The elegance of mathematics is its ability to communicate without relying on the vagaries of semantics. Science as a whole is similar in this respect, though it's subtleties are often afforded greater clarity by well-composed explanations. Regardless of the way scientific knowledge is communicated, it is remarkable how it can act as a bridge between cultures and nations, and how the common search for truth can allow us to communicate in surprisingly personal ways, even if we lack a common culture or tongue.
During my tenure in the EAPSI program I interacted with dozens of colleagues and peers who had only a tenuous grasp of English. (Needless to say, their speech was always far more facile than my own embarrassing attempts at Japanese.) And while a warm smile and the basic pleasantries of 'Please' and 'Thank you' can go a long way towards a engendering a sense of humanity, they're a poor substitute for real dialogue. In light of this, I was and remain continually surprised at the ease with which ideas can be communicated using the common language of science.
Several examples spring readily to mind, the most prominent of which happened in a tiny six-seat hamburger joint in Machida, a surburb of Tokyo about forty-five minutes from Shinjuku station. This particular bar and grill did a steady business and had a healthy crowd of regulars who would drift in and out through the week. Two of these regulars were sharp young salarymen with whom I had exchanged warm smiles and polite rounds of cheers, though our perceived communication barrier had limited it to not much more.
Though we spoke little in common, one night we began to work out a conversation from our small mutual lexicon of Japanese and English. It was slow going, but the food and drinks helped to alleviate any sense of urgency. Eventually it came out that these two gentlemen were scientists, a roboticist and a physicist, respectively. Gesturing, I was able to show them my business card on which was embossed the IBM corporate logo, and with that it was like a switch had been flipped, and though difficult to describe, the newfound sense of a shared understanding was as definite as the ice in my glass.
Suddenly science had afforded us a shared philosophy and purpose, a common literature and sense of reason and truth. It doesn't matter how you learn about genetics, the fact of the matter is that it's difficult to really understand biology without experiencing a moment of absolute, humbling awe in the face of the complexity and beauty of the natural world. In Japanese, Korean, Dutch or Mandarin, the fundamental truths afforded by science are immutable and personally touching to those who choose to spend a life pursuing them. We were still limited in our ability to form coherent sentences, but now we had a whole new vocabulary, one populated by words like Feynman, quark and microprocessor. With gestures, drawings, and even some mathematics, we were able to tap into a lifetime's worth of 'Ah-HA!' moments, and in this we knew one another very well.
In other more practical contexts I observe my Chinese and Italian colleagues, postdocs at the Indiana University School of Informatics Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research, transition from sometimes stilted daily speech to effortless, nuanced discussions of technical issues. It's my experience that interacting with non-native speakers on the topics of mathematics and computation is easier for English speakers as well. The reason for this is obvious when one considers that in a signal processing sense, there's much less room for ambiguity when two people can constrain the domain of possible signals in such rigorous way. Across the board, both in personal and professional contexts, I have had the pleasure of finding common ground in unfamiliar territory through a shared knowledge of the methods and reason of science.
Far be it from me to wax philosophic, but I would go so far as to say that science is mankind's crowning achievement, and with wide-spread education we have the potential to transform the world. A child instilled with a sense of reason, method, and wonder grows into a critically-minded adult who is able to contribute in broader and deeper ways to society. Moreover, an educated constituency demands forthrightness and reasoned action from their representatives. This applies as much domestically as abroad, and in times when seemingly intractable cultural differences threaten to rend us apart, we need more than ever to focus on the common threads that bind us together. From my experiences traveling and working in foreign labs, where even amiable efforts at understanding can be stymied by the complexities of culture, I've learned that science may be the only thing that truly transcends our disjoint heritages.
This post concludes my tenure as a blogger for the Blogs@CACM network. It has been a unique pleasure sharing these experiences, and I would like to thank my gracious hosts at the IBM Tokyo Research Lab for arranging this opportunity, as well as the constructive, insightful editorial staff of the Communications of the ACM Magazine. Finally, I would encourage any readers overseeing graduate students in the sciences to to consider promoting the East Asia & Pacific Summer Institute as an enriching, well-funded opportunity to pursue relevant research for eight to ten weeks each summer. Acceptance rates are astoundingly high (between fifty and seventy percent), due largely in part to the perceived difficulty of finding a host researcher (it's relatively straightforward, and the NSF EAPSI staff are eager to facilitate the process). It's a remarkable opportunity, and I cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of the personal and professional growth that I have seen, to a person, from every participant in the program.
Here's to good science, and safe travels.
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