Secret Science Club Celebrates Ignorance

The secret is out about the Secret Science Club, and probably has been since at least January when The New York Times featured it in an article about educational events in bars around the city. A few hundred people packed the room at the Bell House in Brooklyn, sipping on a house cocktail named WTF?! in honor of the evening’s event,“Ignorance: A Whiff of the Unkown.”

Neuroscientist Stuart Firestein, author of the book Ignorance: How It Drives Science, was on hand to discuss the importance of questioning and examining what we don’t know to advance science research. Firestein explained that many people perceive science as mass fact memorization, but in reality it’s more exciting to talk about what we don’t yet know. He took that notion, and in 2006 created an entire course for college seniors called “Ignorance,” which he teaches at Columbia University.

Firestein acknowledged that the word “ignorance” was partially chosen to be provocative, but what he means is a “communal gap in knowledge” or “knowledgeable ignorance, which helps frame questions.” He referenced physicist James Clerk Maxwell’s famous quote “Thoroughly conscious ignorance … is a prelude to every real advance in knowledge.”

The class, which has proven quite popular with students, invites members of the Columbia science faculty to talk about what they don’t know, what they want to know, and what they didn’t know a number of years ago, but know today. Firestein said that at first it was a tough sell to convince his colleagues to agree to the lectures. “Uh, Albert, I’m teaching a course on ignorance and I think you’d be perfect,” he joked.

Firestein ended his lecture with advice to the audience. He told us that the next time we talk to scientists, instead of asking them about what they know in their areas of expertise, ask what they are working on and don’t yet know.

I bet you can guess what the first audience question was…

Firestein, who studies smell and its role in perception and memory, acknowledged that we still don’t understand the relationship between sense of smell and memory.

The Secret Science Club meets monthly at The Bell House.

-Ann L. Whitman

One response

  1. Read Proust: “When nothing else subsists from the past,” he wrote, “after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered…the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls…bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory.”

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