Three recent experiences have reminded me that community is a matter of care, not expertise.


The Farthest
© Crossing the Line Productions 2017

On 30 July in Auckland, I attended a showing of The Farthest, an Irish-produced documentary on Voyager 1 and 2. Over 2,000 New Zealanders packed The Civic – a grand old theatre – to experience the telling of the story of how a group of scientists, engineers, and technicians overcame the constraints of physics, early 1970s technology, and politics to conduct a grand tour of the outer solar system.

Hugo Award
© World Science Fiction Society

During the second week of August, I attended the World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) in Helsinki. Hundreds of presentation and discussion sessions filled the five-day event. A subset of the sessions were focused on science (e.g., astrobiology) or engineering (e.g., off-world resources). These were initially scheduled in 100-person rooms, but overflow crowds forced the organisers to switch to 500-person rooms.

On 21 August, I was in Corvallis, Oregon for a total solar eclipse. I was one of hundreds of thousands of residents from British Columbia, Washington, and California who joined Oregonians in two minutes of wonder. The corona-rimmed black hole in the sky and middle-of-the-day stars wiped away all the smugness of understanding the physics. Everyone gathered together joins every other human who has ever experienced this event.

Human civilisation has happened because of the division of labour. This means everyone is a layperson at almost everything. This does not mean that everyone wants to be alienated from everything other than what they do to pay their bills. The lay-popularity of space-themed events and stories exemplifies a basic element of intelligence that predates civilization … curiosity.

© NASA 2017

Curiosity isn’t learned or satisfied, it’s engaged. Telling a person what is true or right or correct doesn’t engage curiosity, except, perhaps, to incite the rebelliousness to pursue one’s curiosity. Science delivered from on high is received as religion, and risks alienating the curiosity that advances science. This is the risk of walling off expertise from lay-curiosity – part of dividing humanity rather than the division of labour.

The picture at the top of this post (© NBC 1977) illustrates the importance of realising that we are all laypeople. Johnny Carson was an expert at conversation – the joint unfolding of a story between two people. He was also an amateur astronomer and space science layman. Carl Sagan was an expert in space science and, initially, an amateur storyteller. The impact Sagan had on engaging lay-curiosity through storytelling was aided by Carson utilizing his expertise to introduce Sagan to an audience Sagan may not have known he had.