SANTA CRUZ, Calif. – In front of a packed auditorium at the University of California, Santa Cruz on Monday night, astrophysicist Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz said that artists bring a new perspective to science.
“They ask questions that sometimes go to the root of the problem that we as scientists don’t get to ask because of the way we were trained,” Ramirez-Ruiz said.
His comments were part of “Waves Passing in the Night,” a multi-disciplinary conversation between Ramirez-Ruiz, filmmaker Walter Murch, and Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist Lawrence Weschler. Weschler recently published a book by the same name. In it, he profiles Murch’s attempts to engage the scientific community as an outsider.
Murch opened the event with a 30-minute presentation on Bode’s Law, an 18th-century theory concerning planetary orbits, which Murch has tried unsuccessfully to rehabilitate. Ramirez-Ruiz and Weschler then joined Murch to discuss his proposal and the role of non-scientists in scientific research.
Weschler began by describing some of the difficulties he and Murch encountered when they tried to discuss Murch’s theory with academic researchers.
“Over and over again we were told, if Walter will just write this up as a peer-reviewed paper, we’ll look at it,” Weschler said. “And the whole point is that Walter, very conscious of this, says he doesn’t know how to do a peer-reviewed paper, but he’d like to work with people.”
Murch insisted that he is not upset by his inability to gain entry into the world of professional science.
“I’m not raging, rattling the bars of my cage in frustration at this,” Murch said. “I’ve been perfectly happy doing this, I would like to extend the conversation, but I’m furthest from being actively frustrated.”
Ramirez-Ruiz said the tendency of scientists to dismiss Murch could be related to the relative precision of the Bode’s Law predictions compared to more refined theories.
“I think some of the overall rejection some of these ideas get comes from the fact that our theory of gravity is so precise,” he said.
Nevertheless, said Ramirez-Ruiz, the scientific community needs to be open to outside ideas.
“We need people that have a fresh perspective of saying this is quite interesting, you guys have to pay attention to this and you have to explain why this is the case, rather than just this tendency of being dismissive to the outside,” he said.
Alan Christy, Provost of Cowell College, helped organize the event. He said conversations like this one are at the heart of the college system at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
“When the University of California, Santa Cruz was founded, that founding generation was really intent on creating spaces for interdisciplinary cross-pollination,” Christy said.
He said events like this exemplify that approach.
“What we’re doing here is trying to model a different kind of conversation that can happen with science with somebody saying, ‘Wait, I think I have something to offer science. I grant that I’m not an expert, but what do I have to offer?’”