30 min read

Why Beauty Matters for Science Education

Why Beauty Matters for Science Education

I didn't particularly care for my science classes when I was in school. My grades were pretty good – at least, when I put in the effort. But I felt so much of it was just rote memorization of formulas. Even the pleasure of solving puzzles wasn't all that thrilling, since it was mainly a matter of familiarizing yourself with enough patterns to be able to quickly recognize the kind of problem you were solving. The only reward to be obtained was a good grade – at least, that was all my teachers and parents emphasized.

I recently interviewed a brilliant researcher on my podcast who also grew up in the Indian school system, and experienced a similar challenge. Until, that is, he found opportunities to engage with science in a way that harnessed his creativity. He not only tapped into that intrinsic sense of wonder that drives us even as children to want to understand the world, but also learned how to cultivate it among educators.

Dr. Punya Mishra is Associate Dean of Scholarship & Innovation and Professor in the Division of Educational Leadership & Innovation in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. He is an award-winning teacher, an engaging public speaker, as well as an accomplished visual artist and poet. And like any true Douglas Adams fan, he is interested in life, the universe, and everything.

In our conversation, he argues that to teach science in a way that is exciting, compelling, and motivating, it is absolutely vital to harness its aesthetic dimensions. He also provides a compelling framework to integrate these various aesthetic dimensions and wonderful examples of how teachers incorporate these dimensions into science education.

You can watch or listen to our conversation below. An interview transcript follows.

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Interview transcript

Brandon: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, there's lots that I want to ask you about. To start, you've got really an exceptionally rich background combining art and science. It's really rare for someone to straddle engineering, communication, and social science education. Tell us a little bit about your trajectory, and what your journey was like. What led you to where you are today?

Punya: It's one of those cases where hindsight is always 2020, where it looks like where I ended up was where I was supposed to. But trust me, it was far from that. Growing up in India, I was interested in science, in literature, in art and film. Pretty much everything, right? But in India, when you're growing up, if you're good at science, you either go the medical route or you go the engineering route.

I've always wanted to be a physicist. I got convinced by my mom, in particular, that getting a degree in engineering would not close that door. But at least, I would be employable at the end of it. I have written about it somewhere about my greatest failure which I call those four years of engineering, which, basically, I think the way it was taught there just hammered my energy and enthusiasm and passion completely out of me.

I remember my first semester in the quantum mechanics class. I was writing limericks about quantum mechanics. That's the kind of goofball I was. Four years of this unending testing and no concern for understanding or for the richness of learning and valuing that, it just killed it for me. I couldn't wait to get out of that. I had decent grades and all that. It wasn't bad.

One of my friends saw a poster for the Industrial Design Center where there had a visual communications program. I said, okay, I grew up watching Carl Sagan and Jacob Bronowski, being very inspired by writers like Stephen Jay Gould. So, I said, okay, I love science. I love math. I love film and art and literature and design, and illusions, everything. Maybe this is where I need to be, where I can bring all these pieces together.

What I wrote in that piece, actually, was that it was amazing that in the May of '98 — sorry, May of '88, I had no idea where I was going, what my identity was. By September of that year, I had found my calling. Nothing had changed in me. The context around me had changed, which allowed for all this goofy stuff that I did to fit under this rubric of design.

At the same time, I started first time working with Macs. I started programming in HyperCard. Realizing that there is something happening with this technology where things can come together in interesting ways, I ended up getting my PhD. Long story short, I ended up at Michigan State, and now at Arizona State. Well, I think I pilfer ideas from everywhere. If I do anything creative, I completely say it's just stolen from everywhere else and put together in interesting ways. So, yes, that's what briefly—

Brandon: That's what innovation is, I suppose, right?

Punya: Right. It is this combination of serendipity and putting pieces together in interesting ways. I think the transformational point was the degree in design. Because I still consider myself — I don't call myself an educational researcher; I call myself an educational designer. My research, I always see it from the point of view of what's in application, how can we help to create better experiences for our learners, for our students. Then there is an art and a craft to it. There is a creative piece to it. There is hugely an aesthetic piece to it.

