The collision of the comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 into Jupiter in July 1994 was at a time when there was no social media, broadband or smartphones. The significant of the event to the scientific community, and anyone interested in astronomy or cosmology, was that it was the first extra-terrestrial collision in our solar system to be closely observed and monitored. News of the collision and the resulting scientific observations came to Sri Lanka relatively late, only through the mainstream print media. I followed it with great interest and was subsequently asked to speak about it in school at a session called Current Affairs, held every Wednesday for all A/L students. It was my first public speech, and was the ticket to English debating, writing for and then ending up editing the College magazine. But the reason I spoke about astronomy – a subject that to many in the audience was entirely esoteric and provided an excellent excuse to whisper amongst themselves or at the time, or delve into salacious print produced by and for schoolboys – was the selfish projection of a childhood interest to gaze at the stars, and how they got there. The excitement of explaining trajectory and terrain, of observations through telescope and implications for us, was not shared amongst the audience. And to date, our education system anchored to rote and regurgitation strips away almost all the joy out of scientific knowledge and discovery, requiring students to memorize compound, composition or table over the cultivation of an inquiring mind. I did horribly in all my science classes, scoring poorly, but I read voraciously everything my father bought for me on science, which included a subscription to National Geographic, science and space encyclopedia’s and science fiction novels.
The disconnect at the time between the vividly illustrated books at home, and their engaging style of writing, and the boring, turgid prose plus awful monochromatic illustrations in the government textbooks, coupled with soporific teachers more interested in marks than co-inquiry, could not be starker. It is only now, when I see my son studying what he does, and how, that I am very wistful of my own time in school where more engaging syllabi and pedagogy may have driven me to a life and vocation very different to what I pursue today. But that early love for science hasn’t diminished and is why whenever I go to a new city, one of the first stops are the science and natural history museums.
There is a global and local movement for the strengthening of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in secondary and tertiary education, especially for girls. So-called STEM subjects are the foundation for jobs that are the most sought after and highly paid today, both in Sri Lanka and abroad, ranging from machine learning, predictive analytics, big data harvesting, data visualization, specialized or generalized artificial intelligence and cutting-edge socio-economic analyses. On the other hand, I have always been an ardent proponent of the arts and humanities, noting that all the greatest scientists throughout history have had a deep appreciation for, love of and critical engagement with music, literature and the visual arts. Perhaps a well-rounded individual needs both, for I find too many in Sri Lanka who are clearly very good at scientific inquiry completely uninterested in the arts, and conversely, many actors, writers and activists entirely dismissive of exciting scientific discoveries that while completely removed from the realm of their work and output, locates us as humans amidst our built and natural environment, our visible universe and so much we cannot yet relate to, see or have the language to comprehend.
This year, I started a subscription to New Scientist. For years, whenever I have been thoroughly depressed with partisan politics, parliament and politicians, I have taken refuge in the Scientific American, NASA or National Geographic for two reasons. One, every encounter with this content is a vital reminder of how little I know and understand of anything, of both our insignificance as individuals and profound significance as a species. And linked to this, every visit is a vital reminder of how bigger the world is, when often it seems to be solely framed by the monumental ignorance of those we elect to political office in Sri Lanka. In school, I read Asimov, Clark, Bradbury, Niven and obviously, Frank Herbert (introduced to many later through the superb Dune computer games). Through them I found new worlds, and a taste for mental exploration. This is not something we still teach in school, and the only reason I am this strange way today is because of my father’s indulgence, at a time I know now he could ill afford it, to buy me whatever book I wanted and asked for.
This is why I nearly cried when I first peeked into the library at Parliament, many years ago. It is a wonderful space – vast, well-stocked, carefully curated, brightly lit, climate controlled and, tellingly, completely empty. I have been told only, quite literally, a handful of MPs use it. But we should not blame them. It is our education system, that teaches us to constantly look down and drill into memory, when we should be looking up and learning more about finding answers, that is the root of this proud, publicly paraded nescience. Our schools punish creativity identified only as distraction, and our teachers, tired, underpaid and under-appreciated, have little to give their students by way of kindling their minds, instead of filling their books.
Science, including science fiction, reading far beyond subject matter, day-dreaming, spending time in library in sections entirely unrelated to interests, wandering through a science museum, reading up on the stars or the effects of light on zooplankton, the search for and study of exo-planets, the jaw-dropping beauty of Hubble’s imagery of the farthest regions of space, listening to Hawking (and what was an acerbic humor), or downloading an app to place and pin the constellations above you, looking at a new moon or getting lost in documentaries like ‘The Last Man on the Moon’, recently released by the BBC are pleasures children – and indeed, adults – must be told to be unashamed about, and rewarded for. Some readers may think these are pursuits only upper echelons of society can manage. They are wrong. Science is all around us. Its negotiation constitutes our daily life, the very core of our being and everything we do. To engage with science and indeed, be captivated by science fiction, is just to question our environment, our lives, and our choices.
Fundamentally, I have come through science, reading and inquiry to a question we do not ask, and aren’t taught to ask. A question that is not just at the heart of scientific inquiry, it is the very essence of active citizenship. To ask it – and keep asking it – is deeply frowned upon and violently opposed, because there are no simple, easy answers, no quick soundbites possible in response. The question is powerful because it unravels and unmasks what is held or projected as true, and posits instead a creative uncertainty, viable options or possible alternatives – anathema to politicians interested only in voters who can’t give them a hard time.
The question is a simple one, in fact, a single word.
Always and forever, ask why.
First published in The Sunday Island, 27 May 2018.