When is Science for Indonesians?

Everytime I’m listening to a podcast on science – on the mystery of the atoms, the beauty of the paradoxes, and the complexities of the most basic elements, I couldn’t help but wonder how much privilege I have to be able to ponder on these invisible web of poetries that is all around us. At this stage, science is so close to spirituality that indulging in it can take so much mental space and availability. It takes a certain stamina. Learning about science becomes like a kind of tertiary indulgence – if we are not a working scientist, it’s not a primary need that revolves around life/death matters.

In a conversation with Kirsta Tippett, Natalie Batalha lamented on how much suffering is out there in the real world, while she is ‘only’ an astronomer, her eyes sweeping through the universe looking for potential planets that harbor life. “Am I making a real difference?” She’d ask herself this, knowing that while she might find a planet with living beings, Earth is still festered with diseases and fears that push humanity to extinction. What a difference does this discovery make for someone hungry for real food?

The sciences are needed for the most basic infrastructure. Literally, it’s a system of thought that designs the infrastructure our lives can thrive in. But to me, that’s just science at the most foundational stage. Beyond this is a world of inquiries and contemplations that brings meanings to our own lives. To those who are privileged enough to see science this way; to find the artistry in sciences, that’s great. But what does that mean when the world is still deprived of real attention and solutions, not contemplations?

As I’m building this blog, this is also a question I have for myself constantly. What does it mean to bring these stories and perspectives to a country with minimal appreciation to astronomy and the science? What does it mean to share these stories to a country that doesn’t even read?

Growing up in Indonesia, I’ve learned that schools tend not to encourage their students to pursue science with open-minded eyes; that there are possibilities beyond what the textbook said, that science doesn’t happen only in laboratory, that it can be a daily pursuit like the arts, that science is a creative endeavor, too, full with potentials for failures and rich in elements to experiment with. Science classes were an arbitrary box for those whose intelligence is above the standard – the nerds – and that’s only reinforcing an old-fashioned idea of science that is far from true.

In our country where culture, paradoxically, blossoms from the utmost respect to Nature (animism and dynamism), the scientific language isn’t properly learned. Scientific language ties together different perspectives, giving room for both experimentation and proper documentation in the form of scientific research and data. It’s a commitment to stay as honest as possible to our observation through meticulous note-taking that will go beyond our time. Even if you are not a scientist, it’s always a good idea to record your own observation of an object of interest. It’s a practice that polishes our attention. And it’s exactly what’s missing in our society.

Carl Sagan once said that what sets humans apart from animals is that we write. We record information outside the human body. Simple organisms record information in their DNA. More complex organisms and animals in their brains and spinal cord. And us – we write and keep information in objects outside our body to be recorded and shared with hundreds of people and used for the next hundreds of years. This only means that what we’re sharing is revolutionary. It propels things forward and it changes us and what comes after us in fundamental ways.

Indonesia, like many other thousands of tribes around the world that have survived various epochs in humanity’s life time, thrived in its oral traditions. We’d pass down stories from one generation to the next in a form of legends, tales, and theatrical performances, than in a more didactic manner, with words. Hundreds of years of this means that we are far more accustomed memorizing with sounds and symbols, rather than with words and sentences written in a book. In Bali, an old man will still refuse to write down details of his things-to-do as he orchestrates an entire village. A group of young traditional musicians are also trained to learn by listening and mimicking, then by sight-learning. Even though Indonesian kids have been allowed to join formal schools since 1945, oral traditions still find ways to linger in our everyday lives. And meticulous note taking and keen observation are two things that are still on our study list, unchecked.

Maybe the rigid system of scientific studies isn’t quite alluring for a nation that dwells in the abstracted information within stories and myths. Maybe we are still far from plunging into a scientist’s mindset – whether or not we are a ‘formal’ or ‘working’ scientist – because we are still applying the olden ways of immersing ourselves into Nature, rather than separating ourselves from it, to become an objective observer. Or maybe…. maybe we’d rather dance with it – Maybe we are a scientist in our own different way.

This can only mean that as a nation of oral traditions, we potentially have our own sensibilities to make observations and interpretations that break rigid boxes. And if we bring the rigorous note-taking practice to the table, then we can truly break boundaries.


P.S. I write children’s story for adults about the moon. See it here. Or email me to purchase.

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