One of the things I don't think in teaching we talk often enough about is how you craft your curriculum, how you think about the nature of the experience. That is completely an aesthetic domain, right? You can have all the pieces in place. But if those pieces don't add up, you don't really have what Dewey would call an experience. Good teaching is about creating those experiences. Those are, at some fundamental level, quite aesthetic in nature.

Brandon: Yeah, absolutely. We're going to talk a little bit more about your own writing on beauty and aesthetics and STEM. Before that, could you tell us then in terms of these aesthetic experiences, what role has beauty or aesthetics played in your own education, in your own experience, in your own work?

Punya: I think the reason I got interested in science in the first place, when I was growing up in Mizoram in India and in Delhi, was that I remember this moment of watching David Attenborough's Life on Earth. I had been reading some goal and some stuff. I must have been 8th, 9th 10th grade, and just understanding in a visceral way, evolution. Then I couldn't see the world around me without having that lens of evolution. Suddenly, everything around me made sense from that lens. It's like, wow. I'm struck.

I remember just sitting in the garden with my mom. A bright butterfly would come and land on a flower. It would always sit with its wings close, where the dull ones would sit with their wings open. My question was, is that because, evolutionary, if you're open like this, you are more amenable to being caught because you're bright and shiny or whatever? The point is, it's not even whether that's a valid question to ask, but it gave me a lens into seeing the world.

My dissertation that I did in my PhD on was on the periodic system of elements. To me, I think we do a disservice to chemistry by calling it a periodic table, because it makes it being one rigid thing. If you look at chemists, they have created 400 or 500 different representations. There are spiral ones, three-dimensional ones because it's a complicated system of elements and complex relationships, which we have essentialized into this one — which we know is wrong, as every representation has to be. It's those elements of the visual, the aesthetic that were very powerful to me early on. I think they've been deeply motivating to me, even today.

I think mostly when we talk about science education, we talk about it in such instrumental terms. But you go talk to scientists, they're not doing it for the salary. They're not doing it — of course, the money is important. What can be wrong? I mean, my dean shouldn't hear this. But all of that is important. But the reason we do it are always deeper than it. It is this urge to understand, to get a lens on the world.

Alison Gopnik has this wonderful article, the title of which I think — I wish I had thought of that — is called "Explanation as Orgasm." Oppenheimer has this great quote where he says, "Sex is for reproduction, but that's not why we usually do it." Gopnik says that, evolutionarily, as the species, we get a kick out of understanding things. That explanation, that understanding of seeing the world anew, I think, is a very powerful thing. That's a deeply emotional, aesthetic, personal thing. So, I think that has really driven a lot of how I think about education, and why I am very critical of many instrumental arguments for why we should be doing science, or STEM, or whatever you want to call it. Because I think that these are among the greatest creations of the human mind, that we, this little creature on this planet—

If you look at those pictures of the James Webb Telescope — forget that, you take your macro on your phone and look at a flower. To not be moved by that is weird. Then in education, we don't talk about that. It is, to me, an indictment of how badly we are doing things. Again, I don't think this will necessarily move everybody. That's not the point. But I think that there is a group of students, there is a group of learners who, if we approach this way, will fall in love with the science, with the math, with the ideas. I think that has always been very important and motivational to me.

Brandon: Have you encountered that? Have you encountered students who perhaps may have been put off by the rote memorization that's usually associated with science, lack of creativity, but then encountered some aesthetics?

Punya: The research on that is pretty, pretty clear, that we are not doing a good job by our students. A common friend of ours, Mark Girod, I think his dissertation is one of my favorite dissertations of all time — one of the first committees I served on when I was at Michigan State. He did the paired comparison between a very good instrumental teaching of science and somebody who was doing an aesthetic approach to science.

This teacher would take the kids out. They would lie down on the ground, and would be like, there is an ocean of air. They're starting to see. So, there is some evidence to show that in those kinds of classrooms, kids were talking a lot more about science outside of the class. I don't know how old your kids are, but my kids are older now. The standard conversation after every day of school was, what happened in school today? The answer would be nothing.

