History transcending science’s boundaries

When I attended the 2019 meeting of the American Association of Advancement of Science, I couldn’t help but feel déjà vu. At my second AAAS conference, I found familiar faces among scientists and journalists. I also felt the conference’s theme “Science Transcending Boundaries” resonating with centuries-old writing that has remained relevant to this day. 

At the AAAS meeting, Erika Hayden, director of the Science Communication program at the University of California Santa Cruz, and I discussed how science writers should tell stories with history in mind. This would not only let writers put current findings in context, but transcend the boundaries of research. Looking at the work of philosophers and mathematicians in the 1950s, we can address ethical issues of automation and predict how artificial intelligence will change the workforce. Referencing 19th-century novelist Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein can warn of the dangers of genetic engineering. I also discussed how engaging the public with history and literature can instill more faith in them as readers. 

I spoke with researchers and journalists about my website A History of Artificial Intelligence as well as my other writing on scientific history. I mentioned how my work had opened up eyes of my audience to the nuanced, complicated history of science. It can sometimes be a stark contrast to journalism’s principles of concise, straightforward writing, but, by writing with a historical perspective in mind, scientists and science writers can at least find well-reasoned, humanistic answers to age-old questions. These answers speak true to the lives, virtues, and values the human being seeks to instill within research. A historical account of science lets scientists and writers draw from fields such as ethics, art, and philosophy – a true transcendence of boundaries. The same way Bill Nye and Carl Sagan capture the current public’s imagination, popular science emerged from tens of thousands of popular science books published in France throughout the 1700s. Today’s scientists and writers can understand this history of science writing to put their roles and purposes in context and transcend boundaries.

Throughout the conference I spoke with journalists, researchers, and other professionals about the best ways to engage the public as a science communicator. As I reflected upon the historical works, I spoke with others how the 18th-century French author Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle wrote about science such that a wide audience could understand in his work Conversations on the Plurality of WorldsExemplifying the theme “Science Transcending Boundaries,” he introduced readers to Cartesian philosophy centuries before the word “scientist” was even coined. I spoke with journalists on the principles of journalism and how they came about through historical events such as the French Revolution and the Dreyfus Affair. Through these events, journalists developed principles of writing in an investigative manner, independent of external forces that can, in some ways, revolutionize society’s ways of thinking. At the same time of Fontenelle, French philosopher Voltaire’s poems, short stories, critical essays, plays, letters, and history covering physics, chemistry, and botany would also redirect future scientific research. Imagining our work in these greater contexts of history, it gave others a deeper appreciation of their writing and research. With the past in mind, we would speculate on the future of issues such as artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.

With Fontenelle and Voltaire’s writing, scientific books went from being read by hundreds to hundreds of thousands. As intellectualism flourished in 18th-century France, science itself became more professionalized. Scientific institutions received more support, and individuals took more distinct professional research paths, re-defining the scientist. In 1795 French philosopher Nicolas de Condorcet advocated scientific reasoning in democratic governance. From the lab bench to the living room, science entered the hearts of the masses. It laid the foundation for the intellectual revolution of the Enlightenment to change reason and inquiry itself. Science writers themselves can learn about the purpose and value of scientific research through these historical trends. In learning from Fontenelle, Voltaire, and other historical writers, scientists can put their findings in greater contexts, writers can share a more accurate stories of science, and the world can become better for the sake of humanity. 

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