Top scientists promote the virtues of the arts

As school districts face budget cuts, both in Arizona and across the country, some of the country's top scientists are now speaking out in favor of the arts and the important relationship they play in learning the sciences.

Former NASA Chief Technologist, Dr. Mason Peck, knows firsthand the relationship between the arts and sciences. His earliest memories were of watching his father, science-fiction writer Richard Peck, tapping away on his IBM Selectric typewriter.

"Science fiction is one of those rare forms of literature where people try very hard to engage in reality," Peck said while on a speaking tour in Phoenix. "It might strike you as escapist in a lot of ways, but one of the reasons science fiction is so precise in its detail is it's trying to be realistic and trying to compel us with a vision of the future that's based in reality."

Dr. Peck used his love of science fiction to fuel his imagination while he designed the next generation of space probes.

"'RoboSquid' is a device we think can explore Jupiter's moon, Europa, someday," Peck said.

"RoboSquid" is the name Dr. Peck has given his soft-robotic rover that is designed like a squid or an eel. The design -- which looks like something out of a 1950s-era comic book -- allows RoboSquid to harvest energy from locally changing magnetic fields.

Europa is a planetary body that fascinates NASA scientists. It has an ice-covered surface, not unlike the science-fictional planet Hoth from Star Wars, with what is believed to be an ocean just miles below the frozen surface.

"We want to explore the moon Europa because with a warm water ocean," Peck explained, "it's one of the few places in the solar system -- other than Earth -- where there could be life. So, we need something to explore under that sheet of ice and we think this is one of those ways to do it."

RoboSquid may have never taken shape if not for Dr. Peck's love of science fiction.

"Instead of telling people, 'put down that comic book and pick up that math text book,'" Brad Snyder of ASU's The Dion Initiative said, "A solution might be: 'let's look at that comic book, let's look at problems, let's look at the science that's in it, can we replicate that? Is that possible?'"

The Dion Initiative is a program at the University that promotes child well-being. Snyder brought Dr. Peck and his father to the Valley to speak on the subject of "Science Fiction to Science Fact" at the Arizona Science Center, a discussion on the relationship between the arts and sciences.

"In order for students to get interested in solving problems, the problems have to be meaningful to them," Snyder explained. "One of the best ways to get students interested in a problem is by creating and telling that problem's story. When they understand that story, then they feel compelled to ask questions about it and move forward."

The message Dr. Peck and Snyder want parents and educators to understand is that when it comes to the arts and sciences, without one the other could not exist.

"So to me, science fiction gives us a path -- maybe to a future that we might want to build some day," Dr. Peck said. "So it's a great way for people to express their fears and hopes for the future. From a technology perspective, we can pull some of those hopes out and make them real."


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