26 min read

The Beauty of Teaching Science

The Beauty of Teaching Science

In a bustling hospital emergency room, doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals rush about in a coordinated effort to save lives. Each is an expert in their respective field, yet insufficient by themselves. Success requires the integration of knowledge and action that works across disciplines. A surgeon might consult a pharmacologist to optimize medication, while a nurse might draw upon psychological insights to manage a patient's stress and pain.

This holistic approach isn't exclusive to medicine; it's a model that resonates across a multitude of fields. For too long, in our focus on the cultivation of expertise, we have ended up rewarding narrow specialization. But innovation, whether in science or technology or business, increasingly requires an ability to see the big picture, connecting not only different scientific fields but also connecting science to the arts and humanities, as well as a capacity for collaboration in cross-functional teams. It is this sort of integrative capacity that my podcast guest in this episode exemplifies and cultivates.

Dr. Dave Gammon is an integrative scientist who builds bridges beyond traditional scientific communities. Since 2006 he has taught mostly interdisciplinary science and general education courses at Elon University, where he is currently a Professor in Biology. His research projects in birdsong and in SoTL have become increasingly more interdisciplinary. He also performs a lot of science outreach, including running a science café, writing science articles for newspapers and magazines, and creating popular science podcasts.

In this episode, we learn about Dave's popular course, "Journey Through Time," which is a fascinating whirlwind through the origins of our universe, our planet, and humanity itself. Designed primarily for non-science majors, this course offers a broad look at the interconnectedness of scientific phenomena, right from the Big Bang to modern civilization. Beyond teaching traditional science courses, Dave also collaborates across disciplines with political scientists, psychologists, and even English professors. The beauty of teaching lies not simply in imparting knowledge; it's about fostering a holistic understanding of our world and enabling students to connect dots they never knew existed. Dave exemplifies an approach to teaching that is deeply human, and my hope is that this interview can inspire educators to better recognize the beauty of integrative and interdisciplinary teaching.

You can watch or listen to our conversation below, either on YouTube or wherever you get your podcasts. Also please take a moment to leave a review and subscribe to our channels – it really helps get the word out about the podcast.

An unedited transcript follows.

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Interview Transcript

Brandon: Dave, it's such a pleasure to have you on the show. Thanks for joining us.

Dave: Thank you, Brandon. It's good to be here.

Brandon: Yeah, well, let's start with your childhood. Were you particularly drawn to biology or to birds as a child?

Dave: I think I would say that I was, but I wasn't conscious that I was. I was a kid that always loved to be outside, running around the hills. I grew up in Provo, Utah which, if you've ever been there, you got the valley. Then you got the mountains right next to it. So it was just fun. I was always outside. I was always looking at things and just having a good time being a proto-biologist, I guess. But I never remember a time that I was like, oh, I'm a biologist right now, or I'm a teacher. It's just sort of things, just one thing just kind of happened after another.

Forrest Gump Point
Photo by Gerson Repreza / Unsplash

Brandon: Were there particular experiences or models, role models, that inspired you to go into a career in biology?

Dave: Yeah, a couple things. I remember, in high school, I did a summer field ecology where we went camping. We went up and then we went to mountains and measured some strains and pulled a lot of things out from under rocks and all that. So that was a formative experience. I remember going camping all the time as a teenager. So those sorts of things kind of drew me towards field biology.

One thing that drew me in as a teacher, when I was, I think. third grade, maybe fourth grade, I remember my teacher pulling me out and say, "Hey, this kid over here, he needs some help with his math. Can you go teach him?" I'm like, okay. Whatever. So I just did what I was told. Then they'd learn math from me. I didn't think of myself as a teacher. I was just doing what the teacher told me to do. But as those sorts of things happened over time — I went to study groups and then people said, "Well, Dave, can you explain this," and I explained it to them — I'm like, oh, I guess I'm a teacher, too.

Brandon: Wow. And so when you went into, obviously, pursuing a doctorate, was that something you had in mind — was to focus on teaching? Were you more interested in research? What was your experience as you went through your formation like?

Dave: Right. So I think I've always been more interested in teaching than in the research, but I like both of them. But graduate is too cool. It was just a lot of fun. They paid me to go to school, so it was good times.