Brandon: Yeah, same here.

Punya: Right? That is so depressing. It's like this is where your minds are supposed to be blown. Anecdotally, I used to have this project in Chicago public schools working with STEM educators there. In order to bring this aesthetic element into teaching, we started this thing called the "wow" or the world of wonder moment.

I would share some of my own. I had one which was like we were cooking some lentils at home, and I saw this weird soccer ball pattern. I started investigating how that happened. I'm flying back from Austin at a conference, and I see these cloud trains which are these straight rows of clouds. Those are connected by how heat moves, and so on. It's like, how cool is that? That something that's happening in my kitchen is also happening at the level of geology or the planet or whatever. We would ask teachers to come up with this, and say, "Find out why, what is puzzling about this."

So, they would start sharing stories. You can go online and find something. You'd have to find something. I was driving the other day, and I had this question. Where does all the sewage from Chicago go? Then you start finding out that that sewage actually led to Chicago being have to be jackhammered up because it was flowing back. It's hilarious how many things you can learn if you bring the sense of wonder.

Now, one of the teachers in my class, I remember the first day she came in. She talked about how happy she was to be in this program. Because she was working with these four children who were completely at risk of falling through because of violence in the community around or whatever. I remember putting my head down and saying, "This is way above our pay grade. Nothing we do in this classroom can fix that or address that."

Two months later, she takes the world of wonder and creates a wall of wonder in her classroom where students can start posting questions. She talks about how one of these kids was so thrilled that his question got selected. Then everybody collected good research on it. I feel like we are humans after all. These things move us. You look at the night sky. You look at the Grand Canyon. These things move us.

Is it something that has to be inculcated and encouraged? Absolutely. The beauty of a mathematical proof is not accessible to everybody unless and until you have been inculcated. You are part of the aesthetic growth and development. It's developing this inner gyroscope. That's where mentorship comes in. That's where understanding the rules of the game come in. That's where understanding the boundaries of the discipline come in, and the kinds of ideas. Then that's when you start really getting it.

I think it can start very early with very simple things. I used to do this with my kids. We're trying to explain to them the idea of mathematical functions. We would do it by my walking across the carpet, or my son and I walking. Oh, he's going twice as fast as me. That's x=2x. Then you start doing things like modulo, and then it becomes you're limping as you walk because you're bouncing. It's hilarious, right? But that's a way of accessing math, which is real. It opens up the world to you in ways. I think that, to me, is the best part of the aesthetic experience. It's this opening up of the world and this continuous set of regeneration, that it never ends. Because you scratch that, you get that. Then you're going to have another one. You want another one and another one.

Brandon: Yeah, that's absolutely right. Tell us about why teachers should care about beauty in science education. It's something you've written about. Why is it important in particular for teachers?

Punya: I think I've addressed a couple of the points. But I think just to reiterate, I think science is an incredibly human activity. There are many elements that go into that aesthetic experience. One is this curiosity, this questioning, the sense of awe, the anticipation of understanding. To think, that is how science or any kind of inquiry begins. If we start by giving students the answers — which is what we do. We scaffold. This is what Newton's first law is and whatever — it just becomes a set of rote things that you want to learn. There is none of that appreciative questioning.

Brandon: If you don't have a question, the answer seems pointless, right? I mean, without invoking a question...

Punya: Right. Exactly. One of the things that one of our professors here does, she has a curriculum that she has developed. She's an astrophysicist who got really interested in teaching. But her approach is: the students, they have to come up with a question. They have to go to original sources to come up with — here's the best part — more questions. So, she doesn't want them to answer them because there is no answer. You ask a question. The chances are, the research in the field still is figuring stuff out. And so, you have to come back with three more questions. That's how the curriculum goes. I thought that's so amazing.

The second piece to me is why it's important for science educators or all educators. It's the process. There is an element of detective storytelling, of working with and against nature or the world to figure it out. If you take a really cool experiment, it actually cheats nature in some ways to reveal its secrets. And so, that's exciting. That's solving puzzles, working together. I think that process is where you start inculcating some of the foundational ways of looking at the world that that discipline has.

