Science and the arts: two cultures or one? (2000)
A talk for National Science Week, House of Commons, March 2000
When I was preparing this talk for National Science Week I came across some remarks of Richard Dawkins:
‘Science Weeks’ and ‘Science Fortnights’ betray an anxiety among scientists to be loved. Funny hats and larky voices proclaim that science is fun, fun, fun. Whacky ‘personalities’ perform explosions and funky tricks. I recently attended a briefing session where scientists were urged to put on events in shopping malls designed to lure people into the joys of science. The speaker advised us to do nothing which might conceivably be seen as a ‘turn-off’. Always make your science ‘relevant’ to ordinary people’s lives, to what goes on in their own kitchen or bathroom. Where possible choose experimental materials that your audience can eat at the end.
I am not a scientist, so I am thankfully excused from these requirements. There will be no funny hats, no explosions, and absolutely nothing edible (unless it be ‘food for thought’!) What I propose to offer in the next forty-five minutes, interspersed with one or two video clips, is a personal reflection on the dialogue between science and the arts.
I begin this story on the 7 May 1959. The place is Cambridge, a university town with a venerable history of scientific research. A portly, middle-aged man approaches the lectern in the Senate House building to deliver a public lecture. Nothing unusual in that. The man was CP Snow, the title of his lecture ‘The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution’ - and it was to have an impact far beyond his immediate audience. In that respect, if no other, it turned out to be a highly unusual lecture. CP Snow perhaps needs some introduction, because as I discovered when talking to people about my proposed topic for today, no one under the age of thirty has heard of him. He was the classic grammar school boy - clever, bookish, starting without social advantages. He became a research scientist, a Civil Service Commissioner, a company director. After the Labour election victory in 1964 he received a life peerage and accepted Harold Wilson’s invitation to become second-in-command at the newly established Ministry of Technology. But his wider reputation rested on his writings - he was a prolific novelist (books which seemed to give their readers the sense of decision-making among the mandarin classes in which he had moved) and controversialist. And he was famous - Flanders and Swann did a song about him. He was even the satirical butt of one of Peter Cook’s ‘EL Wisty’ monologues of the 1960s.
So this was the guest lecturer who mounted the rostrum in 1959. The ‘two cultures’ of his title were those of the ‘literary intellectuals’ (as he called them) and of the natural scientists. These two groups, so he claimed, neither trusted nor understood one another, and the division between them threatened to undermine the urgent need to harness technology to alleviate the world’s problems. His complaint was that the decision makers he had encountered in his public life had been almost exclusively educated at the ancient universities, where they had studied history, literature, classics, subjects which ill-equipped them for what his later boss would call the ‘white heat of the technological revolution’. He detected an arrogance in these literary types. As he put it:
They still like to pretend that the traditional culture is the whole of ‘culture’, as though the natural order didn’t exist. As though the exploration of the natural order was of no interest either in its own value or its consequences. As though the scientific edifice of the physical world was not, in its intellectual depth, complexity and articulation, the most beautiful and wonderful collective work of the mind of man.
They were the heirs of those generation of Victorians who turned away from the Industrial Revolution which was transforming their lives, and preferred to train their
young men for administration, for the Indian Empire, for the purpose of perpetuating the culture itself, but never in any circumstances to equip them to understand the revolution or take part in it.
Literary culture wishes the future did not exist. Scientists, by contrast, like the great Rutherford, under whom Snow had worked at the Cavendish Laboratory in the 1930s, scientists have the ‘future in their bones’. He saw only one way out of this impasse - a rethinking of education, a reversal of the increasing specialisation which forced British schoolchildren at age 16 (if not before) to decide whether they were ‘Arts’ or ‘Sciences’.
