What I Learned From Phil: An Arts and Science Love Story

Phil's birthday 2Four years ago, I wrote a book about robots- me, the consummate artsy-fartsy, who still to this day swears up and down that her relationship with technology goes no further than turning devices on and struggling to get them to do something useful.  Granted, the book was for kids, but it still required a leap of faith and a lot of research.  It was nonfiction, and I couldn’t just take poetic license as I went along. A bunch of parents, most of them as unversed in robots as I was, wanted to know more about them so they could keep up with their kids, and so I pulled up my socks and did it. I think it worked.  Soon after the book came an app, and teacher materials, and a handful of fun videos.  My little robot narrator, whom I lovingly named Phil (the first half of Philosophy, of course), has come with me in puppet form to all kinds of events, and this particular work has been recommended by the National Science Teacher’s Association.  Not too shabby, eh?

Writing about Phil was an education in tech, but it also made me realize something important about myself: I’ve always had a toe or two planted in the world of science.  I knew very little about actuators or pseudo code before working on this book, but I’d always had a strong laywoman’s curiosity about how the universe worked.  I’d long been a stargazer and was fascinated by genetics.  As an undergraduate, one of my favourite courses was physical anthropology (I still cough up random facts from it, years later). When I taught at the college level, I loved doing the lecture on Darwin and evolution. Phil made me get specific, but the general foundation had always been there.

What’s more, I was reminded that arts and sciences have a long history together.  A whole lot of the philosophers I had studied were polymaths, and the fact that they covered both ends of arts/science spectrum probably made them better thinkers in general. Since writing about Robots, I’ve worked with a lot of engineers, and the vast majority of them have “artsy” inclinations. Since writing Phil, I’ve done a TEDx talk on the intersection of arts and tech, blogged about it, and have given workshops about STEAM education.  It’s actually become a bit of a passion of mine, and I’m noticing that I’m not alone.

Most importantly, Phil really opened my eyes to the fact that behind just about any major development, invention or discovery are human beings, with really cool stories. All the science fiction I read as an adolescent should have tipped me off to this one. It should come as no surprise that I’m a sucker for really cool stories.

All this from a little cartoon robot.  Happy birthday, Phil!





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