Tribute to Alan J. Friedman

Eric Siegel,
New York Hall of Science

Dr. Alan Friedman was a brilliant science educator with whom I worked closely for about a decade. Early in our collaboration, he described how the best ideas are found at the intersection of science with the arts and humanities. Throughout his career, Alan explored that intersection, and he was always excited by projects at the New York Hall of Science and elsewhere that drew from the best of the sciences, the arts, and the humanities. In his lifelong exploration of this juncture, he presaged more recent efforts to integrate science with the arts under the banner of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math). This short article will explore some of Alan’s published work in which he very systematically examined the mutual influence among science, art, and the humanities. I will also connect his engagement with the arts and the humanities to his museum work.

Early in Alan’s career, he demonstrated a predilection for creating his own path and framework for understanding the impact of science on society. After a successful career as an experimental physicist—he used to describe with relish how he loved putting together experimental apparatus from the kinds of random equipment he found around the lab—he received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities Basic Research Program. This represented a radical turn away from the career path of his research peers who were pursuing academic positions, post-doc fellowships in physics, and National Science Foundation grants.

The fellowship supported a collaboration with literary critic Carol C. Donley that resulted in a book published in 1985 called Einstein as Myth and Muse (Cambridge University Press). Donley and Friedman wrote about how “Einstein’s exciting ideas established him as a muse from science, inspiring and supporting interpretation in the arts…. With the explosions of the atomic bomb of 1945… Einstein suddenly came to represent a contemporary version of the Prometheus myth, bringing atomic fire to a civilization unprepared to handle its immense powers.” Einstein, they write, is a uniquely central character in the twentieth-century imagination, as he “did not merely move with the flow of cultural history, but cut a new channel across the conventional separations of science and the humanities” (Preface, ix–x). This invites speculation that Alan was inspired by Einstein not only in his scientific endeavors, but also in his desire to “cut a new channel across the conventional separations of science and the humanities.”

In the ensuing several years, Alan devoted his energies to the building of programs, audiences, and entire museums, first at the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley, then at Cité des Sciences in Paris, and finally at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI). His signature programs, such as the Science Career Ladder at the NYSCI were notable for how they put human and social concerns at the heart of the STEM learning enterprise. The first permanent exhibition at the NYSCI was called Seeing the Light and was created by the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco that has been the locus of art and science collaboration since the 1960s. Much of that exhibition was created by artists, so from NYSCI’s inception, art was at the core of the visitors’ experience. Alan also invited collaborations with artists and artists groups such as Art & Science Collaborations, Inc. (ASCI), resulting in a series of commissions, competitions, and installations.

The integration of art into the visitor experience at science centers had a specific focus at NYSCI. Alan’s vision, central to NYSCI’s mission, was always to make science accessible to diverse learners from different backgrounds. As Dr. Anne Balsamo wrote in her introduction to a catalog of NYSCI-commissioned artwork: “Located as it is in the nation’s—and the world’s—most ethnically diverse county, [NYSCI] is focused on addressing the diverse learning styles manifested by different visitors…Just as there are people who learn best from a linear and explicit display of scientific phenomena, there are others who draw important insights by contemplating the beauty and suggestiveness of a piece like Shawn Lani’s Icy Bodies” (Intersections: Art and Science at the NY Hall of Science 2006).

In 1997, Alan wrote a kind of credo about his belief in the mutuality of science and art, and why they are both critical for addressing his principal commitment to public education in science. Published originally in 1997 in the journal American Art (11 [3]: 2–7), the article begins with a deep and subtle reading of a pre-Hubble photograph of a cluster of galaxies. To the uninformed eye, particularly one jaded by the dramatic colorized images from the Hubble telescope, the picture has no particular drama. It is a series of small spirals, slashes, and dots of light in a reddish monochrome. Alan systematically uncovers the thrilling nature of discovery embodied in the image. Revealing that there are “trillions of suns” in the image, he systematically walks the reader through the distances involved, which are so great that they are not measured in kilometers, but in light years. The images we are seeing originated several hundred million years ago, and it has taken light all that time to reach us.

He then deftly connects the image to a profoundly contemporary phenomenon, the plasticity of space and time. He writes,

Einsteinian space-time tells us, among other things, that this particular arrangement of these galaxies in space and time cannot be thought of as a simple universal image. This photograph is valid from our own place in time and in space, but as seen from other locations in the universe, or even from within the Hercules Cluster itself, these galaxies would never have had this particular arrangement. Infinitely many valid descriptions of the cluster are possible, all different but all related precisely to each other by the equations of Einstein’s relativity theory. 

