Just today I thought I would discuss what I’ve been thinking about regarding our project. As mentioned before, my partner and I were discussing using the perspective of pointillism on certain science subjects. So I thought I would give an example. Let’s say I was going to talk about how start works. It would not be unheard of to talk about stars from the view of the entire picture. Meaning, that you would talk about the star itself. However, I’m going to make this discussion starting from the inside out. In other words, I’m going to talk about the dots.
The most abundant material in the Universe is Hydrogen. It is from this hydrogen that stars are born. Newton’s laws suggest all matter is attracted to one another. So, imagine two hydrogen atoms sticking together. Well, their mass would be greater than a single atom, so the cluster of two collects another nearby hydrogen atom. Now you have three hydrogen atoms which can attract a 4th, and so on and so on. Now you have a collection of hydrogen atoms attracting more hydrogen through gravitation.
As this process continues, the hydrogen gets hot. The gravity pulling all the hydrogen to the center of the mass of gas causes the gas to get hotter. The more hydrogen that is collected, the hotter it gets at the center because of the pressure pushing in by the gas being pull towards its center. At some point, there is so much pressure that the hydrogen fuses with another hydrogen to make helium. This process causes the release of a great deal of energy in the form of heat.
Notice, in this discussion I did not talk about the “Star” so much as I talked about its primary component, hydrogen. Another “dot” I discussed was gravity. The next “dot” was how gravity pulls the hydrogen together, and so on, and so on, and so on. All of these dots build until you get the larger picture, a Star.
This was just a bit of a working example of how a lesson could be put together from the perspective of starting with the details, then linking them together to form the larger picture. Just as in pointillism. A person might no know what these “dots” make up until they take a step back and see the larger picture.
This week, I want to tackle a concept that has felt particularly real since I finished my graduate degree and started working outside of academia. With science occasionally feeling like a mixture between a high-paced race and an exclusive club, I find myself struggling to identify as a scientist. I am experiencing the dreaded impostor syndrome. I would imagine that other scientist-musicians who lead double lives have experienced this at some point, and perhaps even all scientists, but it is most deeply felt by scientists of color, women scientists, and LGBTQ scientists. Part of this might stem from internalizing ideas that the bar to succeed in science is set impossibly high. To break this down, I’ve been cultivating science in my personal life. Identifying bugs. Studying chemical reactions in food. Exploring the geology of pavement and buildings. I learn so much from the questions asked by people in my community (who would never consider themselves scientists) posed about where they live, what they eat, what is living around them. But there are other reasons that many don’t identify as scientists.
The issue of impostor syndrome tends to most strongly affect those that society sees as bad at math, stereotypes that arose from pseudoscientific ideas involving race and gender that, unfortunately, still bubble up today, despite being consistently debunked (I don’t want to give Ch*rles M*rray any more attention than he already has, so no link here). For hundreds of years in the West, science was primarily accessible to white men, and their biases, inherited from and in tandem with systems of colonialism and white supremacy, continue to affect science as it is taught and practiced in the West today. However, Western science was and continues to be firmly challenged and improved by many incredible scientists, particularly scientists of color and women scientists of the moment, who are gaining recognition for their excellence at the same time as the historical scientific and artistic canons are teased apart to reveal glaring omissions and retellings (see: complex fractals having been used in African communities for hundreds of years, despite supposed discovery by Western mathematicians in 1877). Horrible missteps continue to occur (see: Nature editorial from last month that defended a statue honoring a man who tortured women in the name of science). With these predicaments facing Western science today, acknowledging bias within scientific questions and ideas is essential for achieving a more egalitarian scientific community. It can also break down assumptions that distort our study of the world, as shown within this earth-rattling Twitter thread by Katherine Crocker. Most importantly, acknowledging and confronting bias within ourselves can help to broaden our ability to connect with others. In the classroom, this is especially important, where early encouragement can make the difference in whether a young learner feels confident or alienated by math. Once we start to tear down barriers to science, we might truly look forward to a scientific community that has no impostors of the imaginary variety.