Brandon: Well, let's talk a bit about your research first. I mean, you've done a lot of work on birdsong. For a lot of people, if you would think of something beautiful about nature, birds would be one of the things that would come to your mind. Tell us what you've learned from the work you've done, and what that experience has been like. How do you study birdsong?

Dave: Sure. So in graduate school, I studied the Black-capped chickadee song. I did some other work down in Panama and dabbled in some different things. But I live in North Carolina now. When I got here, I realized that all of the study species I'd ever studied in the past, they didn't live where I lived. So I knew I would need to pick up some new species. Mockingbirds were attractive to me because: a. they're very musical, so it kind of blended with my musical interests growing up; b. they were super abundant, super easy for students to collect data. And Elon University is not a wildlife school, so it's not easy to get students who want to put on hip waders and go wade through the muck, slashing with a machete and going deep into the forest. So I knew I needed to be able to get some city slickers in getting some useful data. A mockingbird is one of the most abundant campus species. It's right on campus. It's at the top of buildings, and it's easy for any dummy to just point a microphone out and start getting data. A, it was super musical. B, it was easy for Elon students to get data. See, everybody has this fear. By everybody, I mean scientists seem to have this fear of mockingbirds, that we can't study them. It has killed careers. That's the legendary story that I was told.

A Northern Mockingbird catches the early morning sun while perched on a tree branch with berries.
Photo by Mark Olsen / Unsplash

Brandon: Really?

Dave: Yeah.

Brandon: Why is that?

Dave: Well, because it has. I could go through and list some names and tell how their careers have been killed.

Brandon: I mean, what about studying it that is so bad?

Dave: I think a lot of different things. But I think the big thing was that, at the time, a lot of people started to study mockingbirds. The world of birdsong was fixated on repertoire sizes. The most fundamental thing you can do is quantify how many song types they sing. But when you're a mockingbird, you're switching song types every few seconds. And if you start collecting large amounts of song, pretty soon, you're in the hundreds of song types. Then you have to catalogue all those. And so there was some estimates made of the repertoire size. But all of them were flawed because they all rely on assumptions, which are difficult to verify. At the end, it was just a whole lot of work without a lot of payoff.

Well, I've never been able to quantify the repertoire size of the mockingbird as a whole. And I don't care. That's not my goal. So I think the secret is, you have to study differently. You have to allow the bird to tell you what you're going to be able to get data on. And if you can't get data on it, you don't study that anymore. So that's been the way that I've been able to succeed with the mockingbird. I knew that I needed to find species. I would do best if I studied something different than other people. Because at Elon University, we're a teaching first school. So I'm never going to be able to compete in research with somebody like the UNC Chapel Hill, or at Duke, or at NC State. At Elon, with a mockingbird, I can study something that I'm not really competing with anybody. I can do it with Elon students, and it suits my interests.

Brandon: Cool. So you leaned into the career killer, and you find a different way of getting at it. What did the bird allow you to study? Was there anything? Would you associate the word beauty with the research you've done there?

Dave: Sure. Beauty has been one of my more recent interest with the mockingbird. Probably, the thing I've focused the most on is the development of vocal mimicry. Every bird has to learn all these. I mean, they're famous for mimicking other species. But where do they learn that, and how does their mimicry change over time? Do they mimic, do they communicate with other species? Which kinds of species do they mimic more than others? Those are some of the research questions that I traditionally, that I studied over the last couple of decades.

More recently, I've been collaborating with a couple of professionals. I won't say scientists. One of them is a scientist. She's a neuroscientist, Tina Roeske. She's in Germany, I believe. Then David Rothenberg is more of a musician or even a philosopher. He is specifically interested in beauty and whether — he came to me. I told him. I'm like, well, I heard that whales have this complicated song that's really musical. It's supposed to be as complicated as a symphony. He listens to me and nods. He says mockingbirds are way more interesting than whales. He would know. He has studied musically both the whales and the mockingbird. He is convinced that mockingbirds are one of the most musical, beautiful songs out there, birdsong. I'm not convinced, but he's been more exposed.

Brandon: But you are somehow studying this as an indicator of beauty, I mean, the mockingbird song. Is that how he's conceptualizing this?

