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Jorge Wagensberg: Inside the skin of the scientist

For the director of the innovative Barcelona Science Museum it is essential to awaken scientific emotion without losing a grip on reality

Even the monkeys are mistaken. Before them is a complete forest, with giant trees, lianas, epiphytes, fishes, turtles, everything bathed by a torrential tropical rainfall and the sounds and the humidity of the Amazon, more specifically of the jungle located in the environs of Santarém. What the simians do not know is that they are, in actually in Spain. The magic of offering a vivarium of 600 square meters with a piece of the Amazon Forest is one of the many offered by the Barcelona Science Museum, opened in September.

“To awaken scientific curiosity, a museum has to thrill. To seduce the visitor towards the mysteries of reality is the best way of making him want to understand reality”, explains the physicist and director of the institution, Jorge Wagensberg. At the head of the museum for 12 years, it was Wagensberg who conceived a new standard of museology that has adepts even in Brazil, where he is advising a few institutions in accordance with his precepts: the protagonist of the museum is the real object, supplemented by experiments. “The visitor has to be put into the skin of the scientist in his quest for the comprehension of the phenomena that involve those objects. To awaken this scientific emotion, one cannot lose one’s grip on reality”, says the physicist, who is the author, amongst others, of a book of philosophical-scientific aphorisms that sold over 35,000 copies, a hit even amongst the Europeans. The science museum projects on which he is advising in Brazil are those of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), of the Pontifical catholic University of Minas Gerais, of the City Hall of Piracicaba, and of the Science and Technology park of the University of São Paulo (USP).

Wagensberg’s international prominence does indeed come from his innovative museological conceptions. To talk about them, he has now been, as an invited lecturer, in no less than 26 countries, including the whole of Europe, the United States, Russia, Japan, India, three African nations, and six South American ones. In this interview, he talks about the essence of his museology and explains why the popularization of science and of scientific method is essential for democracy.

What differentiates your conception of a science museum from the other models there are around the world?
A science museum is not made to teach, to inform or to educate people – although none of this is prohibited. It is made to thrill, to present reality and a few slices of knowledge that man has built up about it, in such a beautiful and suggestive way that awakens an irresistible desire to understand it better. It is made to lead people to appropriate scientific method, stimulating questioning and the observation of reality, questions, and the quest for replies by means of experimentation, of dialog with nature. That is why it is essential for a science museum to be based on real objects, to present reality, not only cold simulacrums that represent only the portions of reality already studied by science. The essential thing for a museum is conversation. The objects have to talk amongst themselves, with the modules that represent phenomena, and with the visitors. The first science museums used to display objects in showcases, above all those of interest to scientists. Twenty meters of every kind of butterfly may be useful for a scientist, but they say nothing to the ordinary citizen. At the beginning of the 20th century, the museums incorporated phenomena into their exhibitions. It was an advance, but it became a vice, with modules in which interactivity is limited to pressing a button to activate a previously prepared experiment. The visitor does not take part in the direct observation of nature, in the formulation of questions, which is the most important part of science. You have to increase interference and the degree of freedom of the visitor, offering a selection of real objects and phenomena that converse amongst each other, creating a mental interactivity that is far richer than just pressing buttons.

