Oh, the scientist and the novelist should be friends!

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Immediately after I wrote the post British authors mentally masturbate about physics, stories suffer, I read Peter Dizikes essay in The New York Times about C.P. Snow, the physicist and novelist who coined the term "the two cultures" to describe the rift between scientists and literary types -- and I knew I would have to write an addendum to my previous post.

According to Dizikes, Snow made three claims that are worth considering in light of Ian McEwan's The Child in Time and Michael Frayn's Copenhagen.  First, Snow laid the blame for the rift between these two cultures on the literati.  Plainly, that claim is untenable today.  With the advent of string theory, the mathematics required to understand physics has become so complicated that even other physicists, much less literary scholars, don't understand it.  (See, for example, this New Yorker article about Garrett Lisi, renegade physicist, or this review of a couple of books about string theory.) 

Moreover, the strenuous efforts at bridging this gap between the scientists and the poets is coming from the poets' side, with novels like McEwan's, plays like Frayn's, and countless other examples (Huxley's Brave New World, Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, etc.)  Oliver Sacks alone cannot make up for the majority of scientists who are incapable of communicating with the rest of the world.

Second, Snow argued that science, not literature, is what safeguards the progressive betterment of society because scientists are more morally reliable that the literati.  This claim, also, is one that cannot be credited.  Science, as the history of scientific advances in the 20th century amply demonstrates (atom bomb anyone?), is amoral.  The job of scientists is to discover the truth, regardless of the outcome; the moral ramifications of the discoveries are someone else's job.

That "someone else" often, increasingly, is a writer.  McEwan has reached the stature of "England's national author" (in the words of New Yorker profile) because, in novels like The Child in Time, Amsterdam, Atonement, and Saturday, he undertakes the task of sorting the moral ramifications of technological and social developments.  Copenhagen, as well, is an attempt to parse the morality of working on an atom bomb in World War II, examining the question from multiple perspectives.  (Whatever might be said about the moral failings of Ezra Pound, Snow's example of a literary moral degenerate -- or P.G. Wodehouse, or Gertrude Stein, to name a couple of other literati who behaved abysmally during WWII -- none can approach the scale of damage done by physicist Werner Heisenberg who, in addition to being a Nazi, was also almost certainly developing an atomic weapon.)

Third, according to Dizikes, Snow maintained that "20th-century progress was being stymied by the indifference of poets and novelists."  This claim, of course, is risable.  To whatever extent 20th century progress has been stymied, governments, corporations and academic mismanagement have been vastly more responsible that poets and novelists -- who, as the novels and plays cited above demonstrate, have been anything but "indifferent" to 20th century progress.

That said, something can be salvaged from Snow, namely his prescription for a generalized education.  Specialized education, especially too early in life, narrows the mind and exacerbates the gap between "the two cultures."  Moreover, a broader educational platform might obviate the need for incorporating physics lessons into novels and plays, leading to better, more elegantly-told stories about these issues (the point I raised in my previous blog post).  After all, only when we're able to communicate easily across this divide will we be able effectively to bridge it.

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This page contains a single entry by Maya published on March 21, 2009 4:25 PM.

Denys Finch-Hatton, the not-great aristocrat was the previous entry in this blog.

Compassion for David Foster Wallace's sad 1990's is the next entry in this blog.



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