Mae Jemison on teaching arts and sciences together

Mae Jemison on teaching arts and sciences together

November 8, 2019 81 By Bernardo Ryan


What I want to do today is spend
some time talking about some stuff that’s giving me a little bit
of existential angst, for lack of a better word, over the past couple of years. And basically, these three quotes
tell what’s going on. “When God made the color purple,
God was just showing off,” Alice Walker wrote in “The Color Purple.” And Zora Neale Hurston wrote
in “Dust Tracks On A Road,” “Research is a formalized curiosity. It’s poking and prying with a purpose.” And then finally,
when I think about the near future, we have this attitude, “Well,
whatever happens, happens.” Right? So that goes along with
the Cheshire Cat saying, “If you don’t care much
where you want to get to, it doesn’t much matter which way you go.” But I think it does matter which way
we go and what road we take, because when I think
about design in the near future, what I think are the most
important issues, what’s really crucial and vital, is that we need to revitalize
the arts and sciences right now, in 2002. (Applause) If we describe the near future
as 10, 20, 15 years from now, that means that what we do today
is going to be critically important, because in the year 2015,
in the year 2020, 2025, the world our society
is going to be building on, the basic knowledge and abstract ideas, the discoveries
that we came up with today, just as all these wonderful things
we’re hearing about here at the TED conference that we take for granted
in the world right now, were really knowledge
and ideas that came up in the 50s, the 60s and the 70s. That’s the substrate
that we’re exploiting today. Whether it’s the internet, genetic engineering, laser scanners, guided missiles, fiber optics,
high-definition television, remote sensing from space
and the wonderful remote-sensing photos that we see in 3D weaving, TV programs
like Tracker and Enterprise, CD-rewrite drives, flat-screen,
Alvin Ailey’s “Suite Otis,” or Sarah Jones’s “Your Revolution Will
Not [Happen] Between These Thighs,” which, by the way, was banned by the FCC, or ska — all of these things, without question,
almost without exception, are really based on ideas
and abstract and creativity from years before. So we have to ask ourselves: What are we contributing
to that legacy right now? And when I think about it, I’m really worried. To be quite frank, I’m concerned. I’m skeptical that we’re doing
very much of anything. We’re, in a sense, failing to act in the future. We’re purposefully,
consciously being laggards. We’re lagging behind. Frantz Fanon, who was a psychiatrist
from Martinique, said, “Each generation must,
out of relative obscurity, discover its mission and fulfill or betray it.” What is our mission?
What do we have to do? I think our mission is
to reconcile, to reintegrate science and the arts, because right now, there’s a schism
that exists in popular culture. People have this idea that science
and the arts are really separate; we think of them as separate
and different things. And this idea was probably
introduced centuries ago, but it’s really becoming critical now, because we’re making decisions
about our society every day that, if we keep thinking that the arts
are separate from the sciences, and we keep thinking it’s cute to say, “I don’t understand
anything about this one, I don’t understand anything
about the other one,” then we’re going to have problems. Now, I know no one
here at TED thinks this. All of us, we already know
that they’re very connected. But I’m going to let you know
that some folks in the outside world, believe it or not,
think it’s neat when they say, “Scientists and science is not creative. Maybe scientists are ingenious,
but they’re not creative.” And then we have this tendency, the career counselors
and various people say things like, “Artists are not analytical. They’re ingenious, perhaps, but not analytical.” And when these concepts
underlie our teaching and what we think about the world, then we have a problem, because we stymie support for everything. By accepting this dichotomy, whether it’s tongue-in-cheek, when we attempt
to accommodate it in our world, and we try to build
our foundation for the world, we’re messing up the future, because: Who wants to be uncreative? Who wants to be illogical? Talent would run
from either of these fields if you said you had to choose either. Then they’ll go to something
where they think, “Well, I can be creative
and logical at the same time.” Now, I grew up in the ’60s
and I’ll admit it — actually, my childhood spanned the ’60s, and I was a wannabe hippie, and I always resented the fact
that I wasn’t old enough to be a hippie. And I know there are people here,
the younger generation, who want to be hippies. People talk about the ’60s all the time. And they talk about the anarchy
that was there. But when I think about the ’60s, what I took away from it was
that there was hope for the future. We thought everyone could participate. There were wonderful, incredible ideas
that were always percolating, and so much of what’s cool or hot today is really based on some of those concepts, whether it’s people trying to use
the Prime Directive from Star Trek, being involved in things, or, again, that three-dimensional
weaving and fax machines that I read about in my weekly readers that the technology and engineering