Sometimes ideas are not original, they are just timely. There was very little in Snow’s lecture, as he later admitted, which had not been said by someone else. Perhaps the Establishment, poised on the brink of the convulsive social changes of the 1960s, were now sensitive to these ideas. Perhaps he achieved impact, as orators often do, by overstatement and bold antithesis. Crude as Snow’s bipolar cultural scheme may be - and of course it left little room for the emerging ‘social sciences’ which broke through the middle in the 1960s - I still find it suggestive, and worth revisiting forty years later. Some examples of Snow’s topicality: In March, Channel 4 screened a polemical and decidedly unbalanced documentary, in their science series Equinox, about genetic engineering. The programme was made by a producer called Martin Durkin. In a pre-emptive strike against the programme, an article in the previous week’s Guardian pointed out that neither the programme-maker, nor, extraordinarily, Charles Furneaux, the commissioning editor of the Equinox series, has a science background. In their recent report on Science and Society the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology give the findings of a survey of media coverage of the GM food issue between January and June of last year. During that period, according to the survey, specialist science correspondents never contributed more than 15 per cent of total news coverage of this topic. On the two days of maximum coverage (in February 1999), no news articles on GM foods were written by science journalists; 45 per cent were written by political journalists (7.24). Research councils’ evidence to the Committee also shows the perpetuation of Snow’s entrenched positions. The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council spoke of a ‘tendency for the more popular media to present science as impenetrable, nerdy or comic’. The Engineering Council agreed: ‘The images of the scientist as a mad boffin and the engineer as a spanner-wielding grease monkey in overalls are those that prevail’ (7.17).
Certain developments familiar to Snow have been irreversible: the specialisation of disciplines is a consequence of the explosion of knowledge, carrying with it a specialisation of vocabulary (although this latter has probably been exaggerated as one discipline insists on fencing itself off from another with its own jargon). There have been missed opportunities on both sides: until recently scientists seemed little interested in promoting themselves among non-specialists; equally, creative artists showed little interest in what science could do for them - except in the utilitarian sense, the sculptor’s concern with metallurgy or geology, the composer’s interest in electronics, the film-maker’s attention to ‘special effects’. The cultural divide is still perpetuated by the British education system, which has seen many changes since Snow’s day, but not at A-level (it remains to be seen whether the reform of A-levels this September will disrupt old allegiances, alliances and prejudices).
Of course, there have also been enormous cultural transformations in Britain since Snow’s time. One of them is hinted at in that PPARC reference to the ‘popular media’. In Snow’s day the cultural agenda was set from the ‘top’ down, by the ‘great and the good’ - that’s how it was possible for a lecture delivered before a group of stuffed shirts at an old university to launch a catchphrase. Now we derive all our catchphrases from the TV, and our opinion-formers are footballers and supermodels. The opinion-formers whom Snow characterised as the ‘literary intelligentsia’ were a coterie of authors and essayists who met at publishers’ parties in Chelsea, reviewed each other’s books, and discussed the latest talk on the Third Programme. Such chatter probably still goes on, in attenuated form, but few are listening: following the expansion of the universities in the 1960s (which Snow strongly supported) literary discussion has become largely academicised (and marginalised); and the only person in recent times who could propel a ‘literary’ novelist on to the news agenda was the Ayatollah Khomeini, when he issued his fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Nowadays the sphere of ‘culture clash’ is between the mass media and the continuing scientific enterprise. Most people get most of their ideas about science nowadays from television, a medium still in its infancy when Snow was lecturing. Measured in hours of output, there is considerably more coverage of science on terrestrial television than there is of the arts - some of it good, some irritatingly bad, all of it now governed by the precept that, however complex the subject, the viewer has a maximum attention span of about fifteen seconds. Personally, I think TV has lost an educational potency it possessed twenty or thirty years ago - and I shall be showing one example from the 1970s.
When did this divide between sciences and arts begin? The idea would have meant nothing to the poet John Donne. Writing in the early seventeenth century before technical vocabulary had taken off, he found the language of science mysterious and sonorous, and available. He could think of love, and of the scientific methods for determining latitude and longitude, as compatible and mutually enriching:
How great love is, presence best trial makes
But absence tries how long this love will be;
To take a latitude
Sun, or stars, are fitliest viewed
At their brightest, but to conclude
Of longitudes, what other way have we,
But to mark when, and where, the dark eclipses be?
