Scholars, scientists explore cosmos and culture at Adler Planetarium event

Lisa La Vallee
Director of CommunicationsOffice of the Vice President for Research and for National Laboratories

Anthropologist George Murdock once conducted a cross-cultural survey of more than a thousand societies, which revealed a list of “cultural universals”—things that are found in every society. In addition to brewing alcoholic beverages, body adornment and sexual taboos, the list included a creation story, or an explanation of where we came from.

In other words, a cosmology.

Those are the same universals addressed by cultural activities, such as art, music, literature and poetry, said Edward “Rocky” Kolb, the Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics. “Cultural activities do not make people good or bad; they are simply a beacon in whose light good and evil are illuminated in stark contrast. Cosmology is a beacon as well, and we need all the light we can get.”

Kolb’s words set the stage for “Cosmos and Culture” — the fifth in a series of Joint Speaker events for UChicago faculty and scientists, researchers and engineers from Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Kolb moderated the April 18 event, which the Office of the Vice President for Research and for National Laboratories sponsored.

The Adler Planetarium’s high-tech Grainger Sky Theater, which allows spectacular visualizations and simulations of cosmic events, attracted a record crowd of attendees for the panel discussion.

To the uninitiated, the cosmos can seem pretty daunting, from the big bang to cosmic rays. Yet on another level, the celestial order differs greatly from the confusion and chaos so common on Earth, the panelists said. Cyclical patterns observed in the cosmos have long provided most cultures with stability, comfort and “assurance of a transcendent, heavenly realm above and beyond the mundane,” said Paul Knappenberger Jr., president of Adler.

Nevertheless, there is a gap between cosmos and culture as well as hostility between science and society, the panelists agreed. They devoted much of their discussion to ways of bridging this “gulf of mutual incomprehension.”

“I want my students to love science as much as I do,” said Angela Olinto, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UChicago. One way she engages her students is an astro-art treasure hunt, in which she asks them to find a piece of art that is connected to astronomy and astrophysics. One student selected The Fall of Icarus by Henri Matisse and turned around the legend of Icarus.

“Instead of flying too close to the sun as a way to disobey his father, this student’s Icarus flies towards the sun because he wants to know the answers to such questions as, ‘Where do we come from?’ and ‘What are we doing here?’” Olinto said.

Popular culture: portal to the cosmos

David Schmitz, a particle physicist and fellow at Fermilab, cited several popular movies that could get people interested in cosmology, even though the films are usually hokey and full of inaccuracies. In Angels & Demons, physicists working at the Large Hadron Collider in Cern, Switzerland wear long, white lab coats and “create more anti-matter in 90 seconds than Fermi has created in 25 years,” Schmitz said. In 2012, neutrinos are cast as Hollywood villains that destroy the Earth.

“Even though depictions of science and scientists don't always match with reality, we can still use popular culture as an opportunity to connect with the public about real science,” Schmitz said.

Other panelists noted that popular movies depicting aliens and humans in outer space explore our deepest desires (order, peace, salvation, etc.) and fears (destruction and annihilation), which should open up discussion of these topics.

Knappenberger acknowledged that few people wake up in the morning wondering about the universe. “Nevertheless, enough people have a keen interest in some aspect of the universe that they bring their family and friends to museums and planetariums, where contemporary tools offer inspiring, contemporary views of the cosmos.”

Salman Habib, senior physicist and computational scientist at Argonne, said that physicists are not good at explaining what they do. “We have to do a better job telling our story. It’s very useful that scientists now have to do this because today, outreach is a part of most grants.”

All the panelists lamented the preponderance of misinformation about cosmology and the public’s lack of scientific knowledge. Kolb sited a website claiming that the LHC would create a black hole that would swallow Earth. He also cited interviews of Ivy League students and faculty who thought that the earth’s seasons are caused by an erratic orbit around the sun rather than by the tilt of the earth. Nevertheless, such misinformation offers openings to educating the public.

“You have to know your audiences’ misconceptions in order to address them,” Knappenberger said. “You need to start where they are.”

In the end, all the panelists found reason for optimism, saying that scientific knowledge is more robust than ever, and cosmology is more accessible than ever.

Recently the San Francisco Symphony performed “Magnetar,” a concerto by Enrico Chapela that was inspired by magnetars, a type of neutron star, Olinto said. “The fact that magnetars inspired a symphonic piece and that that composition was played at the top level of music is evidence that the cosmos continues to play a role in culture.”