The science that will save the world
October 2, 2009
Imagine a nuclear physicist, an economist and a connoisseur of French culture are stranded on an island with only a one-person raft among them. Which discipline deserves to get off the island and save humanity?
The Eighth Annual Raft Debate, sponsored by the Arts and Sciences Office of Graduate Studies and Research, took place Wednesday evening in a packed Commonwealth Auditorium. Professors representing the sciences, the social sciences and the humanities, and a professor as a devil’s advocate, all received seven minutes to argue the intrinsic worth of their respective disciplines and were given three minutes of rebuttal.
Audience applause and cheers determined the winner of the event.
Although all the professors received hearty support, physics professor David Armstrong, who represented the natural and computational sciences, was finally awarded the grand prize of the raft for his humorous argument in favor of the sciences.
Armstrong explained that although the greatest mission of science is to advance technology to improve human life, it can also delve into the meaning of human existence.
“We now know that the nuclei of the carbon atoms that make up our bodies were born in the fiery explosion of a star going supernova,” Armstrong said. “We are all quite literally stardust, and what could be more poetic than that?”
Economic professor David Feldman, who represented the social science, faced an uphill battle after the recent global economic crisis.
“I’m tasked with defending the social sciences in the middle of the largest financial meltdown of the century,” Feldman said. “I feel like a guy in a 15-foot hole.”
Feldman explained that the social sciences use statistical tools to predict the future behavior of a society and can therefore aid in solving social and political problems.
“Are you interested in how changes in national trade affect our unskilled labor here and abroad? And how might those possible changes affect political coalitions and political structures in the world?” Feldman said.
“If you think these are important issues, welcome to the social sciences club.”
Giulia Pacini, a professor of French culture from the modern language and literature department who represented the humanities, began by berating her opponents’ disciplines.
“What is a scientist good for?” Pacini said. “To build a fancy probe to Mars that ends up in flames because the scientists forget to translate the English imperial system of measurement into the metric system. And what did the economists do at that point? They just complained that there was $125 million that went down the drain.”
After using props, including a fishing pole and a wine bottle, to belittle her opponents, Pacini explained the worth of the humanities.
“We are the ones that use art to imagine a better world that is more just and more beautiful, that brings joy to our life and more meaning,” Pacini said. “Can you imagine a world without spirituals, or Gospel music?
Without Picasso’s Guernica? No Bob Marley, no Bob Dylan, no Maya Angelou, no Toni Morrison? No Simpsons?”
The debate’s devil’s advocate, who agrees that none of the disciplines should be saved, was played by professor of education Jeremy Stoddard.
“I’m supposed to argue that perhaps the raft should go with no one on it,” Stoddard said. “And frankly, a nuclear physicist, an economist and someone who studies French culture — it’s the beginning of a bad joke really.”
Stoddard created a poster board for each professor that sarcastically summed up the usefulness of their disciplines. Because he is a nuclear physicist, Armstrong’s poster read “Greetings Mr. Ahmadinejad.”
The economist Feldman’s poster included a chart of unemployment rates going up while members of the government declared the recession “likely over.” Pacini’s sign took a stab at France with its graphic of “productivity” in French society rising with cases of STDs.
“You are all equally worthless,” Stoddard said.