was just getting started. But the ’60s left me with a problem. You see, I always assumed
I would go into space, because I followed all of this. But I also loved the arts and sciences. You see, when I was growing up
as a little girl and as a teenager, I loved designing and making doll clothes and wanting to be a fashion designer. I took art and ceramics. I loved dance: Lola Falana,
Alvin Ailey, Jerome Robbins. And I also avidly followed
the Gemini and the Apollo programs. I had science projects
and tons of astronomy books. I took calculus and philosophy. I wondered about infinity
and the Big Bang theory. And when I was at Stanford,
I found myself, my senior year, chemical engineering major, half the folks thought I was a political
science and performing arts major, which was sort of true, because I was
Black Student Union President, and I did major in some other things. And I found myself the last quarter juggling chemical engineering
separation processes, logic classes, nuclear magnetic
resonance spectroscopy, and also producing and choreographing
a dance production. And I had to do the lighting
and the design work, and I was trying to figure out: Do I go to New York City
to try to become a professional dancer, or to go to medical school? Now, my mother helped
me figure that one out. (Laughter) But when I went into space,
I carried a number of things up with me. I carried a poster by Alvin Ailey — you can figure out now,
I love the dance company — an Alvin Ailey poster of Judith Jamison
performing the dance “Cry,” dedicated to all black women everywhere; a Bundu statue, which was from
the women’s society in Sierra Leone; and a certificate for the Chicago
Public School students to work to improve their science and math. And folks asked me, “Why did you take up what you took up?” And I had to say, “Because it represents human creativity; the creativity that allowed us, that we were required to have
to conceive and build and launch the space shuttle, which springs from the same source
as the imagination and analysis that it took to carve a Bundu statue, or the ingenuity it took to design,
choreograph and stage “Cry.” Each one of them are different
manifestations, incarnations, of creativity —
avatars of human creativity. And that’s what we have to
reconcile in our minds, how these things fit together. The difference between arts and sciences
is not analytical versus intuitive. Right? E=mc2 required an intuitive leap, and then you had to do
the analysis afterwards. Einstein said, in fact, “The most beautiful thing
we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source
of all true art and science.” Dance requires us to express
and want to express the jubilation in life, but then you have to figure out: Exactly what movement do I do to make sure it comes across correctly? The difference between arts and sciences is also not constructive
versus deconstructive. A lot of people think of the sciences
as deconstructive, you have to pull things apart. And yeah, subatomic physics
is deconstructive — you literally try to tear atoms apart to understand what’s inside of them. But sculpture, from what I understand
from great sculptors, is deconstructive, because you see a piece and you remove
what doesn’t need to be there. Biotechnology is constructive. Orchestral arranging is constructive. So, in fact, we use constructive
and deconstructive techniques in everything. The difference
between science and the arts is not that they are different sides
of the same coin, even, or even different parts
of the same continuum, but rather, they’re manifestations
of the same thing. Different quantum states of an atom? Or maybe if I want to be
more 21st century, I could say that they’re different
harmonic resonances of a superstring. But we’ll leave that alone. They spring from the same source. The arts and sciences are avatars
of human creativity. It’s our attempt as humans to build an understanding
of the universe, the world around us. It’s our attempt to influence things, the universe internal to ourselves and external to us. The sciences, to me, are manifestations
of our attempt to express or share our understanding, our experience, to influence the universe
external to ourselves. It doesn’t rely on us as individuals. It’s the universe,
as experienced by everyone. The arts manifest our desire, our attempt to share or influence others through experiences
that are peculiar to us as individuals. Let me say it again another way: science provides an understanding
of a universal experience, and arts provide a universal understanding of a personal experience. That’s what we have to think about, that they’re all part of us,
they’re all part of a continuum. It’s not just the tools,
it’s not just the sciences, the mathematics and the numerical stuff
and the statistics, because we heard, very much on this stage, people talked about music
being mathematical. Arts don’t just use clay, aren’t the only ones that use clay,
light and sound and movement. They use analysis as well. So people might say, “Well, I still like that intuitive
versus analytical thing,” because everybody wants to do
the right brain, left brain thing. We’ve all been accused of being
right-brained or left-brained at some point in time, depending on who we disagreed with. (Laughter) You know, people say “intuitive” — that’s like you’re in touch with nature, in touch with yourself and relationships; analytical, you put your mind to work. I’m going to tell you a little secret.
