'Life depends on science but the arts make it worth living'

Scientist claims true fulfilment is achievable only through the humanities, writes Rebecca Attwood

March 17, 2011

The arts and humanities are "superior" to science, a top cardiologist has argued.

John Martin, director of University College London's Centre for Cardiovascular Biology and Medicine, has 53 patents, 20 staff and has founded a biotechnology company.

But, speaking at the launch of Humanities Matter: The Campaign for the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences last week, he said he was "not a very good scientist" and that his success was due to having studied philosophy before training as a doctor.

Science encourages the idea that humans are just "molecular machines" that have to be made more efficient, he said, and its job is simply to measure the universe and predict its activity. But humans are more than this; they have a soul, Professor Martin said, and it is the job of the humanities to help people achieve their destiny as "true human beings".

He said he told his students that they were repairing hearts "so that our patients can fulfil themselves by enjoying art, literature and music".

If Einstein had not written down E=mc2, another scientist would one day have done so, he claimed, but no one else could have written Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Professor Martin said medicine was taught in a way that "brutalised" young doctors. Without an understanding of the humanities, they could not be truly creative or fully understand "the infinite value of every human being".

Drugs companies spent billions of pounds creating machines "to try to understand the world" but failed because the scientists involved had "never understood the Latin subjunctive".

Also speaking at the event, Stefan Collini, professor of English at the University of Cambridge, said there was no reason for the humanities to "take a defensive or apologetic stance" in the face of funding cuts. The disciplines had "much to be proud of", he declared.

Asking whether the disciplines would all be "sheltering together" under the umbrella term "humanities" it if "wasn't raining so hard", he warned that the campaign should try to avoid reintroducing the "tired old 'two cultures' divide". He believed it was misguided to ring-fence or favour one group of subjects at the expense of others.

But, to be healthy, disciplines needed three circumstances: stable funding, which was currently uncertain; intellectual autonomy, for which there were "some discouraging signs"; and engagement with the wider public, an area where there was much to be optimistic about.

Businesswoman Margaret Mountford, former adviser to Lord Sugar in the television show The Apprentice and a PhD candidate in papyrology at UCL, also backed the campaign. In a video broadcast at the launch, she said humanities worked to make sense of what it meant to be human in a "chaotic world". "If you've got a pound to invest in humanities and science I would suggest you put 50p into each because I think they are symbiotic...Quality of life depends on the humanities, life itself depends on science," she said.



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