So you don't think you need poetry?

November 24, 2000

Prometheus is a new magazine with an ambitious aim - to provide deep coverage of the arts, sciences and humanities and to become a forum for debates that will bridge C. P. Snow's famous two cultures, the sciences and the arts. The production is excellent, and the list of names on the editorial advisory board quite stunning. Where else would you find Jacques Derrida alongside Sir Roger Penrose, or Noam Chomsky next to complexity theorist John Casti?

I headed first for the major science pieces and found well-written, dense and detailed articles. A good example is Brian Greene's "Strings and the fabric of spacetime" on the quest for a theory of everything. This, like a few of the other articles, serves as a kind of Reader's Digest , covering much of the material in Greene's bestselling book, The Elegant Universe . But why should we make the effort to understand all this? One reason, he suggests, is a basic assumption of science that the universe is a comprehensible place. As quantum mechanics and general relativity are incompatible, neither can be the final word and something has to be wrong, so we are forced to look ever deeper. Another is that we may thereby understand the extreme conditions of the big bang with which our universe began. String theory might even complete the search for the deepest laws of the universe.

Other features are not so easily categorised as either science, arts or humanities, fulfilling Prometheus's promise of bridging the gaps. These include Penrose's exploration of the role played by mathematics in music and painting, and Simon Singh's fascinating tale of how Andrew Wiles devoted his life to solving Fermat's infamous last theorem.

Then there is Norman Levitt's challenging exploration of the relationship between science and democracy, Roger Newton's defence of science against the social constructionists, and Charles Jencks's celebration of what has been called the building of the century, with its flowing forms and sculpted spaces: Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. I especially enjoyed David Duncan's "Ten days lost forever", a history of calendars and their reformation, and the story of one day in October 1582 when the calendar jumped ten days. Reading it on the weekend the clocks went back, wondering if it was ten o'clock or only nine, I sympathised with the people who feared they were about to lose ten days of their lives.

Who needs poetry? I guess I never thought I did, but Seamus Heaney, in "The healing fountain", argues persuasively that we do. And from Ted Hughes, one of the original supporters of the magazine, we learn how to memorise poems in ways that are much more fun than the kind of rote-learning most of us were forced to do at school. I must admit that once drawn into the magazine I found myself reading and learning about topics that I would never normally come across.

The forum sections have some serious debates, taken equally seriously by some of the people most closely involved. But some were just too much for me. I turned with anticipation to "The information age", a critical review by three sociologists of Manuel Castells's trilogy of the same name. But whereas struggling with the superstrings had amply repaid me with greater understanding, this one did not.

In "Risk and the risk society", Frank Furedi bemoans our obsession with avoiding risk as part of an all-pervasive, destructive culture of fear, while Ulrich Beck argues that this intense awareness of risk is positive and creative. In "Human cloning", Lee Silver, who is famous for his extraordinary predictions for how genetic engineering might affect future societies, debates with Ian Wilmut, the creator of Dolly, the first cloned sheep. While Wilmut argues for prohibiting the copying of a person, Silver responds that cloning never means copying a person and Wilmut's fears are unfounded. Interesting questions are raised in this debate. If a baby dies, would it not be wonderful for the parents if a clone could replace the child? But if human clones were allowed, what would it be like growing up knowing that the person with the same genes as you was brilliant throughout life, but began suffering from arthritis at age 50 and died of a heart attack at 70?

Global warming is another hot topic for a forum, and I much enjoyed this debate. On one side, Patrick Michaels and Robert Balling argue that the recent effects of human activity on climate are tiny and insignificant, that humans have been changing the climate since the first hominid cleared a patch of land, and that the vast costs of emissions reductions cannot be justified because the much-feared emergency does not exist. On the other side, John King details the uncertainties involved in predicting climate change but concludes that we are right to fear the possible consequences.

Each issue includes details of the contributors, many illustrations (all in black and white) and thoughtful book reviews.

So does Prometheus fulfil its aims? By and large I would say yes, though whether there is a market for this level of material at a correspondingly high price is another matter. But if you want your mind fired with high-grade articles on a broad range of subjects, then Prometheus is for you.

Susan Blackmore is reader in psychology, University of the West of England, Bristol.

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