You all know this, though. But sometimes people use
this analysis idea, that things are outside of ourselves, to say, this is what
we’re going to elevate as the true, most important
sciences, right? Then you have artists — and you all know
this is true as well — artists will say things about scientists because they say they’re too concrete,
they’re disconnected from the world. But, we’ve even had that here on stage, so don’t act like you don’t know
what I’m talking about. (Laughter) We had folks talking
about the Flat Earth Society and flower arrangers, so there’s this whole dichotomy that we continue to carry along,
even when we know better. And folks say we need to choose either-or. But it would really be foolish
to choose either one, intuitive versus analytical. That’s a foolish choice. It’s foolish just like trying to choose
between being realistic or idealistic. You need both in life. Why do people do this? I’m going to quote
a molecular biologist, Sydney Brenner, who’s 70 years old, so he can say this. He said, “It’s always important
to distinguish between chastity and impotence.” Now — (Laughter) I want to share with you
a little equation, OK? How does understanding science
and the arts fit into our lives and what’s going on and the things we’re talking about
here at the design conference? And this is a little thing I came up with: understanding and our resources and our will cause us to have outcomes. Our understanding is our science,
our arts, our religion; how we see the universe around us; our resources, our money,
our labor, our minerals — those things that are out there
in the world we have to work with. But more importantly, there’s our will. This is our vision, our aspirations of the future,
our hopes, our dreams, our struggles and our fears. Our successes and our failures influence
what we do with all of those. And to me, design and engineering,
craftsmanship and skilled labor, are all the things that work
on this to have our outcome, which is our human quality of life. Where do we want the world to be? And guess what? Regardless of how we look at this, whether we look at arts and sciences
as separate or different, they’re both being influenced now
and they’re both having problems. I did a project called
S.E.E.ing the Future: Science, Engineering and Education. It was looking at how to shed light on the most effective use
of government funding. We got a bunch of scientists
in all stages of their careers. They came to Dartmouth College,
where I was teaching. And they talked about,
with theologians and financiers: What are some of the issues
of public funding for science and engineering research? What’s most important about it? There are some ideas that emerged that I think have really
powerful parallels to the arts. The first thing they said
was that the circumstances that we find ourselves in today
in the sciences and engineering that made us world leaders are very different than the ’40s,
the ’50s, and the ’60s and the ’70s, when we emerged as world leaders, because we’re no longer
in competition with fascism, with Soviet-style communism. And by the way, that competition
wasn’t just military; it included social competition
and political competition as well, that allowed us to look at space
as one of those platforms to prove that our social
system was better. Another thing they talked
about was that the infrastructure that supports the sciences is becoming obsolete. We look at universities and colleges — small, mid-sized community colleges
across the country — their laboratories are becoming obsolete. And this is where we train
most of our science workers and our researchers —
and our teachers, by the way. And there’s a media that doesn’t support
the dissemination of any more than the most mundane and inane of information. There’s pseudoscience, crop circles,
alien autopsy, haunted houses, or disasters. And that’s what we see. This isn’t really the information you need
to operate in everyday life and figure out how to participate
in this democracy and determine what’s going on. They also said there’s a change
in the corporate mentality. Whereas government money
had always been there for basic science
and engineering research, we also counted on some companies
to do some basic research. But what’s happened now
is companies put more energy into short-term product development than they do in basic engineering
and science research. And education is not keeping up. In K through 12, people
are taking out wet labs. They think if we put
a computer in the room, it’s going to take the place
of actually mixing the acids or growing the potatoes. And government funding
is decreasing in spending, and then they’re saying,
let’s have corporations take over, and that’s not true. Government funding
should at least do things like recognize cost benefits
of basic science and engineering research. We have to know that we have
a responsibility as global citizens in this world. We have to look at
