most contentious area these days, how about  “genetic?”

I’m not sure where to go with this thought — hey, this is a blog! — but it does make me want to push much harderwhat has become one of the defining themes of this blog .  I’ve written a bunch of times — an example here, and another here — about the much greater importance of understanding how scientists think, compared with that of knowing many of the details of what scientists have learned lately.  It’s not that the latter is uninteresting or unimportant; its just that most of what the public needs to know turns on ways of thinking about daily, material reality.

Enough bloviating for a morning.  Watch the video. Have a little fun.

Illustration:  Not Darryl Hannah.  Mars MER Robot, courtesy of NASA.  Source, Wikimedia Commons.

A Monday Morning pick-me-up.

March 16, 2008

So, my sister sends me this link.

I watch it, despite the sense of instant lame-hood when I find myself tapping toes to a Billy Joel song.

But then I asked myself, in all this fire we didn’t start, how much of what the Hon. Mr. Joel sees as incendiary in the last half century or so falls under the heading of science?

Even stretching it pretty far to tech/engineering, I make it 16 images/ideas out of 120 in the song. And I only get that far by counting the Studebaker, just because I like the engineering ideas in that car. (The Edsel didn’t make the cut, even as an example of a negative elenchus.)

Out of my 16, five connect to space flight, (and I counted a sixth for Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and a seventh for the aerospace/political significance of the U2, just possibly the coolest airplane ever built. (Care to dissent, James Fallows?). The rest are a motley mix of gee whiz and bad news: H-bombs to vaccines to dacron, to my man Albert Einstein.

All in all, I actually think that Billy Joel and his unbelievably dedicated illustrator have caught the central fact of American science interest pretty well: the boffins are good for entertainment, for killing folks, for healing folks, and for gadgets.

Watch the video. It’s fun, and in the end, deeply troubling as well.

And you’ll curse me all day as the tune will not leave your head.

Image: Unknown artist, “The Great Fire of London with Ludgate and old St. Paul’s,” 1670. Source: Wikimedia Commons. One of my favorite fun facts: When Old St. Paul’s burned in the Great Fire (1666), the sixty tons of lead in its roof melted and flowed — a river of glowing metal — from the cathedral precincts a few hundred yards down hill into the Thames. A torrent of lead. Now that’s a conflagration — and in fact it is believed that the blaze turned into a true firestorm by late in the first day of the disaster.