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The Engaged Arts and Humanities

Any Sigma Xi member unable to attend the Society's 2001 Forum, "Science, the Arts, and the Humanities: Connections and Collisions," missed an incomparable opportunity for stimulating intellectual discussion. The gap in mutual understanding between the humanistic and scientific views of the world can cause conflict, but it can also enrich discourse and promote insight. To be sure, a powerful confluence of ideas, consilience as it is called by E. O. Wilson, can enhance significantly the richness of what an educated person might be expected to know.

According to the forum's opening plenary lecturer, Society Past President George Bugliarello, "the purpose of the humanities is to understand and civilize man; that of science is to understand nature.... The arts complement the humanities by being sensory inspirers of reflections and emotions. The goal of engineering is to extend through artifacts, that is, machines, the capabilities of our body to modify nature." Ignorance of any of these approaches will negatively impact a literate person's ability to contribute creatively to any specialized discipline. How difficult it would be in a world populated by those trained exclusively in any one mode of thought to address the great issues of the day! The challenges of environmental sustainability, economic inequity and social instability would quickly overwhelm the non-communicative citizens of such a world.

Instead, better understanding of challenges that transcend traditional barriers will permit progressive collaboration. We must move beyond pedestrian communication modes that cause us, as humanities scholar Catharine Stimpson has said, to "barely mumble to each other." Instead, we must immerse ourselves in an interactive environment where the whole of human scholarship can be accessed and analyzed. Together, we must foster what another Sigma Xi Past President, Tom Malone, has called "unified knowledge, universally shared," as a common approach to scholarship.

A particularly illustrative example of the drama of science communicated through a new genre was seen in the fascinating play Oxygen, written by two world-class chemists, Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffmann. The play's themes address both a definition of discovery and the very human emotions involved in establishing scientific "ownership." The interplay of honor, credit, collaboration and competition frames a thought-provoking piece that probes the nature of scientific discovery.

Many members of our society hold advanced credentials in areas viewed as physical, social, life or engineering sciences. But essential features of our education must include the integration of knowledge gained as that field, however labeled, intersects with others. We must recognize that informed inquiry in the humanities and social sciences permits fundamental solutions to moral issues while creating a new aesthetic. As scientists who seek to support the humanities and social sciences, we will actively resist tight disciplinary packaging of knowledge, and we will stand together in abhorrence of both willful scientific ignorance in humanists and humanities illiteracy in scientists. Rather, we should provide moral and financial support for what we have called "the engaged arts and humanities." Only then will our works intersect at a cornerstone of a genuinely liberal education.

Marye Anne Fox
President, Sigma Xi

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