Dave: Right. Yeah, the first thing that we published on, it was looking at the transitions. Mockingbirds sing something like tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, twit, twit, twit, twoo, twoo, twoo, twoo, prrr, prrr, prrr, prr, something like that. So you can hear how every second or two, there's a transition from one song type to the next. So what David got Tina and me thinking about was these transitions. He was thinking that they were musical transitions, kind of like what a composer would call a variation on a theme. By that, it means that you preserve something from one song type to the next, but you tweak one thing. He called it musical morphing. The idea is that they might take the sound and then drop the pitch, or raise the pitch, or that they would stretch the song out or squeeze it in. To give an example, it's something like D-O-D-O-D-O-D-O, G-O-G, O-T-O-T, O-B-O-B-O-B-O. So you can hear it's the same kind of sound, but they're just dropping a pitch. And of course, composers do it all the time like Beethoven. Da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da. It's something like that, just dropping a pitch.

Morning Coffee and the bust of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827), who was a German composer and pianist; his music is amongst the most performed of the classical music repertoire.
P. S. If you like my work and want to support me, there is an option to buy a coffee (paypal link in profile). Thank you!
Photo by Maria Lupan / Unsplash

Brandon: Extraordinary. So is there a quick highlight of what are the implications of this sort of research?

Dave: We don't know yet. It was a very descriptive study. It's not looking at a functional angle. It's possible that the females find it sexy and that they would be more attractive to songs that include a lot of these musical-like transitions. That would be a different study that we have not done yet.

Brandon: Well, let's switch to talk about your research, or your teaching rather. You've got a pretty popular course, the Journey Through Time. Could you talk us through what that's about?

Dave: Journey Through Time, yes, it's a course for non-science majors. It's an interdisciplinary science course. I've always been fascinated by big stuff, Brandon. I've always thought that I want to look at big things, the universe, look at not just the last few centuries. Let's look over millions, billions of years. How big is this thing? So Journey Through Time is kind of my attempt to look at the biggest scale possible. It's essentially the story of all things pre-historic. It starts off with the Big Bang, and then it talks about how planets and stars form. Then it comes into the Earth, one of the planets. Then it has the origin of life. Then we talk about the different living groups, some of the major events like a snowball Earth, and then it ends up with the civilization of humans and everything in between.

Brandon: Wow. The scope is absolutely vast. How do you manage to do it in a semester? Is that a semester-long course?

Dave: It's a semester course, yes.

Brandon: That's like studying everything in four months. Walk us through what that experience is like. What do you enjoy teaching about it? What do students enjoy about it?

Dave: I hope students enjoy it. The feedback I get from students says that they do seem to enjoy it pretty well. They liked that it's cohesive. They liked that it is story like. They liked that it's interdisciplinary. A lot of non-science majors are a little bit nervous about science. And for them to go really deeply into, say, molecular biology, or organic chemistry, or something like that would be pretty daunting. They would find it daunting. So Journey Through Time is more of a dabbling course. We get into the Big Bang, and we talk about what a redshift is and how to interpret the data. But we don't get super deep into it. We never talk about quantum mechanics. We never talk about, say, dark energy beyond the fact that it exists. We don't go into the details of it. So I think students find that it's doable. It feels doable from their perspective.

Brandon: What would you consider beautiful about this course or your experience of teaching it?

Dave: Oh, so many ways. I personally love being able to connect the present to the pre-historic past. To give one example: right now, there's so much of an emphasis on polarization that people are drawn in different, say, you could be talking about politics. But you could also talk about sororities or about your local community, anything that there's some sort of a groupishness. Looking pre-historically, we lived in groups. We were a social organism. We had our hunter-gatherer band. There was very much an in-group loyalty and an out-group distrust. And so it's neat to me to be able to connect what's going on in the present to how we were shaped, how natural selection shaped us over millions of years.

Brandon: Yeah, that's certainly the kind of connection across levels. It's an aesthetic experience. Typically, a lot of people say what they find beautiful about teaching is to see the light bulb go on in a student's eyes or something like that. I wonder if you've encountered in your teaching ways in which students are making the kinds of connections that you want them to make or making perhaps unexpected connections?

