Cultural Understanding of Physics: instruments and methods (CUP)

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(Group Leader: Marco Giliberti (University of Milan))

In the 21st century, the relationship between Physics, the Arts and the Humanities – Painting, Sculpture, Poetry, Theatre… – has become ever more intense and fruitful, so much so that stimulating connections continue to be found – previously not even suspected – between the ways of discover reality that are common to research in the Arts and to basic research in physics [Rustichelli 2012]. However, in major Theatres, it is still difficult to see science plays put on the bill; and, in general, not even important paintings inspired by physics are exhibited in the main museums of the world, and no poet received the Nobel Prize for literature with poems concerning Physics.

Needless to blame Art gallery directors or Theatre operators; in fact, few think that science is able to touch people’s hearts as well as the mind, as Art is expected to do instead. Mona Lisa, not Le Coniche, is a painting by Leonardo, and Broken Symmetries is not the title of a best seller on the relationship between men and women. Who among the habitué would go to the Theatre on a winter’s night for a rerun of The Hilbert space? In fact, such a title would make us smile.

The situation is symmetrical on the scientific side; indeed, there is still little Theatre, Painting or Poetry in university physics courses; or perhaps, there is none at all. This fact is so ingrained in our minds that it is difficult even to think that things could be different and that a true interdisciplinary construction of knowledge could even be useful and productive.

Yet the market is full of so-called scientific shows and of events that bring Art and science together. For example, the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN) has been promoting the Art and Science Across Italy event for several years, and on the internet we can find proposals for ballets inspired by science; there are also frequent shows, promoted by large scientific institutions and research bodies, concerning the marvels of astronomy or elementary particles; even pop music offers lyrics with a scientific content. However, even if there is an ever-increasing number of people working on them, scientific Theatre, scientific Painting or scientific Music struggle to emerge from an artistic point of view.

Still, the absence of science in great artworks seems unreasonable. Science, in fact, is a cultural product of man and society, and constitutes an important part of the social framework, contributing significantly to changing our vision of the world. So, as Richard Feynman writes “Why do the poets of the present not speak of it?” [Feynman 1964].

At the turn of this century a cultural superiority of the Humanities over scientific disciplines was perceived [Brandi et al 2005] and brought to a decline of vocations to scientific faculties [Tolstrup et al 2014]. Although the efforts made to halt this decline have paid off, and now sciences are considered by most people to be extremely important for society, the human, profound aspect – the one that allows to touch, in a way similar to Art, the strings of the human soul – is still missing. Sciences are,page1image40813792

in fact, considered more useful than the Humanities, and, therefore, even more appreciated, mainly for their the utilitarian aspects. And considering the increasing attention to ethical aspects and dangers related to the use of scientific knowledge, sometimes they are also often considered with some fear.

Present situation comes probably from an erroneous conception of science (particularly of Physics), and also from a too restricted idea of Art within our culture.

When topics are meaningful to people (because they are perceived as useful, beautiful, or fascinating), interest, attention and the desire to understand are great. Indeed, it is completely natural to aspire to a happier life. It is precisely in this sense that perhaps the most significant aspect of culture manifests itself. On the contrary, culture is often spoken of as a citizen’s duty, or as a social elevator, but the most important and characterizing element of culture is, in general, let apart: culture, in fact, is culture when it speaks to us in depth, modifying our vision of the world and of life, and giving the possibility to experience the pleasure of research and of understanding. Culture is the pleasure of a never-ending research.

Therefore, if we truly believe that Physics should be perceived as a culture not only for a small group of insiders, we must ask ourselves if the image and vision of the world that emerges from modern physical science are useful for enriching our lives; and, therefore, whether or not science, and Physics in particular, can really play a role that helps us live better.

Fortunately, people who love knowledge for itself, regardless of the its important technological applications, don’t seem so few; at least by observing how much echo had the discovery of the Higgs boson, or that of gravitational waves, and the “photos” of black holes taken a few years ago. The first glimmers of a turnaround attention towards fundamental science and research are perhaps already visible.

It is necessary for society to invest in the value of knowledge before being able to derive its fruits, which, in general, will not be solely technological. The greatest cultural aspect of Physics for society is more in its ability to ask questions about nature than the answers we get. We have more questions today that we know much more than in the past. Physics, in the modern sense of the term, was born when it began to be understood that a falling stone has a trajectory with respect to an observer on the ship, and a different one with respect to an observer stationary on the wharf, with neither of them being able to claim to be right [Bruno 1584]. One of the main cultural meanings of Physics lies in its drive to transcend common thought, to transgress the usual interpretation of reality, and to understand that questions that have seemed sensible for centuries are, instead, meaningless.

