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Mae Jemison on teaching arts and sciences together

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What I want to do today is to spend some time talking about some stuff that's sort of 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, you know, we have this attitude, well, whatever happens, happens. Right? So that goes along with the Chesire 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, and 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, sensing, 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, flatscreen, Alvin Ailey's Suite Otis, or Sarah Jones' "Your Revolution Will Not Be 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. You know, 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, they think it's neat when they say, "You know, 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 underly 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're going to 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 really old enough to be a hippie. And I know there are people here, the younger generation who want to be hippies, but 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, you know, 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 dogs' 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 the 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 do I go to medical school? Now, my mother helped me figure that one out. (Laughter)

But when I went into space, when I went into space I carried a number of things up with me. I carried a poster by Alvin Ailey, which 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, springs from the same source as the imagination and analysis 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=MC squared 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 that it comes across correctly?

The difference between arts and sciences is also not constructive versus deconstructive, right? A lot of people think of the sciences as deconstructive. You have to pull things apart. And yeah, sub-atomic 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 are different harmonic resonances of a superstring. But we'll leave that alone. (Laughter) 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, and 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 provides 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, you know, the mathematics and the numerical stuff and the statistics, because we heard, very much on this stage, people talked about music being mathematical. Right? 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, right? 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, you know that's like you're in touch with nature, in touch with yourself and relationships. Analytical: you put your mind to work, and 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 be, say, that this is what we're going to elevate as the true, most important sciences, right? And 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 with 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, right? 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 just gonna 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, okay? How do understanding science and the arts fit into our lives and what's going on and the things that 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 are separate or different, they're both being influenced now and they're both having problems.

I did a project called the Future: Science, Engineering and Education, and it was looking at how to shed light on 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 is 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 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 then that there's a media that doesn't support the dissemination of any more than the most mundane and inane of information. There's pseudo-science, crop circles, alien autopsy, haunted houses, or disasters. And that's what we see. And 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 that 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, we're mixing the acids, we're 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 that they understand the importance of these things, and we have to support the vitality of science, and that doesn't mean that everything has to have one thing that's going to go on, or 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, 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 some company, when it goes to support the arts, it almost requires that the product be part of the picture that the artist draws, and 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) And 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 really 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, don't, don't listen to what the patients 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 physician's measurements. We had someone talk about measuring emotions and getting machines to figure out what, to keep us from acting crazy. Right? 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, is to try to use bioinstrumentation, those kind of things to help our senses in what we do, and 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, because entrepreneur says that that's 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 with 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 of 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, she said the three questions of greatest concern, now I'm going to add on to design, is, "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)

Video Details

Duration: 21 minutes and 4 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 172
Posted by: tedtalks on Nov 30, 2011

Mae Jemison is an astronaut, a doctor, an art collector, a dancer ... Telling stories from her own education and from her time in space, she calls on educators to teach both the arts and sciences, both intuition and logic, as one -- to create bold thinkers.

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