There's a reason that the word discipline is used. It's not in the military sense of discipline, but it is a discipline. It is a structured — again, it's open. People can question it, all of that. But at least, in a given field, at a given moment, there are certain ways that we do things. I think inculcating that is through that process.

Then finally, if you get the answer, that is this aha. That's the Explanation as Orgasm. It's like, wow. I remember reading Feynman when I was young. There's this one diagram he has from the Newton's textbook. It's the simplest geometry thing, but I couldn't understand it. I don't know why. My mind just blocked. Then suddenly, I remember just sleeping at night and I woke up. Lying in bed, I just sat up, like shit, I get Kepler's laws. Did I discover it? No, this guy had done it hundreds of years ago. But that moment was real to me, critical. I think it's the sense of like, I know something about the world that is so cool, that I think is super powerful. Now you see what happens, is that you end up back with more questions.

To me, in some ways, this model of aesthetic learning maps the scientific method in some way. But I think it has a lot of pedagogical potential because you're starting with curiosities and then develop techniques to address that question. Like, what's a fair question in this.

One of the things that I used to do with my teachers was back-of-the-envelope calculations. It's like, how much poop is generated by humans every day in cubic foot? How do you even start? Do you know the density of poop? No, we don't. Okay. But can we make some ballpark guesses? It's a hilarious question, but you can go down some really interesting, weird math sidelines. It's genuine in the sense you don't, but you have to make estimates and guesses. I think, to me, that is why to be human is to be a scientist, is to be a writer, is to be a painter, is to be an artist, a musician. I think that if we don't include this, we're doing a disservice to our kids.

Brandon: I think that's really, really important, too, certainly. I've been trying to think because I teach as well. I was just with my department yesterday, and we were trying to think through some of the challenges that we're facing with students in whom it's very difficult to generate that sense of wonder or that sense of curiosity. We're trying to think through. Are there emotional obstacles? Are there emotional prerequisites for learning? What does it take to become curious?

Because we typically think about, okay, here's what I want to do. These are my goals for this course. This is what I want them to know at the end of the course. Then we figure out a structure by which we will pace that dissemination of content. But we aren't really paying attention to the emotional journey and to the process of how questions emerge, and what does it take to create those questions. I think what you're saying is really, really vital for us, I think, in science education and beyond.

Punya: Yeah, I think the thing here is that it's going to be different for each person. What worked for me wouldn't necessarily work for someone else. One of the things that I tried to do in these programs that I had, particularly with working teachers in the master's program, is multiple things. Because some things won't click for someone. Some things are going to click for somebody else.

The world of wonder thing was 15 minutes in the morning. That's it. But for some people, it sparked a thing. Then others are like, whoa, you could do a wall of wonder. Okay, I'm going to try this in my classroom. They took it in a different direction. It's fine. But the fact, after a long time, each of them became a learner because we forced them to. We said, you have to come up with something. You have to look at the world around you and come up with a question. Then investigate it, and come and report what you learned.

So, it would be super interesting, the things that would emerge from things. Just that open-endedness, just having 15 minutes. No more than that. In the design class I teach, I share some examples of good and bad design from the world that I've taken pictures of over the years — things like doors with user manuals saying push or pull. It's like, who reads a user manual A and B? Why should a door have one? I make them go and take pictures, and share. They will do. A person will talk about how their relationship with the built world suddenly changes once they put that design lens on.

They'd start seeing it everywhere. They'd start seeing it in parking lots. They'd start seeing it in websites and processes for completing menus. They'd see it in waterfalls. There are more of examples we get from bathrooms and kitchens. It's amazing. That's the lens. That's a way of looking at the world as being built. It's sometimes built well. It's sometimes built badly. We just don't pay attention to it.

I think that's one of the biggest things of the aesthetic thing. It's this idea of attention and noticing. It gives you chances to notice and pay attention to things in the fullness of it. Jackson talks about this distinction between perception and recognition. I think that very often, what we do in school, we force this idea of recognition. We'll label thing a chair. The moment you see it as a chair, you don't see it for its heft, its weight, its texture, the way it leans back when you sit down and how it feels. It's now a chair.