Is it this you refer to when you say that the museum has to have a language of its own, different from all the others?
It’s a mistake to base exhibitions based on texts, drawings, figures, videos or computers to explain scientific knowledge, putting the real objects as mere illustrations. These elements can supplement real objects, but never replace them. It’s more convenient to read a book, to watch a video, or to use the computer sitting down at home than standing up in a museum. The language of the museum has to be based on real objects and phenomena, and its discourse is constructed after an intelligent selection of these elements, in such a way that they converse amongst themselves and are self-explanatory. Another way of establishing this conversation between objects is what we could call a museographic metaphor. It was the solution I found, for example, for presenting DNA. The traditional sculpture of the double helix is a beautiful resource, but it doesn’t explain the essence of DNA. The idea occurred to me when I was visiting the Deutsches Museum in Munich. There I saw a few old pianolas, which did not work with a player, but with a cylinder full of pins or perforated tapes that contain the information which the apparatus transforms into music. It’s a perfect metaphor for DNA. The cylinders and the paper, in themselves, do not mean anything. They are just an instruction written in a code which, instead of having four letters, like the genetic code, has only two: depressions and saliences, or holes and non-holes. It’s a code that only acquires a meaning when it is deciphered by the instrument specially designed for this. The pianola transforms the code of the cylinders into notes, like ribosome transforms the letters of DNA into proteins, the basis of living beings. This gives a clear idea of DNA, and it certainly stimulates the wish to know more about it. Of course, this kind of museography calls for a lot of creativity, it requires the museologist to be a bit of an artist, scientist, inventor, pedagogue, actor, a showman as well. These talents may not existin just one person, but they can be gathered together. Making a good museum is similar to putting together a good team to make a film. It’s the art of combining talents.

What do you mean when you say that to transmit science you have to use the same stimuli that motivates the scientist?
Many science museums opt for the show resource, of the Disneyland kind. I think that the best stimulus for drawing a citizen closer to science is the same one that leads the scientist to produce it. The first thing that a museologist should seek for making an exhibition is discovering what thrills the scientist who is researching something, what it is that motivates him to draw up the questions and afterwards how he applies scientific method to try to answer them. This is the basic raw material of exhibitions, and not the scientific conclusions. The problem is that scientists do not confess their emotions, on the contrary, they strive to hide them in the name of objectivity. It is not good form for them to publish them, and they even carry out some tricks in writing their results in the reverse order, so emotions won’t appear. This is a problem for the museologist, if he tries to do museology from scientific papers. Discovering the emotions that motivate the scientist is essential. You have to invite thescientist to dinner, to drink, even to dance, until he lets slip the confession. A good museologist is also a seducer.

You also like to say that the good museologist has to see thingsin loco ?
This is essential for making a museum that is concentrated reality and that seduces for the pleasure of revealing it. For example, in the new museum, we dedicated 80 square meters to just one piece of amber, 1 centimeter in size, which we discovered in the Dominican Republic during the travels for the exhibition about shipwrecked galleons. It’s a unique piece, about which there are today 14 scientific papers published. We are proud to have brought it from the tourist souvenir world to the world of scientific research. It is also an example of collaboration: I got it from a miner friend who was making the museum of amber, in exchange for advisory services for the project. The piece bears his name: Jorge Caridad. We took it to São Paulo to be analyzed by specialists in ants, like Roberto Brandão, the director of the Zoology Museum of the University of São Paulo. It is the only piece in the world that has, besides adult ants, their eggs. These are usually inside the anthill, where the resin hardly reaches. What were the ants with those eggs doing outside the anthill 20 million years ago? We worked on this question in the museum, presenting the Jorge Caridad alongside other pieces of amber and dozens of experiments that help the visitor to extract the information that the traversed by certain lights that evidence the turbulences recorded in the resin while it was hardening. And he can also be thrilled by the beauty of the amber, of a scene frozen for 20 million years. He is invited to observe the reality facilitated by us, but with the possibility of discovering things that not even the scientists have noticed yet, because what we offer is the real piece. It is the great advantage of working with real objects, and not with reproductions. The real object continues to contain the truth, while the simulation only contains the piece of the truth that you have already discovered. About the simulation, no further investigation is called for, about the real piece, there is room for an original discovery. For this reason, a good museum contributes towards scientific investigation.