Dave: Yeah, I think so. I'd love to let the students speak for themselves. They each have their own experience. Some of the specific times that I've seen it once, when we were looking at the evolution of monogamy, social monogamy. Typically, it's one man and one woman, if you look historically. There's a pretty strong evidence that that was a consequence of our brains getting so big. Once you have a big brain but you have a limited size birth canal, then most of our development has to take place out of the womb, which means childhood is extended which means that there is more emphasis that parents need more resources to raise the children, which means there's more of an emphasis on not just the mother helping but also the father. So that distinguished our lineage from the ape lineages which remained polygynous, which is one male with multiple females. So it's the big brain that led to natural selection, favoring fathers who are willing to commit to the mother and commit to his children.

It's fascinating. I enjoyed watching students think about that, because it seems like their eyes are always open up. Once they make all those connections, they're like, "Oh, that kind of makes sense." That's neat, and it's also interesting to see them wrestle with some of the ethics associated with that. Because there's plenty of sexual soap operas that take place in college campuses, and a lot of students are struggling with that sort of stuff. And so for them to think about what they're going through personally and connect it to the evolution of monogamy, and how fathers especially would have transitioned from being not committed to one female to being committed to one female, and trying to juxtapose that with their own personal experiences, I can see that a lot of students, their eyes are really clicking a lot for that.

Brandon: Wow. Great. Talk about other teaching you've done that you find fascinating, exciting. What other aspects of your teaching or other courses really bring you to life?

Dave: Sure. So I was hired as a biologist, but I was hired mostly to take science out to people who are not scientists. And so I've kind of got the reputation for being somebody who can connect science to any other discipline. Being at a place like Elon University that values teaching and that values interdisciplinary has been a beautiful thing for me.

Touring the Tokio Modern Museum
Photo by Michał Parzuchowski / Unsplash

I've been able to teach this Journey Through Time course. I also get to teach another interdisciplinary science called Science Without Borders, which covers the biggest ideas of all of the sciences. I've also got to teach an interdisciplinary course to integrate science with other disciplines that is looking at environmental sustainability. That's more of a capstone course. Then I've been able to team teach a course for students in all the arts and sciences but team teach with a political scientist and then an English professor and a psychologist. That is just beautiful to think of how science — meaning like STEM science, natural science — integrates with social science, which also integrates with the arts and humanities, and see the connection, see the similarities on how we think but also the differences, and think about what insights come from looking at the same things but through a different lens. It's beautiful.

Brandon: Wow. Could you walk us through that? What does that look like practically when you have that many different disciplines in a course?

Dave: Right. Well, the focus of our course is to help students learn to appreciate all three branches of the arts and sciences, to appreciate arts and humanities but also to appreciate social science and to appreciate STEM. The second big focus of the course is to get them to learn how to ask research questions in each, in any of those three branches. So we prod and push and pull our students until they get a chance to be creative in all of those three disciplines, and to learn what assumptions work in some disciplines but not in others.

To give a concrete example, in STEM, we believe in an objective reality. If a tree falls down in a forest, it fell down. Humans — it didn't matter if a human heard it. That would be an arrogant assumption for us to make. It's the tree, right? That's the focal point. But in the arts and humanities, then there's much more of an emphasis on subjective reality, that you and I might both observe a tree falling down. But I, as a scientist, would see one thing. You, as a social scientist, might see something different with the tree falling down. And a poet might see a third thing with a tree falling down. And all of us would be right. Because reality is subjective, and there's different pathways that all lead to truth. So that's more of the arts and humanities way to look at things. I think it's beautiful to see how all of those different viewpoints can integrate.

Brandon: Do you find that students at the end of the course like that are equally able to appreciate the three different branches, or are there some challenges?

Dave: Well, the feedback we have says that they are making progress, but that's more subjective feedback. We do see other input that suggests students gravitate towards one direction and towards another, like away from science or away from the arts and humanities. That's something that's kind of a little bit disturbing to me. I think a lot of students, they are thinking about the future, about their career. They're being told by everybody, "You have to specialize. You must choose a major. You must commit yourself to that. This is your life, your future career." Elon and a lot of liberal arts schools fight against that and tell, "We want you students. Yes, you need to specialize. But we really want you to be broad because the job market is changing. Reality is changing. You're going to be best prepared if you're not pigeon holed into a box." And so I personally am very committed to that other way of looking. But I think it fights against a lot of pressures, societal pressures, that students are feeling.