What a designer does is sees the chair for all of these. He perceives. He doesn't recognize. He withholds recognition or has techniques to withhold recognition. I think a lot of time what we do in education is that our goals become, "By the end of the semester, by the end of the year, my students should be able to do the following," which I think is shorthand for, "They should be able to recognize." But curiosity and openness, in some way, demands that we focus on perception. So, there's this tension here. You want those disciplinary lenses to understand the world. At the same time, you want to be open up for the world, to push back on these lenses and push back on your thinking. That's a fascinating tension educationally.

Brandon: Because they're weighing what you have to inhabit a discipline first before you can question at it or before.

Punya: But I think it can be done in authentic ways, in small ways. I had this whole argument. One of my friends who's a mathematician, he was pushing back against some of these discussions about all math needs to be authentic, and we are spending too much time and la-di-da. He says, oh, no, this is powerful. This is great, blah, blah, blah. I said, you know, it depends on how you define authentic. If you define authentic as balancing your checkbook and just leave it at that, then that's a problem. But if you want to be authentic to the lived experience of mathematicians, then the aesthetic has to come into the picture. And so, I think it depends on how you talk about what is it that historians care about or economists care about. There is an aesthetic element to that. There's no doubt.

Brandon: You've written also about the role of beauty in coding, and even in learning to code. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Punya: Yeah, that was a project I had done with a former student of mine who was interested in this. I sort of pulled then the aesthetic component into it, and we ended up writing about that. Personally, when I first started, I'm dating myself, seriously programming. When I first started doing it in BITS Pilani, I was with punch cards literally. I was least interested in it. Then we got Pascal and Turbo Pascal on the PCs. I didn't like it. I go to IDC, and then I started working on the Mac. I discovered this thing called HyperCard.

I was off to the races and running because it changed the way we thought about code. Then when I finally read up about it — there's this classic textbook of Donald Knuth's The Art of Computer Programming. The way he talks about coding — that was the Bible for the longest time — is that you take a problem, you break it up into subsets and subsets. You don't write a line of code till you have broken the problem down completely through this flowchart kind of thing. Then you start writing the code. I clearly did not fit that.

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There are some researches to show that women in particular got pushed out of computer science because they didn't code that way, that didn't come naturally to them. Sherry Turkle has written about it. There's another group of programmers who do what Sherry Turkle calls "bricolage." They write some code; the code doesn't work. Then they write a little piece there, a little piece there. They have vaguely some idea about where this is going to end up. The guy who created HyperCard, Bill Atkinson, that's how he talks about coding. And so, to me, that's an aesthetic decision of style, of how we approach the problem. Neither is wrong.

There's this book called Beautiful Code where they talk about ugly code and beautiful code, and so on. So, I think that if we bring that engineering aesthetic — which I think is important, I think coding takes it to the next level. Can I do the most with the least, like I can use the least number of bits in order to do X? I often joke that the Y2K problem was caused by that.

Because I remember, when I was in my computer science, when I was doing this in my undergrad, at one point, there's this one guy who was our guru who I would go to for coding advice. He looked at my codes and said, "See, you coded the date using four digits 1, 9, 6, 4. You don't need that. You just need 6, 4. That was a matter of pride. Because it's like with least amount of computing power, we cannot — except sitting in 1984, we will not think 85 or 86. We were not thinking the year 2000 would happen. So, I always joke that the Y2K was a consequence of the engineering aesthetic of doing more with less. Because that shows it really could. I think that's a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point.

I think that, again, in coding, if we bring that element in early on, like why is a certain solution more elegant, or more parsimonious, or more beautiful, I think it might appeal to certain people. I know my daughter, when she was in high school, I told her, "Take programming class, just because you should know something about what it is." Because one day, she's like, "I'm never doing this. Why? Papa, it's all boys. They are stupid. They crack stupid jokes, not forever." And the teacher, the first thing the teacher does is show us a video of somebody whacking a computer and says, this is how you're going to feel the rest of the semester.