If science seeks objectivity, how can it be so essential for a science museum to catch the public by emotion?
There is no contradiction in that. Scientific method serves to deal with an idea, but it doesn’t help anyone to have ideas. Its job is to seek answers, not to draw up the questions, which is more essential. Emotion serves for having ideas, for wanting to do science or for wanting to learn how to do it, and that is not contradictory with objectivity and rationality. One of the greatest defects of science museums is to show results, but not the method employed to get them. They omit the emotion that leads to making questions and the objective, intelligible and dialectical method that the scientist uses to seek the answers. In a science museum, it’s a nice thing to explain the mistake, the doubt, it’s nice to explain that what a scientist does for the most of his time is to be mistaken, and that this is not to be ashamed of, that science only advances because there is no obstacle to change one truth for another. Museums that show only “the scientifically proven”, like eternal truths, create a false image of science. In our new museum, there are many occasions on which we present several interpretations. Some times, we say that the available data is insufficient for presenting a conclusive alternative, and we invite the visitor to formulate his hypothesis. There is a case of a tomb thousands of years old, in which we have two individuals, one murdered and the other with marks of a wound, but who survived it. There is little data, and we are going to do a competition for narratives that explain what happened. Only those that are compatible with the available data will be accepted, but there are many possibilities. It’s an invitation to put oneself inside the scientist’s skin. After formulating the hypothesis, one can go forward with which would be the ways for proving it.

Can these principles be applied to museums outside the scientific ambit?
Museums of history, archeology, ethnology are also science museums, in which these concepts can be fully applied, which makes them interesting for the public in general, without ceasing to be so for the scientists. In the ambit of art museums, the Tate Gallery, of London, is doing an innovative experiment, which has some relation with what we were talking about. They are organizing the paintings in another way, no longer by years or by painters, nationalities, cultures, but by themes. They are being much criticized by other art museums. But I, personally, think the idea is brilliant.

Isn’t it contradictory to say that a museum is essential for transmitting knowledge and scientific method, but that it is not its function to teach?
It’s a question of priorities. What a museum does best is to provide stimuli. Their central objective cannot be to teach, because that requires time. A visit lasts three hours, while a school program has 50 to 60 hours. A museum cannot replace a book or a course. But what it can offer is the most important stage of the cognitive process: it’s the concept, making the person want to learn, motivating. The function of the museum is to supply stimuli in favor of scientific knowledge and scientific opinion. This is not contradictory with teaching, but it is only the principle for this. The science museums designed for teaching are converted into bad schools, and these are hardly likely to stimulate anyone’s wish to learn.

Why do you criticize the fact that science museums are similar, if after all the laws of science are the same?
This is a question of the global and of the local. Newton’s laws are the same anywhere, but as in a museum the laws of nature are expressed through real objects and phenomena, and these are almost infinite, there is no reason for us to use the same pieces and phenomena for explaining these laws. Naples is a good example of the problem. It’s a city with an enormous personality. It has Vesuvius, Pompeii, one of the most marvelous Mediterranean landscapes, one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world. Naples, which means neapolis, the New York of Antiquity, has in its subsoil bits of extremely important civilizations, like the Greek one, the Roman Empire, and others. Why should a science museum of a city like that copy any other? Originality should begin with the choice of the theme. No museum in the world can deal with seismology and volcanology like one that is next to a volcano that every two thousand years causes legendary catastrophes, like the one with Pompeii. There is an incredible geology institute in the mouth of Vesuvius. One could, for example, transmit the noise from the entrails of Vesuvius in real time to the rooms of the museum. What emotion could be better for awakening curiosity as to volcanology, geology, or the history of Pompeii? It could even be a way of valuing the scientific research done there, which is another important aspect of a museum. A science museum is a perfect window for showing what local scientists are researching. That is good, because the surroundings to value and to take pride in what belongs to them, and for an outsider to have the opportunity for seeing the place where it gets to with its originalities under the eyes of science. I am sorry that the Neapolitans are more inclined to making a museum that is a clone of the American ones, and I’m trying to convince them otherwise. But, unfortunately, there is a tendency to copy museums of success. It is easier: between creating and not creating, between setting up a competent and creative team and buying everything ready, the law of the least effort usually prevails. It’s a terrible idea.

