Join me, Aasim Yacub on the voyage to find out how Mr. Rohan Robert expresses himself and his passion using the two contrasting and ever-diverging worlds of science and literature which one thinks of as antiparallel to each other, however, both react to give to us the dynamic world around us.
Please give your insight on this very objective subject: ‘Science’. Which is your most favorite branch?
Isaac Asimov said it best: Science is a mechanism. It’s a way of improving your knowledge of nature, a system for testing your thoughts against the universe and seeing whether they match. Science is the single best tool we have to objectively measure, understand, and make predictions about reality.
A lot of people think science is a bunch of facts and equations. But Carl Sagan points out that science is much more than a body of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking. And when you look at the world through a scientifically-literate lens, the world becomes a very different place – free from superstition and pseudoscience.
What I like about science and scientists is the emphasis on intellectual honesty. Science focuses on fidelity in thought. When we follow the scientific method, we realise it’s not about what we want to believe or wish to be true. Whatever clarifies the truth is science, whatever obfuscates the truth is dogma. And the best way to measure truth and reality is through an emphasis on solid verifiable evidence. That’s what makes science special.
My favourite fields of science are Astronomy and Neuroscience: the study of the universe and the study of our brain – the outer world and the inner world. There’s no greater or more awe-inspiring field of study than these two.
What link do you find between Science and English Literature?
We’re all aware of the famous poets – Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Plath and so on. They wrote about the big themes: life, death, love, mortality, old age…. However, there are many poems out there that are science-themed – poems about the stars, about the wonders of the human brain, about the mysteries of the cosmos.
What is the converging point of these two subjects?
It is simply that both the poet and the scientist feel a sense of curiosity and awe about the world around us. However, the scientist is not content to simply marvel at life, nature, and reality. He/she is compelled to investigate and find answers. Consider a poet and a scientist gazing at a starry night sky. The poet marvels at the beautiful points of light shining like diamonds on black velvet. However, the scientist feels the same sense of wonder, but his/her sense of wonder is also informed by the knowledge that those stars are trillions upon trillions of kilometres away and are actually colossal spheres of hydrogen and helium gas, with thermonuclear reactions taking place at their core. The scientist’s sense of wonder is enhanced by his/her knowledge that there are actually collapsed stars made of compressed carbon – literally gigantic diamonds in the sky. Some of the best books on popular science are also exquisite examples of Literature: the writings of cosmologist Carl Sagan stir the soul and move the mind. The works of physicists such as Feynman and Brian Greene are full of rich metaphors, symbols, and figures of speech designed to help the layman understand the intricacies of gravity and quantum physics.
When did you start the Café Scientifique and what is your idea behind it?
Café Scientifique Dubai is a meet-up group that’s one of the community initiatives of SciFest Dubai. We started it two years ago. The aim is to talk science in an informal setting over a cup of coffee – away from classrooms, lecture halls, and laboratories. The emphasis is less on lectures and seminars and more on encouraging conversations. So instead of talking about office gossip or shopping we talk about important scientific issues of the day. Science influences every aspect of our lives in the 21st century. It is absolutely essential that we have a scientifically literate general public. But unfortunately, a lot of people are intimidated by science. Café Scientifique Dubai aims to change that.
The first Café Scientifique started in Leeds, where I was a student, in 1999. It then spread all over Europe and North America. There are now Science Cafes in over 80 countries around the world. Café Sci Dubai was the first of its kind in the Middle East.
What is the difference between STEM and STEAM? How does it help better the educational experience?
In the 1990s, it was noticed that American students were lagging behind globally in Science education. American policy makers decided to promote STEM education in a big way through massive funding. Unfortunately, nearly two decades later, nothing much has changed. In the last five years, we’ve learned more about the human brain than in all the previous centuries combined. This is having a big impact on the field of education as well. All the research seems to indicate that the best way to promote creativity and innovation is to use strategies from the arts and integrate it with the sciences. That where STEAM Education comes in (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics).
Who would you give the title ‘scientist’?
The tagline of SciFest Dubai is You don’t have to be a scientist to love science. What we mean by that is you don’t have to be stuck in a lab doing hard science and writing for peer-reviewed journals to be considered a scientist. Anyone who views the world through a rational lens and believes things based on evidence, and seeks explanations and answers, and practices a sceptical outlook, may be considered a scientist in the general sense. The most important quality a scientist should have is described in the motto of the Royal Society: Nullius in Verba: “Take no one’s word for it.”
Scientists take the risk of thinking for themselves. They accept no authority. Some of the qualities a good scientist must have include: intellectual honesty, fidelity in thought, curiosity, scepticism, a desire to find answers and explanations, a willingness to change one’s mind based on new evidence, being able to admit when one doesn’t know or doesn’t have all the answers, etc.
Who is your favorite scientist and quote anything he said that has impacted your view on science?
I have many favourite scientists and writers of science: David Attenborough, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Greene, Richard Feynman, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss, Bertrand Russell, V. S. Ramachandran, Oliver Sacks, etc. But the person I most admire is the cosmologist Carl Sagan. His numerous books and his acclaimed science documentary Cosmos: A Personal Voyage has influenced millions of science lovers over the years. His thoughts on The Pale Blue Dot have had a profound impact on my personality and how I think. This was an image of earth taken by the Voyager 1 space probe from 6 billion km away. In the image, the earth is just a pinprick – a pale blue dot – a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. He had a lot to say about that image, but here is a small excerpt:
“Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience.
“To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
What do you think should be the responsibilities and goals for the upcoming generations for planet earth?
I’d like to see the coming generation focus on using their creativity to solve global problems and to focus more on collaboration and not on competition. I’d like them to think of themselves not just as global citizens, but as cosmic citizens. I’d like them to think big, think bold, and realise that it is only the jobs of the innovators and entrepreneurs that will be free from outsourcing and automation in a future global education economy. Our goals and responsibilities as a species should be to colonise space, ensure everyone is scientifically literate, eradicate hunger, poverty, and disease, get rid of our dependence on fossil fuels, preserve all life on this planet, evolve a new economic system that is more just and equitable and do everything we can to combat climate change.