Then people are surprised that certain kids don't go to a computer science. My daughter now has a degree in Business Analytics and writes code for a living. She's writing code for me to clean up Zoom transcripts. But in high school, it was just stomped out of her. She just didn't go. She was like, "I'm not going to the classroom. It's a stupid male whatever, stupid jokes. The teacher is no better." So, I think that we are doing a disservice to the field. We are doing a disservice to the people who can succeed at that in ways. She has a very good visual sense, so she loves representing data and so on. That could have been nurtured much early on.

Brandon: Yeah, there's really fascinating points there. Because there's aesthetic culture. They could be driven by gender. It could be a particular kind of male, boy's club kind of culture that, has certain tastes for what kinds of jokes. I mean, those jokes are also aesthetic in nature. So, there's that aspect. Then you talked also about elegance and the heuristic aspect of beauty which people are arguing in theoretical physics, that the idea of beautiful math is a guide to truth is misleading. Can you say a little bit more about that? Are there other ways in which you see aesthetics as a—

Punya: Yeah, if I can share one of my favorite examples of this, there is this whole — now the multiverse has become big because of Marvel and all of that. But back in the day, I'm talking about 20 years ago or so, when I was reading, there was these two physicists arguing against each other about the multiverse hypothesis. Both of them used the same rationale. Both of them said there is only one universe. That's the simplest solution. The other one was like, "Nope, the simplest solution is the fact that there are multiple universes."

I think I was talking to one of my grad students. I said, the point is not whether simplicity is a determinant of what the reality of the world is but that it is a rhetorical move in some ways, that both of them are using an aesthetic argument in a space where they don't have enough data to go one way or the other. They're using the same move, but it isn't aesthetic move. That, to me, is what is interesting. It's that scientists do use that.

But guess what? There are times when the world comes and slaps you in the face and says, it's not the way you thought it was. Then you go for the next simpler hypothesis, which is more complex and the simplest one, and so on. So, I think that there is this tension there between, I think, being overly reliant on aesthetic criteria. But I think that's the beauty of science. At the end of the day, you will have to be driven by what your data says. You might want, from a Pythagorean perspective, for all the orbits of the planets to be perfect circles. Yeah, I get the aesthetic value of that. But guess what? That's not how it is. Then you think of the next best thing. Oh, it's the amount of area that they cover in a given amount of time. It still stays the same. That's so cool. I think there's a lovely tension there where that becomes a tool in your toolkit, but one that, at some level, you need to be fundamentally suspicious of.

I think that it plays out differently in different fields. I've talked a little bit about that. I think that if you talk to biologists or ecologists, they rely much less on things like parsimony because they're very suspicious of it. Because their field is littered with ideas which were very parsimonious but didn't go very far or the found exceptions, and so on. I think there is that tension that you see, but I think that's it's a very productive tension.

At the end of the day, from an educator's point of view, the fact that scientists use these heuristics — that it is meaningful for them, that they can use this to communicate ideas with each other, that they become productive ways of addressing a problem of starting with the simplest or the most parsimonious or whatever — it become tools that students need to know as well. I think from an educational point of view, I think it has value that way, too.

Brandon: Yeah, that's right. You have to get a sense of what counts as a good explanation and a taste for it, too. So, you have to cultivate that without it becoming a source of bias. You've also developed a framework to help us think about the role of aesthetics in STEM. Could you tell us about your model that you've developed?

Punya: Again, not to claim that this is in any way original. It builds on work done by a whole host of people who I usually have cited on the paper and I won't list. But I think in the previous part of the conversation, I talked about this thing, of the curiosity and wonderment. Then that's what leads to you're asking these questions and the process, the journey that we go through. The journey in and of itself is exciting, because you just have to read the double helix or something like that to just know how exciting that process is of discovery and of just chasing up. It's not even knowing if you're going to succeed or not. That is a change in perception.

Then the third is, of course, in our model, we call it the wonderment, which has appreciation and curiosity. Then the next step, we call the journey which is the process that we follow, which is determined by your discipline and the kinds of phenomena you're interested in, and changes in perception and socialization into that field. I think that's an important piece.