How are the projects for science museums that you are advising on in Brazil?
They are very interesting, the opposite to these clone museums. In Piracicaba, for example, there is a project for a museum in a building that used to be an old sugar mill. I suggested that they should make the museum taking advantage of the theme. With the excuse of explaining the processing of sugar, they could explain a good part of universal science. The theme of the transformation of the energy in live matter and the theme of energy itself appears, there appears the theme of machines and the evolution of technology, there are the social and human themes like slavery, social and economic progress, the importance of sugar in local history and in the history of Brazil, the ecological problem, like the deforestation of the Atlantic Rain Forest to plant sugarcane. It’s a very rich example. It gives an opportunity for addressing themes that range from the local to the most universal, and all this in an unimaginable environment of sophisticatedly restored old buildings, alongside a river, in a city that is young and has life, close to São Paulo. I also think that it is one case that is being very well handled. Indeed, the projects that I know for science museums under way in Brazil are using a very advanced museology. The one in Campinas, for example, is a project from The State University of Campinas (Unicamp) led by young scientists with very clear and modern ideas. There are another two in São Paulo, ambitious ones. In general, Brazilian scientists are more creative and more open to innovations than the average.

Are children the main target -public of a science museum?
A good science museum should be addressed to all the publics. One same module can contain stimuli for children, adults, and even for scientists. This is impossible to achieve in a book or in a film, because their languages have an age. But in a museum it’s perfectly possible, because its basic word is constituted of a concentrated reality of real objects and phenomena. It’s like asking of the Amazon jungle is for children or for adults. Why does the jungle interest both children and adults? Because, in the jungle, there are sufficient objects, sufficient phenomena and stimuli for each one to find his own. This does not mean that children are not a public that is especially dear to the museum, and that there cannot be special sessions addressed to them. It is desirable for half the audience of a museum to be school groups. A good museum contains stimuli for any age.

But some exhibitions, like yours about Aids, touch on very sensitive themes for children…
The exhibition about Aids had analogies that are difficult for a child to understand, like the one that compares the virus with the symbol for the cube root of B, which seeks to infiltrate itself in a famous poem to reproduce. As a symbol, the virus is soon detected. So it translates itself into letters (the cube root of B) and goes unperceived in some places, reproducing itself in an entire edition. The poem is a cell of the human body. It’s the idea that the virus gets itself stuck into the middle of the genome, to use the reproductive machinery of the cell to multiply itself. To do so, though, it has to translate itself in cell language, going from RNA to DNA. Some doctors afterwards used this analogy to communicate with their patients, but for a small child it can be a sophisticated metaphor. But there were others, like a fortress defended by soldiers and constantly attacked by barbarians, which could be understood even by small children. The windows, doors and holes were the mouth, the wounds. We show the strategy of attacking the castle’s security system, corrupting its members for them to let the virus pass, as happens with the infected immune cells that do not work any more. We also tried to transmit the rules for self-protection. We made a game in which the visitor could simulate his behavior and discover the level of risk. There was a chessboard with the six bodily liquids – saliva, tears, sweat, semen, vaginal secretion and blood – infected on the one side and non-infected on the other. Each one of these liquids contains different concentrations of virus, offering different risks of contagion, since small quantities of the virus can be eliminated by the immune system. Any risk behavior consists of blending the liquids. So the visitor can, in privacy, test any combination and find out the possibility of getting infected. We showed that the risk of contamination with cutlery or kisses is practically nil. With a razor blade, it is small, although more significant, with sex much more, while in a blood transfusion contagion is almost certain. All ages played, and, amongst the adults and adolescents, many would change their look, with a relieved or worried look. I think it had especial importance for the adolescents, because they are a risk group and challengers par excellence of the established rules. A person relates in a very different way with a rule that he has discovered than with one that he has had imposed on him. One study, which we did telephoning afterwards to the homes of people who had come to the exhibition, showed that we had achieved our major objective, which is to make the theme a subject for conversation at home. In the case of Aids, this would happen in 100% of the cases. Even in families where talking about sex or Aids was taboo, the child or the adolescent would raise the theme at the first opportunity. For that alone, I think that the exhibition was worthwhile. We may even perhaps have saved lives.

