Everything Happens At Once: An Interview with Maria Isabel Garcia

Posted by Paolo Chikiamco On September - 10 - 2009

Maria Isabel Garcia is the author of “Science solitaire: essays on science, nature, and becoming human“, a science writer for the De Rerum Natura column of the Philippine Star, and curator of the upcoming Mind Museum. She’s also agreed to shed some light on matters of science for our readers here at Rocket Kapre, but today we speak to her about the Mind Museum.


Could you tell us how you became involved in the Mind Museum project? I know a few people who’d consider that to be a dream job!

I’m a science writer and I’d started to do what I call “Inspirational Science Workshops” for public school science teachers when the project proponents of the Bonifacio Art Foundation, Inc., called me to ask if I would be interested to be involved in the project. I agreed to be part of the project on a permanent basis only if we saw eye to eye on the kind of science museum that would be put up—I am sure that there are many ways of presenting science to the public, so I wanted to be sure we shared the same vision. We did.

I do not believe in “dream jobs” because that somehow implies, for me anyway, that I wanted the job badly. I believe in passion and discipline:  passion to set your soul on fire and discipline to use that fire to illuminate, and not simply attract attention and burn itself out. I am constantly grateful that I am able to do what I love most, which is to promote the public understanding of science, to avoid making beggars of the public when it comes to the gifts of understanding that science offers. Whether it is through my writing or through a science museum, I don’t consider one or the other as more or less of a dream job.

From the way the project is presented at the website, it seems to be an ambitious undertaking. What will make the Mind Museum different from other science exhibits in the Philippines?

We were conscious that we finally had the chance to give our country the science museum it deserves. If we thought “small” then that would speak of how little we thought of the capacity and desire of our own people to understand the world through science. We would be belittling the vast imagination and creativity of people like yourselves. So we looked at science in all its fields, at where they are now, and figured out a way of presenting science to the Filipino public in the most fascinating way.

The Mind Museum will dispel notions of science as being only mechanical, only for “geeks”, only for the irreligious. It will make the Filipinos lock eyes and shake hands with science as a way of knowing, as being intertwined with human identity as much as music and dance.

Having to do something as extensive as this required a lot of resources. It is a billion peso project but after just over a year of fund raising from the private sector, including individuals who thought this was an idea whose time had really come, , we were able to raise over 80% of our fund raising target- a clear signal for us to start construction this year.

The museum will feature five galleries: the Universe, the Earth, Life, the Atom and Technology. What was the reason behind the decision to structure the museum around these five central themes? Most people still think of the sciences in the three classifications used in High School: Biology, Chemistry and Physics.

Nature does not wake up one morning and say “I am only going to do physics today.” Everything happens at once. Biology, Chemistry and Physics are just maps of knowing nature–means by which our limited human mind can make sense of what is going on. Science is layered maps of knowing.  The universities are well equipped to explore these maps of knowing in science through the disciplines with specific methods. But for the public in general, we have to remind ourselves that nature is not categorized that way. Wonder happens all at once, but for a museum, wonder still needs some kind of framework. For me, that framework was “scale”: that from the smallest of scales- atom- to the largest – universe- there exists these wondrous phenomenon that can make you feel more alive through understanding. The Atom, Earth, Life and Universe galleries are the galleries that contain exhibits on “what we know” while the Technology gallery (which is shaped like a donut on top of the science galleries) contains exhibits on “what we do with what we know.”  It is a visual translation that the sciences form the foundation of technology. All the galleries will also expose “how we know it” which is the scientific process involved in revealing discoveries.  In all these galleries, science will come alive.

The museum emphasizes that its exhibits will be “minds-on” and “hands-on.” How important is interactivity to the process of learning about science?

We are fortunate that we are building our science museum at a time when we know so much more about how humans learn. We now know that there are different paths to understanding a phenomenon and that different people may be more receptive to different paths–we took this milestone lesson from cognitive science. We also really prefer “minds-on” than hands-on because “touch” is not always the best way to understand something. “Minds-on” means we thought of many ways to “touch” the senses of the guests – whether through sight, taste, smell, sound or tactile feeling.

Why is it so important to increase scientific awareness, especially in this day and age? Many people seem content to merely learn how to operate technology rather than study how it actually works.

I agree with many scientists who say that “scientific literacy” is the currency that “reading” has become.  Without minds that do not go beyond the obvious (or the practical skills of simply operating their PCs or cellphones), we will not move forward but will remain stuck where we are. In history, any civilization that gets stuck, vanishes. On a personal level, I also think it will do wonders for someone’s personality to know a little more about technology than how to text or do instant messaging. I would really rather suffer in the company of a miserable genius than of a cheerful bore (laughing.)

Now, if I can steal from Natalie Angier’s methodology, let me ask you: What was the one thing you wish people knew about science?

I wish more people would realize that science is not a subject but a way of knowing the world, yourself and others a little better; that science is a way to address your fundamental need and desire, as a human being, to understand. Science, along with the arts, is one of the greatest human traditions. Imagine if you missed out on that?

From your column at the Philippine Star as well as your involvement with this project, it seems clear to me that you view science in a way foreign to many people who struggled through High School Chemistry you find science to be fun. What is it about science that you love?

Like many, I struggled in science in school but I think the struggle was due more to the fact that some teachers thought that science was a mere subject, and thus their classes did not hold anything for me in terms of my own sense of wonder. I still struggle with science in life but it is a larger, more complex struggle as it is no longer caged in mere classroom understanding or the whether my science teacher was of rock-star or dim-star quality. By asking my questions of scientists themselves, and connecting their answers with what makes us human, the struggle becomes the chase of the life of my mind. I chase. I chase after understanding, a column at a time, a curiosity at a time, an exhibit at a time and I can not wait to share my chase with others. I know I will not understand everything through the sciences but that was never the point nor my goal. Complete truths require more than the sciences.“But science and the understanding it lends, give me glimpses of sparkling clarity I do not get anywhere else and it makes me feel more alive. I do not know of a better reason that makes science fun.

Thank you for speaking to us! We look forward to the museum opening.

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Rocket Kapre is an imprint of Eight Ray Sun Publishing Inc. (a new Philippine-based publisher), dedicated to bringing the very best of Philippine Speculative Fiction in English to a worldwide audience by means of digital distribution. More info can be found at our About section at the top of the page.