Dr. Scott Bolton may not necessarily be what you would typically expect of a NASA theoretical physicist, and maybe that’s why his presentation at the Lash Stage of Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest drew so many people in attendance that they resorted to unzipping the tent walls along the sides. He carries himself with the confident swagger usually reserved for rock stars and, dressed in all black seated at the bar alongside GZA after the show, definitely seems to fit the part.
I was eager to learn more about his eclectic activities and he was glad to oblige.
FP: Dr. Bolton, tell me a little bit more about your outreach education programs.
SB: Well they started a long time ago. I’ve always tried to reach out to the public in different ways, but I always had this side of me that wanted to bridge science, art, and music together. That’s really what caused me to go out and reach out and do things a bit differently than the nominal NASA program that they were doing. When I was a younger, I started off doing a lot of music and then I ended up going into science. Then, once my career stabilized a little bit I reached back into my music world and I had a lot of colleagues that had done pretty well so I started to work with them a little bit: pitching concerts, documentaries, and other programs.
The real key was finding other people who thought like I did and wanted to do something about it because together we were more powerful than we were apart. Michael Kamen was one, a composer, who used to be a very close friend of mine before he passed away. He did a lot of movies scores and introduced me to Metallica, the Eurythmics, I ended up meeting people from Pink Floyd…he was kind of one of the originals that bridged classical with rock. So then I met a lot of other people through them and early on I managed to convince NASA to do some things that were out of the box for them and that got them started on the fact that there was something here that could be capitalized on, that maybe we could reach more people if we didn’t just do the cut and dry science.
And how do you feel it has worked? You drew a pretty big crowd when you went on.
I was surprised at that. When I first got there, the room was empty. I got there an hour early and I thought wow, I’m gonna be talking to three people, but by the time I got on there were a lot of people. I thought oh, they’re just here for GZA, who was after me. But the guy putting me on said, they’re not here just for GZA, he’s not for another forty minutes. They know it’s you. Then he introduced me and people applauded, and I thought oh, they’re into it, let’s see where I can go. I mean, it’s interactive and off the cuff. I had prepared in my mind some of the points I wanted to make but you could see if you looked at my slides I was going to go through a PowerPoint thing and just talk. It was a blend between that and a TED talk, which I’d done a lot of and thought hey I want to do something in the middle and somehow engage people. That was my goal: to engage them with the bridge between science and music and art.
I think Fun Fun Fun fest is really remarkable for having a diverse blend of performers that do bridge the science, music, and art. What do you think of them bringing that into the music festival scene and the huge crowd that it can draw?
I think it’s great. I was really happy to see that and I was inspired by that in the sense that I’m going to try to do more with them because I can see that it wasn’t just a one-off thing. They really embraced it at Fun Fun Fun and I also see a bit of that at South by Southwest. Originally I was one of the people that pushed that program to go into technology and science. At the beginnings of South by Southwest I was trying to get in that so I showed up and did talks. I also arranged a NASA presence in it and I think it’s worked.
So do you think more music festivals should include opportunities for this kind of engagement?
Yea, but even I was skeptical at first. I mean, when I first showed up and there was nobody there, but then the tent was full and everyone was into it. So I felt like this is working, which I hope the festival [organizers] realized it and saw the same thing, that you could do that at other festivals. But you’ve gotta find the right mix.
The thing is, there is this common interest we all have when we’re children. When we’re little, we look out and say who are we, where do we come from? How did we get here? As you get older, you realize that you may not get those answers right away and you’re going to have to live your life without knowing them. So you put them on the back burner and move on. But the interest never goes away. You never lose the interest.
So what better way to bridge it than connect it to music? Everybody has a connection to music, it’s in us. Why is it in us? It’s in us because nature is about harmony. It’s built into us. It’s built into nature. I believe that fundamentally, the laws of physics and the laws of nature work in harmony, vibration, resonance, whatever it is. And it’s no accident that we all love music. It triggers something in us that I can’t totally explain.
There’s a huge push on STEM education in the US right now. However, it often seems like the focus on STEM comes at the expense of the loss of music, dance, theater and other art programs.
And that’s critical, in my view. I have a large activity trying to help STEM and I have for a long time, but I was also one of the people early on that said it’s named wrong. It needs to be STEAM, we need to add the ‘A’ in for arts. Now I wasn’t the first to think of that. The people that first started to think through that and realize it was the Rhode Island School of Design, at least that was the first time I had heard of it. But they were too narrow. They basically defined ‘A’ as design, which was STEM-related, like architecture.
So I was not alone, a lot of people realized like hey wait a minute, the whole ‘A’ is missing. We have to put that in and it needs to be much broader, it needs to be all the arts and we need to show people the connection between them so that: one, they understand that it’s natural to be interested in both, and use both, and two, it’s also natural to have friends and colleagues that you’re partying with that go the whole realm rather than separate into these groups of musicians and engineers. What we need to do is say don’t draw that line anywhere, in fact don’t draw any line.
So now you have this great program with a relatable message and people are into it. What next?
Well that many people turning out, it told me hey you know what, they are into it. Somebody told me Bill Nye also came out and it was the same thing: how do you instigate creativity? It’s the same kind of thing: innovation. You need to get all these people together and I think that’s exactly aligned with what you’re describing. It’s something we constantly have to change in our culture and push. We have to fix the STEM problem, there’s no question. But we can do it in a way that increase our ability across the board.
nd you know, we’re in the middle of this renaissance and some of the companies that are responsible are the everyday companies: Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter…you can go on and on. All these people that have defined our way of communicating now, these companies have changed the way the world works. They’re mixing that and they’re
all struggling. I’ve talked to all of them and they all see the same issue inside their
companies. They’re struggling to bridge the creative artists with the guys that are developing the technology because they know when they can get that bridge together they get even more.
How does this bridge between science and art impact innovation?
You won’t get as much, it will be limited. Part of what they are doing, if you go visit these companies, is they are trying to create an environment that allows for it [innovation]. You can’t force it. What you can do is create an opportunity for this to happen naturally and you can make people aware that there’s a benefit to doing it. So the companies may not be going out with talks like mine, where they’re saying blatantly hey go do this, but they’re trying to create the environment to allow it.
It can be at the everyday level, all of these people at the local level. Look around at your friends, try to expand those horizons. Embrace the other ones. Now I’m not saying be friends with a jerk but open yourself up to the other topics and you will benefit as you party. Over time it will happen and everyone will benefit, which is really a nice thing to make the world just a little bit better. It doesn’t mean I have to spend all my time doing that, but it’d be great if I could do something like that.