Why do you like to say that science museums are vital instruments for democracy?
Because science is the form of knowledge that has most influence on our daily lives, and, at the same time, it is the one that least interests citizens, about which they feel least apt to give an opinion. It’s a contradiction. It is vital for people to be well informed and capable of having an opinion on scientific questions, like researches with stem cells, nuclear energy, cloning. People are ashamed of not knowing Beethoven or of not having read Don Quixote, but they go so far as to brag about not even having an idea about physics. It is a mistake. Science is the form of knowledge designed to be much more universal than artistic knowledge. And it’s not just a question of information, nor only of science. Intimacy with scientific method develops critical capacity, for questioning, for making questions and seeking answers, which makes people more capable of taking mature decisions, of giving an opinion in a conscious way about any issue on the national agenda. Scientific method is intrinsically antidogmatic, its logic is the opposite to that of dictatorships. It’s a vaccine against authoritarianism. That is why it is so essential to have a space that creates stimuli in favor of knowledge and scientific method.

Difficult to imagine that a museum can achieve all this just with stimulating exhibitions?
My conception of a museum is not just a space for temporary and permanent exhibitions. Half of the space of a science museum should be set aside for courses, conferences, debates, encounters, seminars. A museum should be like a university of sciences, not for scientists and specialists, but for ordinary citizens. This is essential, because a museum has a unique credibility. It is not the same thing to discuss the ethics of cloning human embryos for researching treatments for diabetes and Alzheimer’s inside the walls of a university, in a religious institution, in a pharmaceutical laboratory or in a science museum. The museum is seen as a neutral space, a space for the common citizen. If Greenpeace does a congress about global warming, few scientists will go, and hardly anyone from Greenpeace would be present at a debate in the university. In the museum, though, we have managed more than once to bring both together, along with representatives of public administration, to discuss the theme. And the exhibitions are helping to create the atmosphere for this debate, for attracting people to it. Our museum has contributed in an important way to shape scientific opinion on several occasions. In 20 years, we have carried out over 4,000 scientific discussions, some of which with the participation of Nobel laureates. One of these debates was about researches with embryo cells, which use embryos frozen in clinics. Bernard Soria, a Spanish chair professor who was working with embryos and had already succeeded in curing diabetic rats, had been prohibited for ethical problems from working with human embryos in Spain. He transferred the whole of his laboratory to Singapore. So then we held a great debate at the museum with Soria, religious people and other conservatives. A few months ago, a new law was promulgated that will allow Soria to go back to Spain to research with embryos. This is just one example, we have by now debated an endless number of issues: just between 2000 and 2001, there were 45 talks, 34 seminars, and 18 courses. With the installation of the new museum, which boasts three large auditoriums (for 300, 180 and 100 people) and eight small ones (for 30 to 80 people), these activities are going to be intensified. We are also proposing joint activities with other museums from countries from Europe. I believe that the science museums will be the cathedrals of the future, where people will meet for conversation.

You like to say that beauty, art and emotion are essential in a science museum. Isn’t that contradictory with scientific objectivity?
The ugliness of the majority of science museums has always shocked me. I believe, and I am publishing an article about this, that beauty and intelligence have a lot in common, and that beauty predisposes to intelligence. Both the concept of beauty and that of intelligibility are related with capturing an order, a pattern of repetition and non-repetition, separating the noise from relevant information, the essence from the hues? Accordingly, what can be transmitted well via intelligibility can be transmitted better when beauty is added. The emotion that beauty awakens – the beauty of the Amazon jungle, of certain insects, fossils, or rock formations, for example – predisposes one to want to understand. In the new Barcelona Science Museum, beauty will be an omnipresent element. Many artists have been invited to do works. Not free works, but in harmony with the discourse of the museum. I think a characteristic common to all the splendid epochs of the history of humanity, like the Renaissance or the Viennaof the 1920’s, is precisely the promiscuity between scientists and artists, when the beautiful and the intelligible had a mutual curiosity for each other.