Simultaneity is one of the most profound casualties of the new Einsteinian view of the universe. Simultaneous events are strictly a local phenomenon, not a universal one. There can be no single snapshot of this cluster of galaxies which is uniquely “correct,” because there is no such thing as a “moment in time” for the universe as a whole. We can continue to think of our own time and our own planet as having moments, but we must learn that thinking about the whole universe requires different, less familiar organizing principles and metaphors (2–3).

Alan is clearly thrilled by the implications of this shift in perspective and wants all of us, young and old, to share that thrill. And this impetus leads him to a surprising turn. “Like most science educators I have thought long and hard about what is wrong with science education in this country. I have concluded that the solution is not just more good science teachers and good science curriculum, but also more and better arts education [my emphasis]. That is because what it takes to be astonished and moved by this photograph is not simply learning the names and numbers that go with the image, but understanding how those facts are part of the larger story of our history, cultural accomplishments, and aspirations” [my emphasis].

Because Alan was such a lucid and precise explainer, there is no way to summarize this seminal article that is shorter than the article itself. Suffice it to say that the essay draws deeply from poets, novelists, playwrights, and composers past and present to demonstrate the power of the arts not only as a way of understanding science, but as a critical perspective for understanding and constructing reality and a life full of interest and engagement. While he was passionate about the value of the scientific world view, “looking around at my colleagues…I would have a hard time proving that scientists are happier, have more stable marriages, vote more intelligently, or are more effective participants in their broader communities than are people with similarly deep professional commitments to the arts or the humanities.”

In 2000, a major essay on the life and work of Remedios Varo written by Alan appeared in a catalog raisonné of the work of this mid-century Mexican artist, who was closely aligned with the surrealist movement in Europe and Mexico. In this essay, he notes that the contemporary rediscovery of her work has taken place among both the science- and art-interested public. Through a close reading of her paintings, Alan carries through his theme of the explanatory power of imagination and the mutual inspiration offered between the arts and the sciences. Varo came of age during the great scientific revolutions of the twentieth century, and Alan’s research demonstrates that she read widely among the classic popular science writers of the time such as Fred Hoyle, a particular favorite of both Varo and Alan.

Through this reading, Varo connected the formation of the universe, all its elements, and human beings. Life is built on the elements created during the cataclysms of the early universe. Alan acknowledges that, on the surface, Varo’s paintings appear to be influenced by more imaginative worldviews, such as the world of alchemy and magic, but his ability to read the paintings empathetically with the eyes of a scientist and a humanist reveals the deep interweaving of scientific understanding. Alan is an excellent art critic in the Varo catalog, revealing new science-informed richness in the paintings while honoring the centrality of imagination, of beauty, and of the complexity of Varo’s worldview. The final paragraph of the essay is resonant and revealing: “The world doesn’t have to make sense; but scientists bet their careers that it does. That is their ultimate act of faith. It sometimes makes scientists feel lonely, particularly in cultures where ‘bad luck’ is a more common explanation than a painstakingly crafted, if only partially successful, model. But scientists believe that the universe is ultimately understandable. I think Remedios Varo shared that faith with us.”

A few times a month, I would drop into Alan’s office next to mine and ask him to explain some bewildering aspect of contemporary science that I had encountered in my reading— the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal; “Spooky Action at a Distance” (quantum entanglement); the multiverse; string theory; the twentieth century’s panoply of counter-intuitive theories that are only distantly comprehensible for laypeople. Alan would patiently walk me through a vastly simplified explanation with no hint of condescension and a sense that there was nothing he’d rather be doing. I was edified and changed by these discussions and I know thousands of others had similar experiences over Alan’s lifetime. The breadth of his understanding was reflected in his engagement with the arts and humanities, and his ability to bridge between C.P. Snow’s famous “two cultures” is one his great legacies.

About the Author

Eric Siegel is Director and Chief Content Officer at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI), where he leads the program, exhibition development, research, and science functions.  Eric has been in senior roles in art and science museums for more than 30 years and has published extensively in the museum field.  He has taught on the graduate faculty of the New York University Museum Studies program and Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) and as invited lecturer throughout the country.  He has served as President of the National Association for Museum Exhibition; Board Member of Solar One, an urban environmental organization in NYC; and Chairman of the Museums Council of New York City.

 

Author: seceij

Chuck Gahun is the content manager for the SECEIJ website and technical consultant for NCSCE

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