Brandon: Are there challenges with interdisciplinary teaching? Do you find either difficulties in integrating different points of view or helping students recognize, when they're confronted with different sorts of toolkits, how do they actually position themselves in the world? Because it seems for a lot of people easier to say, "Look. I'm a physicist, and I approach the entire world in this particular way," or, "I'm a psychologist, and this is how I see things." That seems like an easier way to do things than to have to juggle multiple perspectives. What are you seeing among students as they navigate this sequence of courses?

Dave: So it's a course. It's not a sequence of courses.

Brandon: Right.

Dave: I hate to say it, but I think what I'm actually seeing is more of specializing among the students. We don't want that. We push against that. But I think that there's conflicting tendencies that are pushing on students. And so the voice of us as the instructors is one of the many voices that they have to listen to. I think if we truly want to make students interdisciplinary, it needs to be more than one course, and it needs to be something they hear not just from higher ed but also from the world as a whole. My hope is that there will be a societal push in that direction given that so many careers or career pathways are going to be obsolete a few years from now because of growth in AI and conservation emphasis and all sorts of changes.

Brandon: Yeah, and I think a lot of companies, too, look for the ability to lead cross-functional teams or work very well across different boundaries. So that's an important skill set. From the teaching side, do you find any challenges though? Do you find that as you've been working with your colleagues from other disciplines, does that make it easier to appreciate those different points of view, or do you find yourself struggling in any way? How's that?

Dave: That's a great question. The instruction team that I get to work with is fantastic. Big shout out to Alexa Darby in psychology, Sean Giovanello in political science, and Heather Lindenman in English. The insights that I regularly learn from each of them and how they view the world, both as a person but also from their disciplinary perspective, that's really wonderful to me. I have nothing but good things to say about them. There have been some times that we will encounter some conflict, but it feels like a conflict that's productive, useful conflict.

For example, I remember once when another instructor I worked with, Sean Tucker, I was talking about primary literature. He looks at me and he's like, "Dave, when you say it's a primary source, what do you even mean?" In STEM, everybody knows what a primary source is. We all agree on it. So I explained to him. Okay. This is what in science we see as a primary source. He looks at me and he's like, "That's not what a primary source is." So I had to say, okay, you're an art professor. What is a primary source? He described that. Then we realized that we were talking about two very different things. Given that we had a common group of students that we wanted them to appreciate both perspectives, I had to adapt to an art professor. It was a little awkward, but it was good. It was a good kind of awkward. Because I think it's important that we academics don't get so hung up in "my way is the best way of thinking about things." It's important for us to have that institutional humility.

bread board
Photo by Jeswin Thomas / Unsplash

Brandon: Yeah, fantastic. Let's talk about science outreach. That's another area you're really involved in. Tell us what you've been doing there.

Dave: Sure. Science outreach has always driven me. I think that science is one of the most fantastic things that humanity has ever invented, really. Just the idea that we can learn about the world not by consulting some authority, not by consulting important text but just go out and observe nature itself and then take notes on it. Then based on those observations, make inferences. That's the heart of the scientific method. I love it, and it works for anyone. There's nothing exclusive about it in any way. So I love being able to connect science, that central theme of science, to everyone out there. Anyone who feels like, "I'm anti-science," then I would go to them and say, well, what do you do? What are you interested in? Science can help you do that better. Let's do it.

There's also so many great stories of the history of science that independent experts thinking about similar problems independently come up with the same solution. If Darwin had never come up with natural selection, it wouldn't have mattered because Alfred Wallace was studying adaptations and independently came up with the theory of natural selection. So there's all these amazing examples of how science converges on something that actually works and that really applies well in the world. The science outreach that I have, I see it as just basically trying to build bridges between science and everything else, whether it's different disciplines or the general public. I focus a lot on the general public through things like op-eds and the Science Cafe that I run. But it's all just about connecting everybody in the world to science.