Then finally, we call this the fulfillment, which is the sense of accomplishment that you have. Various people talk about it in spiritual terms. People talk about it's knowing the mind of God even though they might be atheist or agnostic in that regard. But the sense of that you are touching something deeper, that you are learning something about how the world functions is very powerful.

the wonderment
Mishra's framework. Source: https://punyamishra.com/2019/02/10/aesthetics-stem-education-introducing-a-new-framework/ 

Then the nice thing, I think, about just the way we have framed it is that, at the end of that, it's not over. Because what you've essentially done, you have amped up your appreciation and your curiosity. Because now you have more questions and appreciation of this thing in a deeper and more fundamental way. So, this becomes the self-fulfilling, virtuous cycle. Which is why once you get on the treadmill, there's no getting off of it. Because it's more and more fun to go deeper, or broader, or whatever the right word is in that context.

I think that's how we think about the aesthetic experience. What we found is, in most of the literature, it was either focused on the sense of awe, the sense of sublime, which was the appreciation and curiosity. Some people would talk about the energy and the passion and the socialization and the importance of that. Others would talk about aesthetic in terms of this sense of aha and of touching the mind of God or whatever you might want to call it. I think what our frame does is it pulls it together into one piece.

Recently, for a series that I do, I was talking with Jonathan Schooler. He talked about the two different kinds of curiosity. There is this one curiosity which is, I didn't know about this. This research is actually quite interesting. Because I had always taken curiosity to be a positive virtue. Humans are curious. We're curious, blah, blah, blah. But he talks about that. The research shows that there are two kinds. One is a deprivation curiosity, and one is a generative curiosity. The deprivation curiosity finds the gap in knowledge and wants to paper it up, like just fill it up and then move on. I've solved that problem; move on. While the generated one always sees it, like, "Oh, I'm going to just have more questions. Then I'm going to have more questions." What the research in the social psychological research is showing is that people who are the first kind are usually the ones who are spreading a lot of fake news, who buy into simplistic ideas of how the world works. They have an all-encompassing theory. Now that can be used to explain everything. While the ones who are genuinely in the generative curious, I think that this fits in with a generative, curious mindset.

The other piece I like about our model is that you can start at the personal and individual level in terms of appreciation and curiosity. But I think when we discussed building this up, one of the things was that we know that humans are social. Science is a social enterprise. When you first get into science, when you have the right teacher, you get the right books, or you read the right things, you are being socialized into a way of thinking about the world. That element of science, I think, is often not recognized as much.

I think if you look at the scientific method in the textbooks or whatever, science really kicks off after print comes into being. I think there is a reason for that. Because ideas could then be put down. That could be interrogated. It could be shared. And so, I think that element of the role of print technology in instantiating science as we know it today — many people have talked about it, don't get me wrong — has not been emphasized as much.

In our model, we wanted to be sure that that aspect of that journey of that inculcation into a way of looking at the world — what is a value, what are the methods that we used to do it, what are some of the heuristics that we use, why are certain techniques better than others — becomes an important part of the process as well. Because developing that gyroscope doesn't come necessarily naturally.

Donald Schon, he wrote a lot about design, and Dewey, and all that. One of the things he talks about which I found was amazing when I read it, he said, I'd have students bring artifacts to class. Part of my job is to help them develop their desired gyroscope. I was like, that's awfully arrogant of you. The question for the person interviewed asked him that. Do you really think you have a better thesis? Yes, I do. I have been doing this for a long time. I've developed it. It doesn't mean I'm always right, but that I have a role to play in helping the next generation of designers or architects or scientist or whatever it may be develop that.

I thought that was a very explicit accounting of what happens often over beer and over chats in labs, in discussions, in around coffee or around classrooms, and so on. One of the things I tried to do in my work with grad students is actually to be really explicit about it because many of these things are even hidden to me, unless we start thinking and talking about.

Brandon: Right. Yeah, that's something. That sense of what counts as I get a good explanation, or that's not obvious right up front. What is elegant to an expert may not be to a novice. And so, cultivating that is crucial. I suppose the final thing I have in mind to ask you is why the public should care about all this, with the role of aesthetics in science.

