On August 21, Cornellians — students, staff, faculty and alumni — were transfixed by the chance to observe a total solar eclipse in all (or some of) its splendor. For many Americans, it was a thrilling social and cultural event. The solar eclipse appeared to represent a welcome, if fleeting, respite from the political and cultural wars raging around us all, just as we were poised to embark on our joint venture at Cornell to engage one another in the quest for scientific and cultural literacy and critical understanding of our physical and social worlds.
Yet an important gesture was lost amidst the hoopla and commercialism that have become typical of many of our opportunities to experience and participate in an uncommon social, cultural or cosmic event. An influential cohort of American political, business and religious elites, and those captivated by their authority and guidance, found the wherewithal to accept and embrace what scientists and mathematicians perfectly calculated: the exact path and precise timing of the first total solar eclipse in North America since February 1979 and the last until April 2024. These are the very people who refuse to acknowledge the scientific evidence connecting human activity with climate change and global warming (“It is a hoax” or “God will surely intervene“), the harmful effects on humans of many of our capital-minded environmental practices (“the scientific evidence is inconclusive”), or the significance of human evolution (“the first human pair was created six millennia ago”) for understanding our place in the biological world.
Our collective and individual reliance upon science, mathematics, and engineering, on the work of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers of course touches virtually every aspect of life in the 21st century whether everyone appreciates it or not. But how are we to understand this ostensible curiosity… the profound disconnect between the vociferous public rejection of science on the one hand and the complete acceptance of its findings on the other? To pose this question invokes humanistic and social scientific learning and critical thinking and thereby recognizes their equally crucial value for understanding the world we inhabit. In this instance, the widespread embrace of scientific and mathematical discovery was selective because the science for the total solar eclipse represented no threat to vested political-economic interests or belief systems. The socio-political significance of the recent eclipse magnifies the importance of all of our inquiry, discovery, critical reflection, and educational activism across Cornell University and reminds us just how much work we have to do.
Ross Brann is the Milton R. Konvitz Professor of Judeo-Islamic Studies and a Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow. Faculty Viewpoint appears periodically throughout the semester.