News & Ideas

Radcliffe Institute at Harvard to Host a Public Symposium Exploring "The Undiscovered" and How to Transform the Way Science Is Taught

The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University announces its science symposium—“The Undiscovered”—to be held on October 26, 2018.

Author By Radcliffe Communications Published 10.31.2018 Share this page on Facebook Share this page on Twitter Share this page on LinkedIn Copy Link

For Immediate Release

Contact: Jane F. Huber,

CAMBRIDGE, MA—The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University ( announces its science symposium—“The Undiscovered”—to be held on October 26, 2018.

“Our goal is to gather scientists, educators, students, journalists, media producers, and others to start a new, very public conversation about how scientists really make discoveries. Often charting fully unknown worlds, scientists need to improvise as they go, and many of their greatest findings are surprises,” says Alyssa A. Goodman, faculty codirector of the science program at the Radcliffe Institute and Robert Wheeler Willson Professor of Applied Astronomy at Harvard.

Stuart Firestein, a celebrated author and former chair of Columbia University’s Department of Biological Sciences, and Jill Tarter, chair emeritus for SETI Research at the SETI Institute, will be featured speakers, along with several other scientists who will offer thoughts on the importance of unanticipated discovery in life, earth, and space science.

Firestein is best known by many for his work on how “ignorance” fuels scientific inquiry. He encourages scientists to talk to their students as much about what they don’t know as about what they do. Tarter has spent much of her professional career pursuing the unknown, searching for evidence of technological civilizations beyond Earth. She is perhaps best known to the public as the woman on whose life Jodie Foster’s character in the film adaptation of author and scientist Carl Sagan's book Contact is based.

“Most great science does not result from the ‘scientific method’ taught as gospel in schools or from the romanticized ‘eureka’ moments the media loves,” says Goodman. “In truth, luck favors the prepared: to recognize the importance of the unexpected, a good scientist needs to know what to expect, to recognize the unexpected, and to pursue it all the way to discovery. Great teachers also know how important creative improvisation is in science, and a special conference session will be devoted to ideas on how to include ‘The Undiscovered’ in education.”

Indeed, in his 2015 book Failure: Why Science Is So Successful, Firestein wrote about the need to change traditional ideas about science and teaching science. He says this change can only come when “we cease, or at least reduce, our devotion to facts and collections of them, when we decide that science education is not a memorization marathon, when we—scientists and nonscientists—recognize that science is not a body of infallible work, of immutable laws and facts. . . . and that most of what there is to know is still unknown.”

As Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Radcliffe Institute—and Daniel P. S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law and professor of history at Harvard—explains, this landmark symposium has profound implications “for how we as a society understand and value the real work of science; how we support scientific discovery through research funding and public policy; and how we prepare students to become the pathbreaking scientists of tomorrow.”

About the Undiscovered Program

Many great discoveries in science are surprises.

To paraphrase Louis Pasteur, sometimes luck favors the prepared mind, as when Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin by noticing that mold growing accidentally in his lab seemed to kill bacteria. At other times, new instruments offer unanticipated revelations: until Galileo looked at Jupiter with his telescope, he didn’t know it had moons or their importance to our understanding of the solar system. And, occasionally, methodical experiments find exactly the opposite of what they sought to prove. Scientists intending to measure the deceleration of the Universe’s expansion, for example, found acceleration instead.

The 2018 Radcliffe Institute science symposium will focus on how scientists explore realities they cannot anticipate. Speakers from across the disciplines of modern science will present personal experiences and discuss how to train scientists, educators, and funders to foster the expertise and open-mindedness needed to reveal undiscovered aspects of the world around us.

. . . . . . .

This event is free and open to the public.
To register:

For press access:
Jane F. Huber,

To watch livestream:
The symposium will be webcast live on October 26:


About the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University

The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study is a unique space within Harvard—a school dedicated to creating and sharing transformative ideas across all disciplines. Each year, the Institute hosts 50 leading scholars, scientists, and artists from around the world in its renowned residential fellowship program. Radcliffe fosters innovative research collaborations and offers hundreds of public lectures, exhibitions, performances, conferences, and other events annually. The Institute is home to the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, the nation’s foremost archive on the history of women, gender, and sexuality. For more information about the people and programs of the Radcliffe Institute, visit

News & Ideas