Science with a Human Face

Science and the liberal arts need each other

By Nick Houtman, Terra editor

When I was a boy, I cared more about Willie Mays and the San Francisco Giants than just about anything else. My grandfather, a chemical engineer, had other ideas. He bought me a chemistry set. The metal case opened to show rows of small bottles filled with powders and solutions. There were test tubes for concocting mixtures and a kind of cookbook to guide me through the wonders of chemical reactions.

1940s Gilbert chemistry set

One year, Opa (as Dutch kids call their grandfather) gave me a 4-inch-thick edition of Van Nostrand’s Scientific Encyclopedia. He sprinkled iron filings on a piece of paper to show me how magnets work. However, despite his best efforts to inspire another scientist in the family, I followed a different path. I was attracted to ideas and events with a human face: history, politics, language — in short, the humanities.

So I pursued journalism and economics in college and worked as a reporter for a local newspaper in rural Wisconsin. I wrote stories about education and the struggling farm economy. But I was also drawn to questions about how things work: a farmer’s computerized milking system, pesticide contamination in local wells, an inventor’s claim of a perpetual motion machine.

I enjoy stories that connect people with science. I learned why the inventor’s machine would eventually stop and how a pesticide might wind up in someone’s drinking water. But while physical principles illuminate a process, it’s the human story that brings them to life.

Such stories are central to the liberal arts. In recognition of OSU150, the celebration of Oregon State’s land grant designation, this issue of Terra looks at the arts and humanities at OSU (see “From the Margins to the Center”). Gordon Gilkey was a leading figure in the drama. He led the transformation of the liberal arts from “lower division” standing to a full and equal partnership with other colleges. I expect he’d be thrilled to see OSU’s ongoing efforts to integrate the arts and humanities with science and engineering, especially plans to create the “great hall” for education and the performing arts that he envisioned.

Opa once told me that the chemists who worked for him knew their science but often lacked the writing skills to share their knowledge. Research needs to be communicated so that people can understand and appreciate the benefits. The liberal arts and the sciences need each other.

By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.