by Phoebe Roe
Ainissa Ramirez is, according to her website, “a science evangelist who is passionate about getting the general public excited about science.” She has also been an associate professor at Yale University and a research scientist at Bell Laboratories and Lucent Technologies. This past Monday, Ramirez spoke at Kenyon in a lecture called “What’s Big about Nano: Basic Science, Economic Impact & Societal Issues.”
Have you thought at all about [what will happen] when we’re living with robots? Will we still need the communicative tools we use now?
The data is showing that the more that we get connected, we’re losing some human skills. We’re losing our empathy; I remember when I was at Yale [University], one student … said, “I’ve never had a long conversation.” That’s how you discover who you are, what’s important to you. If you’re texting all the time you’re just having short sound bites. I think what we’re going to find is that as we get more and more entrenched in technology, the thing that is important is our human skills you can’t teach with a robot.
How do you see technology affecting students today?
I think it’s a generational thing because when I was at the library [in college] we didn’t have Wi-Fi. Even the library is different. The library used to be quiet; you used to hear “shh.” The library isn’t quiet anymore. People are talking, not on the phone, but they’re having conversations. When I was teaching I would say, OK, no cell phones. If there was a laboratory and they had a question, I would say just write it in the corner of your notebook and look it up later. It’s artificial at this point but you have to carve out that space.
You’ve also taught and talked about how students have a difficult time with failure.
Right. I thought people were losing the ability to deal with failure and I would say just hang in there, try it a different way, and they would say just tell me the answer. That’s what it’s about; it’s about figuring out [the answer for yourself]. And it’s also about having a better relationship with failure. It’s not who you are; it’s just the process of learning.
How does that play into science?
Over the last week I’ve been on the news talking about Deflate-gate [a controversy surrounding the accusation that the New England Patriots purposefully used deflated footballs during a championship game] and everybody wants the precise answer, and in science you don’t have the answer. …You have to keep studying it, [because] that’s not good enough for the general public — they want the answer.
You’ve also written about football in the past.
It’s more than just vectors and collisions — things like that. When you throw [the ball] you know exactly where it’s going to go but when you drop it you have no idea. There’s a field in science called chaos theory — this randomness that falls right with [football]. [Ramirez and her coworkers] found two teams and they looked exactly the same except for how they recovered fumbles. One did a better job of recovering fumbles and we said they did a better job of controlling chaos and they had a better season. So you know how coaches are trying to find a small knob of how they can perform — maybe coaches should do a better job of controlling fumbles. It sounds silly and people say we want to do the big important stuff, but that is one of the small spaces that is really open for an advantage.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.