Art and science: ‘two cultures’ with shared values

Forcing students to choose sides leaves them, and society, poorer, says Christopher Bigsby

December 12, 2013

It is more than 50 years since C. P. Snow had an ill-tempered exchange with F. R. Leavis over “the two cultures” (more ill‑tempered on Leavis’ side, it has to be said).

Scientists, Snow announced, seldom read books or, if they did, read the wrong ones. Those in literature were ignorant of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Moreover, the two groups were mutually proud of their ignorance. For Snow, scientists were optimists, acknowledging the tragedy of human existence but pitching against it a melioristic philosophy. Those in the arts were pessimists. Had T. S. Eliot not said that the world will end not with a bang but a whimper? Leavis responded that Snow was second-rate both as a scientist and a writer, and we were off to the races.

If the portrait of scientists as Morlocks, regarding books as something to put under the leg of a wonky table, or of arts graduates as wilfully ignoring science was ever true, it is no longer.

When I was a student I wrote and performed in satirical reviews. A fellow student designed the posters. At school he specialised in the sciences but had extra lessons from his art teacher. Arriving at the University of Sheffield, he discovered that it was possible to study architecture, and he has since confessed that had he known this in advance he might have chosen to study it. Later, he became interested in Buckminster Fuller’s plans for urban developments but he stuck with chemistry. In 1996, he won a Nobel prize in the subject and was knighted. His name is Sir Harry Kroto. He is still a graphic artist too.

Einstein said the imagination is more important than knowledge. Nasa is full of scientists who were inspired by a fiction, Star Trek

On the other hand, the novelist Ian McEwan studied A-level maths along with arts subjects and was tempted by physics. He has spoken of what struck him as the beauty of scientific language. At the University of Sussex he, in common with his fellow students, studied some science. The impact of science on his work is obvious in his novels, from Enduring Love, to Solar and Saturday. We all have our natural talents but there is no necessity to travel down one-way streets.

McEwan has pointed out that the novel was a product of the Enlightenment. So, too, was modern science. Interestingly, though, McEwan is prone to side with Snow in one respect, suggesting that “among cultural intellectuals, pessimism is the style…you’re not a paid-up member unless you’re gloomy” while “science is an intrinsically optimistic project”.

Few writers have sought to bridge the gulf between arts and sciences to the extent that McEwan has. Today he happily engages in public conversations with scientists as they mutually explore differences and similarities.

Nor have we ever been short of scientists who are also creative writers, from biochemist Isaac Asimov to chemist Carl Djerassi, who gave the world the contraceptive pill and subsequently wrote novels and plays.

And yet, at the age of 15 or 16 children in this country are effectively asked to choose between the arts and the sciences, quite as though their brains were pre-tuned. Although you can mix and match, most do not, and there is a lingering fear that a kaleidoscope of A levels may prejudice acceptance at university. Of course, those who know their future career will shape their choices accordingly. If you want to be a doctor then you need the sciences, and not general science at that. For those who do not, the world potentially narrows.

Should we, then, like the Americans, require students at school to maintain a mix of the arts and the sciences? The danger, of course, is that we will be installing a tripwire so that failure in a required course will prevent access to university. In the US, Arthur Miller’s entry to university was delayed because he repeatedly failed algebra. In this country we used to require a language for anyone going to university. As a result Sir Paul Nurse, who failed O‑level French six times, was initially turned down by the University of Birmingham, having to talk his way in after being a lab assistant. In 2001 he won a Nobel prize.

Karl Marx once observed that if the appearance and essence of things were the same, then science would be superfluous. Much the same could be said of literature. Both are about the business of understanding ourselves, how we relate to the world and the universe. It was Albert Einstein who remarked that “the imagination is more important than knowledge”. Nasa is full of scientists who were inspired to become such by watching a fiction, Star Trek – and in its world, engineering is not separate from the humanities. The following exchange is from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Picard: “There is no greater challenge than the study of philosophy.”

Wesley: “But William James won’t be in my Starfleet exams.”

Picard: “The important things never will be. Anyone can be trained in the mechanics of piloting a starship…It takes more. Open your mind to the past. Art, history, philosophy. And all this may mean something.”

Science, of course, is not devoid of aesthetics. Buckminster Fuller, architect and designer, may have said that “if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong”, but that observation has been echoed by many scientists, including Nurse and Kroto (although Nurse has argued that ultimately data trumps all).

What am I suggesting? I think we must revisit our apparent conviction that there is utility, let alone wisdom, in confronting schoolchildren with a choice between the arts and the sciences. We need a more generous definition of education, both at school and at university. There is, after all, a level at which science and literature begin with the same question: what if?

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Reader's comments (1)

What a superb article. (For some reason the rating things keeps coming out as 1 star instead of 5, apologies). Another theme might be the extraordinary number of scientists who are active musicians. Einstein was by no means the exception in this regard. My own feeling is that, thanks to our education system, both communities lose out on a great deal - every time I give a public lecture on the evolving universe, people are amazed at the role imagination has to play in the advancing of scientific theories...