Brandon: Well, what's the Science Cafe? Can you tell us about that model?

Dave: Sure. So if you're interested in Science Cafe, I'd go to sciencecafes.org. You could easily learn about it. It's not a concept that I invented. I was looking for ideas of science outreach, and so I just started Googling around. I stumbled across somebody talking about a science cafe. It sounded fascinating — the idea that you put a scientist in a cafe with regular folks, and then just let things happen. So I looked into it, and I looked into how to start one. I was like, I can do that.

It's basically once a month. It's like on Tuesdays from September through May. I'll just make an arrangement with a scientist. Then I have a standing arrangement with a local restaurant, and the scientist visits the local restaurant. The restaurant provides space and a computer projector. Then I provide the scientist and the crowd. Then the crowd can order food if they want. So it's kind of a win-win for business, for them. And it's a win for me by connecting science to the public. So I'll try to get about half of my students from Elon University, about a half of the scientists come from the public, different, say, like a Labcorp or from Carolina Biological, both of which are local businesses here. It's something like that. Then I'll just have them talk about a topic that's interesting. I'll try to get some physics, some chemistry, some environmental science, some astronomy, some of everything, and then just see what happens. So it's a lot of fun.

Brandon: So how do these events go? Do scientists give a presentation and there's just Q&A? What is the actual interaction like there?

Dave: Yeah, that's a good question. So the typical one is probably a 20-minute presentation followed by 20 minutes of Q&A. It's something like that. But I encourage the visiting scientists to be very creative in things. Some of the more successful programs have resulted from the creativity of these scientists.

I remember an astronomer who used to work at NASA. She brought in all sorts of amazing images of space that would just knock your socks off. Then she passed them around and said, "I want everybody to write poems based on these images." Then we had a poetry slam based on astronomy images. That was fantastic. I remember another physician's assistant professor — she's interested in medical science. She teaches anatomy — she came in with some of her students. Then they invited people from the public to come up. Then they would draw. They'd pull out their skin, and then they would draw their muscles or their internal anatomy on it. So people could look by the art at what the inside of their body look like. So it's really fantastic.

Brandon: Wow. Fabulous. Do you have any suggestions for people who are trying to do science outreach, any effective ways in which they can, or maybe even, the other way around, things that don't work very well? Any things that you would warn people against doing, things that you've seen haven't worked out really well?

Dave: Don't get into a fight with anybody. It's not worth it. Now I think for the most part, it's all good. Just go do something and see what you like. I think science outreach is most commonly done with kids — science camp. You have an eager audience, kids that love to learn science, go out and do things and do something active. So that's always a nice fit. I've personally gravitated more towards science outreach with adults. I think I can do more good with that, but it just kind of depends on the person. It depends on what your interests are and what the needs of your community are.

Brandon: I suppose one of the challenges is how much expertise is needed in order to appreciate what you're communicating. And perhaps with images that astronomers provide, even though there is some expertise needed, most people would be able to at least appreciate something beautiful. But if you were a mathematician, it might be a lot more challenging, I imagine, or a theoretical physicist or something like that.

Dave: I think the mathematicians and theoretical physicists would probably argue that point with you.

Brandon: Okay.

Dave: In fact, one of the science cafes we had just this past March, it was on March 14, which of course is Pi Day, right? So we had a couple of local school teachers who had all these cool "let's try this at home activities with pi." They're passing out these flexible rulers and having people at the tables, the dinner tables, measure the circumference of their cup and then measure the diameter of it, and see who gets the closest to pi. They're passing out little paraphernalia that they had that celebrated pi. That's fun. I haven't done as much with theoretical physicists. We did have one guy who talked about the Higgs boson, but that was about a decade ago. I can't remember much about it, but it's cool.

Brandon: Yeah, I remember when I started out at grad school, I had a mathematician roommate. He asked me what I was doing, and I told him whatever it was I was studying at the time, multinational corporations or something. I asked him what he did. He said, "I can't tell you. You wouldn't understand." There's this sort of assumption that you do need certain amount of expertise. But there's also, I suppose, the question of whether beauty can help with science outreach, and whether it's the beauty of images or the beauty of devices. Do you think that aesthetics or beauty plays a role in science outreach?

