STEM: Adding a silent P
High school for me was defined by two things: time spent discovering I rather excelled at physics and mathematics (and genetics too) and time acting and singing onstage. When it came time to apply to colleges and universities, I had trouble choosing between my love for the arts and the wonder I felt in science and math classes. In the end, I tossed out a bunch of applications for both and landed at New York University where I began my post-secondary school career as a theatre and physics major.
Now neither stuck for very long. I ended up graduating with a BFA in Theatre, with minors in Physics and Mathematics, before enrolling in Rutgers University for Religion, Philosophy, and (of course) Physics.
So why return to Physics again?
I was looking for something: a way to make the world a better place. Despite the freedom of being able to be different characters in different plays, theatre felt so constricting to me. The business side of it was a challenge and the plays I loved most were the ones rarely produced.
The Arts — theatre, music, painting, and beyond — have so many reasons for being. But as a naive 20-something who wanted to find some way to make a difference, I struggled between the Arts as societal and political commentary and the Arts as entertainment. The best Art, I believed, told us a story that simultaneously entertained us and made us question our lives or the world around us.
And so, down an unexpected path I went, eventually settling on Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Physics as specialities. These were new perspectives on science for me, ones that went beyond equations to look at how we draw distinctions between living and non-living things, between observer and experiment, between different spheres of our lives that influence what and how we believe.
There’s been a lot of talk about whether STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) should rather be STEAM (add in the Arts), but what I want to proposed is that either is still missing a crucial component: the silent P out front, for Philosophy. Because while the STEM fields do require artistic insight and the Arts are made richer because of STEM advancements, if we’re not asking Why, if we’re not seeking to understand what we create at all angles, we are doing ourselves a disservice.
Technology and scientific breakthroughs address immediate problems, but are part of a bigger picture. We can no longer create in isolation, focusing solely on what small problem we’re trying to solve. We need to think about bigger implications, we need to think about long-term impact – on humans, on our society, on other creatures, on the environment.
We need big picture thinkers who can stand both inside and outside the real of creation to engage with it as well as to question it.
And the reality is we may not have answers to the questions we ask, but at least we’ll be asking questions and challenging ourselves to think differently.