When the first university was founded in Bologna almost one thousand years ago, mainly on the initiative of students, the focus was on law, astronomy and medicine. Printing had not yet been invented and knowledge was essentially transmitted orally. Today, the knowledge we have obtained in the last few centuries is far superior to that obtained in the previous millennia. Although communication tools have changed accordingly, each student will be able to reach only a very small part of the present knowledge, even within a single field of study [Zichichi 2007]. Will we be able to make him perceive what can be done with the “new” knowledges? Where did they come from? How were they obtained? Who got them? How have they really changed our lives? How are they really important to us? Will we be able to make her/him perceive how many questions we still have? And how open and huge is the field of study that she/he is addressing? The importance of active learning teaching strategies [Fazio 2021] also through multidisciplinary strategies comes to the fore.

There are many questions on the carpet that CUP GTG may be called to discuss. Here below, just a few proposal.

  • Discuss instruments and methods for a specific and disciplinary knowledge of Physics for physicists in order to showcase its profound cultural aspects: ways to get to a cultural understanding of Physics for physicists.
  • Discuss the link with society; which is not primarily, and necessarily that of the communication of science but, as Maxwell said, that of the cross-fertilization of disciplines, of ideas, and of perspectives.
  • Discuss the relationship between the equality of human, and the recognition of the equality of the epistemological status of all disciplines in making knowledge;
  • Discuss whether it is true that if the links – not necessarily synchronic – with other sciences, and Poetry, Painting, Sculpture, Music, etc. are well present in an educational structure that synergistically highlights their potentiality, Physics can be better and more deeply understood in its historical, social, philosophical dimensions all taken into consideration.
  • Discuss how can we promote a Physics Education that is able to propose Physics as a culture in schools and universities.
  • Discuss if (and in what sense) Physics should really be part of the main culture of the entire society, and not only of single persons or of specialized groups.
  • In what sense, should Physics manifest itself as intertwined with the vision of the world and of life that gives meaning to our lives and opens up to the future?One of the way of promoting a cultural understanding of Physics is scientific Theatre. My experience of many years of work with the Group Lo spettacolo della fisica (The show of physics) – founded at the University of Milan by Marina Carpineti, Nicola Ludwig and myself – with the writing and staging of eight theatrical Physics shows that have had more than 400 representation, leads me to say that Theatre can be extremely useful for improving learning thanks to emotional involvement [Carpineti et al 2011], develop scientific imagination and enhance personal needs by fostering an approach to the discipline through affectivity. In this way, it also helps reducing cultural and gender gaps and promoting a deeper and even more human scientific culture [Giliberti 2014, Giliberti 2021].Theatre has always been used for educational purposes and there are now many studies on its effectiveness in science teaching. But many questions are still alive that CUP GTG may be called to discuss. Here below, just other few proposal.

 Discuss which Theatre-based pedagogical methodologies are more effective at different school levels.

 Discuss different approaches to scientific Theatre and their effectiveness in different practical/theoretical scenarios.

There are many types of science performances; for example those who promote science as a product; those that highlight the process and nature of science and others that convey science as an institution in society [Ødegaard 2003].

 Discuss how, in what context and with which reasons to choose one of the methodologies.

Furthermore, the show can be acted by students or produced and performed by external people. Again, it can be of various types; for example exploratory (students engage in an experiential way with science); semi-structured (similar to role-play) or structured (determined by the teacher with fixed activities, e.g., by a script).

 Discuss what didactic implications each choice does have.

In the last few years, the presence of scientific shows has increased considerably; but, evidently, not all the production is of a good standard, nor is it effective from a cultural and didactical point of view. The evaluation of the effectiveness of a theatrical performance is particularly difficult, but extremely useful in order to distinguish fruitful scientific Theatre proposals from ineffective and of little value ones.

 Discussing proposals for evaluating scientific performances and their effectiveness when included in an adequate didactic proposal would be very useful.

We are looking forward to all people interested in these questions: they are invited to share their ideas and to start a discussion about previous topics.

Furthermore, CUP GTG could be particularly useful to help creating an international interface between the world of cultural stakeholder and that of Physics Education that could facilitate the exchange of ideas and collaboration.

CUP GTG would be also extremely useful to increase the international visibility of Physics Education initiatives through Arts, Theatre and Humanities, and to develop research tools and methods to strengthen the link between research in Physics Education, and didactic and culture.

All GIREP members involved in Art and Physics, Physics Theatre, Poetry and Physics and so on, at a cultural and educational level, or in any way interested in participating in CUP GTG should contact Marco Giliberti (University of Milan):

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