Dave: I think that's a great idea. I think that if you throw up a bunch of equations, a mathematician might find them beautiful. But as you point out and your roommate pointed out, a lot of people don't find equations beautiful. They find them daunting. So that's where you need an interpreter or a translator, something like that. I think that's doable.

When I was taking a group of students through the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, I pointed out one of the equations that Orville and Wilbur Wright had used to design the first flying powered flight machine. The students, most of whom were not in sciences or math, they understood. With my help, they were able to interpret the mathematical equation and be able to make some sense of it. So I think having an interpreter helps to appreciate a lot of the complicated technical side of science and math.

Apollo Lunar Module from a recent trip to Kennedy Space Center.
Photo by Brian McGowan / Unsplash

Another thing that does help, as you point out, is really pleasing aesthetic images. It is fantastic when you can look in a microscope, when you can look through a telescope, when you can see an exquisite flower or the adaptations of an organism. That doesn't require a whole lot of training to look at this, say, map of what an artery, how it breaks into arterioles and then those break into capillaries eventually. I mean, the branching network is stunningly beautiful. You don't need a science degree to appreciate that. And once you appreciate the beauty of it, then it creates an intrinsic interest in the science behind the beauty. So I think you're right, Brandon, that beauty and aesthetics is a great inroad that can lead people into science.

Brandon: The work we're doing with scientist, the research we've been doing, shows that it seems to be the beauty of understanding that draws most scientists to value what they do. So there is certainly obviously the sensory beauty of the cells and the stars and so on. But it seems all oriented towards gaining that insight into the mechanism, or the patterns, or the hidden order that sort of underlies the beautiful surface phenomena. I wonder if you have any suggestions. How do you cultivate the beauty of understanding, either in a classroom or through public engagement?

Dave: Well, I'm not sure that I'd say in an objective way that it's more important to value the beauty of understanding over the beauty of aesthetics. I think they're complementary with each other. I think that it would be arrogant of us as scientists to say we're motivated by the beauty of understanding. You should be, too. I don't believe that. I think that if you want to understand things from a scientific viewpoint, like why is it the scientists find this subject so beautiful, I think you're right that you would need to think about the beauty of understanding and how does it all fit together, and what's the study design and that sort of thing.

But I think how to cultivate that, I think you just tell stories and get people interested in stuff. I mean, it could be a natural or organic thing that if you go to anybody, kids are really good at this. Well, teenagers can do it too. And you just say, well, what's something that you're really interested in, that you're really fascinated in? Maybe they really like pole vaulting, or maybe they really like a video game or something like that. You can look at the science of that and see how it all fits together and the beauty. Very soon, that kid or that person is going to develop a beauty of understanding. But that requires a guide who has the technical expertise to fit the interests of the person that wants to learn.

Brandon: Right. A lot of your work has been increasingly just interdisciplinary over the last few years. Where do you see this going? Are there projects that you're excited about doing in the future or initiatives that you're hoping to build?

Dave: Oh, well, I'm excited for the next few years so that I can answer that question. My father, bless his heart, when he was in eighth grade — he grew up on a farm — he heard a US senator speak or something like that. It changed his life, and it made him want to become a lawyer. And he did it. He became a lawyer. He was straight arrow directly towards the lawyer. He had a fulfilling career as a lawyer, and that was how he retired. I'm not that. I'm more of a dabbler. Let's try that. Oh, that looks interesting. What happens if I go there? I don't know where I'm going to be in five years, Brandon, but I'm going to have a lot of fun getting there.

Brandon: Well, that's awesome, the beauty of the process of discovering and learning as you go. Well, Dave, thank you so much for taking the time to join us. Are there places we could direct our viewers and listeners to your work, or to any of the projects you're doing, or initiatives you've mentioned?

Dave: So you could always visit my website. That's facstaff.elon.edu/dgammon. Gammon like backgammon D-G-A-M-M-O-N. So that's a good place. You could always just start Googling 'mockingbirds gammon,' and you'll find plenty of stuff there.

Brandon: Awesome. Well, thanks, Dave. It's been great having you on the show.

Dave: It's been a lot of fun. Thank you.

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