Friday, June 26, 2009

Refracting Galileo, Again

Posted by Babak Ashrafi on 06/26 at 09:33 AM

Some of the most frequently asked questions about developing programs for this new center are about holding events for the public.  What is the audience?  What do they want?  How can we reach (and build) that audience for history of science?  Last week’s event at the Franklin Institute went a long way toward providing a few answers.

The event was a three-day symposium on the legacy of Galileo for the public.  You can see the program in this email invitation that went out on our mailing list.  The plan was to bring scholars from a range of disciplines and points of view together to discuss with each other, and with the audience, questions about the relation of science, art, and religion using Galileo and his time and place as the starting point for discussion.

The symposium was very well attended.  It was free and registration was capped at 310.  This limit was reached for nearly all the sessions.  I talked with people who had come from South Carolina and Canada.  (I know, Canada is a big place.  I neglected to ask where in Canada.) The events were also streamed live on the Web.  When the Franklin Institute posts the videos on their site, we will link to them from here.  I recognized a few graduate students from Penn and Princeton, met a few others from Temple, and saw a future PACHS Fellow from across the crowded hall.  Several school teachers were excitedly talking during class behind me.  There were also faculty from several of the colleges and universities.  Nearly all of the audience was new to me, which is just terrific.  People chimed up with their questions and comments from a very broad range of perspectives, much broader than the severly disciplined questions from the academics.

Clearly, there is a large and interested audience for events like these.  This is the first year that we have held public events.  The previous audiences have ranged from about 60 to about 100 people, which is great.  This event with 310 registrants was an exciting way to end our first year of public events.

Finally, it was fascinating to see people try to convey their own basic assumptions and commitments to others who don’t already mostly agree.  This is a skill or talent for which there is not much institutional or academic support.  (I would be glad to hear someone disagree.) The physicists, historians, and philosophers sometimes challenged each other and sometimes talked past each other.  I was always left wishing that there had been more time for discussion.  But this is just the start of discussions that we can revisit as the opportunity arises.  I think that some of the participants were a little startled at having to explain things they took for granted—which was great fun and very interesting for the audience.

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