the education of humans. We need to build our resources today
to make sure that they’re trained so they understand
the importance of these things. And we have to support
the vitality of science. That doesn’t mean that everything has
to have one thing that’s going to go on, or that we know exactly what’s going
to be the outcome of it, but that we support the vitality
and the intellectual curiosity that goes along [with it]. And if you think about
those parallels to the arts — the competition
with the Bolshoi Ballet spurred the Joffrey and the New York
City Ballet to become better. Infrastructure, museums, theaters,
movie houses across the country are disappearing. We have more television stations
with less to watch, we have more money spent on rewrites to get old television programs in the movies. We have corporate funding now that, when it goes to support the arts, it almost requires that the product
be part of the picture that the artist draws. We have stadiums that are named
over and over again by corporations. In Houston, we’re trying to figure out
what to do with that Enron Stadium thing. (Laughter) Fine arts and education
in the schools is disappearing, And we have a government
that seems like it’s gutting the NEA and other programs. So we have to really stop and think: What are we trying to do
with the sciences and the arts? There’s a need to revitalize them. We have to pay attention to it. I just want to tell you quickly
what I’m doing — (Applause) I want to tell you what I’ve been doing
a little bit since … I feel this need to sort of
integrate some of the ideas that I’ve had and run across over time. One of the things that I found out
is that there’s a need to repair the dichotomy between the mind
and body as well. My mother always told me,
you have to be observant, know what’s going on
in your mind and your body. And as a dancer, I had this tremendous
faith in my ability to know my body, just as I knew how to sense colors. Then I went to medical school, and I was supposed to just go on
what the machine said about bodies. You know, you would ask patients questions
and some people would tell you, “Don’t listen to what the patient said.” We know that patients know
and understand their bodies better, but these days we’re trying
to divorce them from that idea. We have to reconcile
the patient’s knowledge of their body with physicians’ measurements. We had someone talk about
measuring emotions and getting machines to figure out
what to keep us from acting crazy. No, we shouldn’t measure. We shouldn’t use machines
to measure road rage and then do something to keep
us from engaging in it. Maybe we can have machines help us
to recognize that we have road rage, and then we need to know
how to control that without the machines. We even need to be able to recognize that
without the machines. What I’m very concerned about is: How do we bolster our self-awareness
as humans, as biological organisms? Michael Moschen spoke of having to teach and learn how to feel with my eyes,
to see with my hands. We have all kinds of possibilities
to use our senses by, and that’s what we have to do. That’s what I want to do — to try to use bioinstrumentation,
those kind of things, to help our senses in what we do. That’s the work I’ve been doing now, as a company called
BioSentient Corporation. I figured I’d have to do that ad,
because I’m an entrepreneur, and “entrepreneur” says “somebody
who does what they want to do, because they’re not broke enough
that they have to get a real job.” (Laughter) But that’s the work I’m doing,
BioSentient Corporation, trying to figure out:
How do we integrate these things? Let me finish by saying that
my personal design issue for the future is really about integrating; to think about that intuitive
and that analytical. The arts and sciences are not separate. High school physics
lesson before you leave: high school physics teacher
used to hold up a ball. She would say, “This ball
has potential energy. But nothing will happen to it,
it can’t do any work, until I drop it and it changes states.” I like to think of ideas
as potential energy. They’re really wonderful, but nothing will happen
until we risk putting them into action. This conference is filled
with wonderful ideas. We’re going to share
lots of things with people. But nothing’s going to happen until we risk putting
those ideas into action. We need to revitalize
the arts and sciences today. We need to take responsibility
for the future. We can’t hide behind saying
it’s just for company profits, or it’s just a business, or I’m an artist or an academician. Here’s how you judge what you’re doing: I talked about that balance
between intuitive, analytical. Fran Lebowitz, my favorite cynic, said, “The three questions
of greatest concern …” — now I’m going to add on to design — “… are: Is it attractive?” That’s the intuitive. “Is it amusing?” — the analytical, and, “Does it know
its place?” — the balance. Thank you very much. (Applause)