Do you think that an argument needs to be made for whether that can help build more trust in science and in scientists, and whether it has any potential for non-scientists to learn to be able to learn from this beauty of insight or understanding that you were talking about, or even that sense of awe that is to be found in science? Can that be of value outside of science?

Punya: Well, I mean, when you sent me this question, my first response was like, not so sure of that. That, I think, comes from more pessimism of the world around us right now than I think if you'd have asked me this question two years ago, I would have started very differently. But let me put up about two years ago hat. But you know what I'm talking about, which is like—

Brandon: With the polarization.

Punya: With the polarization, with the information bubbles that we live in, and all of that. There's a range of reasons one would make the case for why that's important for public to know. One that I talked about is, I really do think that these are among the greatest creations of the human mind. A great novel, a great movie, a great piece of music, a cathedral, whatever it may be — we value them for that intrinsic value, for what they bring to our lives.

Forget all the material things that science does. I think that science and technology do a lot for us materially — good and bad, or whatever. But there is a beauty and a sense of awe and power in just the ideas themselves. I think that need to be more widely shared. I think there is a human aspect to doing of science, where I think much of the rhetoric around science has become — either it's like science has the answer to everything, or scientists don't have a clue. You get this polarized kind of things. I think this makes it a much more human thing. It makes it a thing that we humans do, and inherently valuable but also brutally honest with itself about its ideas. It processes.

There was this recent thing came out that most probably the billions that have been spent on Alzheimer's research might have been based on data that was faked or unreliable. That study was done 10 or 15 years ago. But the point is, in the grand scheme of things, somebody, a grad student went back and questioned that data. To me, that's the power of science. I think that's an aspect of science that doesn't get talked about. But there is the aesthetic core belief in that we can get at some kind of an understanding. There is no real basis for that. We don't know whether we ever will, but that drives it. I think so. It's elements like that, that I think that are important for the public at large to engage with.

But again, I'm also very aware that the voices that scientists have are not the most powerful ones in the space, that political, rather social, other factors get in. They complicate stories. Then when the human side of science and availability of something comes up, you automatically deny the whole enterprise, which I think is very problematic in and of itself, right?

Brandon: Yeah, which is why one of the things we were wondering about is whether it's perhaps not so much the beauty of scientific facts, which can always be filtered through various interpretations, but maybe the beauty of the scientific process or the ability to encounter an experience where you can change your mind and find it pleasurable. I mean, that sort of to be surprised. Whether that could be through citizen science or whether some other method, is there a way to cultivate that kind of aesthetic disposition more broadly?

Science is, I think, unique in its ability to cultivate that, but I don't know what it might take to make that more accessible to people who otherwise might be locked into their own ways of, as you're talking about, that negative curiosity. How might one move from that type of curiosity to the generative kind? That might be the kind of question, I suppose.

Punya: Yeah, it's tricky, right? The idea that you can withhold judgment, it's not easy to do. The best of scientists fall for it. They form an idea, and they stick with it longer than they should. But that's where I think the collective becomes the powerful thing — this idea of peer review, the idea that one has to put one's data out there, and then people can query it. To me, that's what makes science science. It's these sociological aspects around it than just the individual.

Brandon: Yeah, that's great. Punya, this has been really fascinating. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me. For those who want to follow your work, we've got your website. That is punyamishra.com. They can follow you on Twitter @punyamishra. Anything else you'd like to add to our conversation? Any other thoughts that come to mind? Anything that I missed in regard to these issues?

Punya: No, I think we covered a lot of ground. I always joke, when I listen to myself afterwards, that I speak way too fast. But that's just because I'm excited about ideas. I do appreciate, and thank you very much for inviting me because it got me to go back and rethink some of these things that I have not published that framework a few years back. These ideas are always in my mind, but work takes me in different directions. So, it was actually a lot of fun to go back and think about this and have this conversation with you.

Brandon: Awesome. I'm glad. Yeah, it was my pleasure. Thank you.

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