In the eighteenth century the study of the natural world was still referred to as ‘natural philosophy’, one element in the all-embracing enterprise of ‘philosophy’. The Encyclopédie, that great monument of the Enlightenment, surveyed knowledge on the assumption that the study of human affairs and the study of the natural world formed a continuum. The fissure really dates from that explosion of energy in the arts at the end of the eighteenth century which we call Romanticism. Rejecting the ordered rationality of the Enlightenment, Romantics turned to the emotional directness of personal experience and to the boundlessness of individual imagination. These are the lofty definitions you’ll find in literary histories. Much better to illustrate this. Here is the young Samuel Taylor Coleridge describing a walking tour of Wales in 1794:
From Llanvunnog we walked over the mountains to Bala - most sublimely terrible! It was scorchingly hot - I applied my mouth ever and anon to the side of the Rocks and sucked in draughts of Water cold as Ice, and clear as infant Diamonds in their embryo Dew! The rugged and stony Clefts are stupendous - and in winter must form Cataracts most astonishing... I slept by the side of one an hour & more. As we descended the Mountain the Sun was reflected in the River that winded thro’ the valley with insufferable Brightness - it rivalled the Sky.
Now, born from this emotional directness was a new hostility to science as something unemotional. This is from Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake:
Some persons of a scientific turn were once discoursing pompously, and, to him, distastefully, about the incredible distance of the planets, the length of time light takes to travel to the earth, etc., when he burst out: ‘It is false. I walked the other evening to the end of the earth, and touched the sky with my finger’; perhaps with a little covert sophistry, meaning that he thrust his stick out into space, and that, had he stood upon the remotest star, he could do no more; the blue sky itself being but the limit of our bodily perceptions of the infinite which encompasses us. Scientific individuals would generally make him come out with something outrageous and unreasonable. For he had an indestructible animosity towards what, to his devout, old-world imagination, seemed the keen polar atmosphere of modern science. In society, once, a cultivated stranger, as a mark of polite attention, was showing him the first number of the Mechanic’s Magazine. ‘Ah, sir’, remarked Blake, with bland emphasis, ‘these things we artists HATE!’
Similar opinions are attributed to Keats in memoirs (despite his medical education) and find famous expression in his poem ‘Lamia’:
Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine -
Unweave a rainbow...
(These lines need a bit of glossing. Keats is obviously using the word ‘awful’ in its original sense, inspiring ‘awe’ or dread. The modern meaning is first recorded in 1834, some years after Keats’s death. ‘Gnomed’ presumably means ‘inhabited by gnomes’, ‘diminutive spirits fabled to inhabit the interior of the earth and to be the guardians of its treasures’ (OED) - not irritating garden ornaments with fishing rods.)
Despite their hostility to mechanism, the English Romantic poets were immensely interested in science - and this is to their credit. We see this ambivalence in a letter Coleridge wrote in 1801:
My opinion is thus: that deep thinking is attainable only by a man of deep feeling, and that all truth is a species of revelation. The more I understand of Sir Isaac Newton’s works, the more boldly I dare utter to my own mind, and therefore to you, that I believe the soul of 500 Sir Isaac Newtons would go to the making up of a Shakespeare or a Milton. But if it please the Almighty to grant me health, hope, and a steady mind (always the 3 clauses of my hourly prayers), before my 30th year I will thoroughly understand the whole of Newton’s works. At present I must content myself with endeavouring to make myself entire master of his easier work, that on Optics. I am exceedingly delighted with the beauty and neatness of his experiments, and with the accuracy of his immediate deductions from them; but the opinions founded on his deductions, and indeed his whole theory is, I am persuaded, so exceedingly superficial as without impropriety to be deemed false. Newton was a mere materialist. Mind, in his system, is always passive, - a lazy looker-on on an external world. If the mind be not passive, if it be indeed made in God’s image, and that, too, in the sublimest sense, the image of the Creator, there is ground for suspicion that any system built on the passiveness of the mind must be false, as a system.
Fictional representations of scientists in Romantic literature (Frankenstein, Faust) are often transgressive figures - system breakers as much as system builders - reflecting their authors’ troubled fascination with the new science. These poets were preoccupied with the natural world, and insofar as science extended our perspective on that world, they hoped to recruit science to their own purpose. Coleridge tells us that he attended Sir Humphry Davy’s lectures at the Royal Institution ‘in order to renew my stock of metaphors’. Wordsworth, while accepting an emergent two-cultures division, looks forward to their fruitful cooperation:
The remotest discoveries of the chemist, the botanist, or mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us, and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of these respective sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and suffering human beings. If the time should ever come when what is now called science, thus familiarised to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.
But Wordsworth was jumping the gun. This didn’t happen, or not for a hundred years. Instead, the nineteenth century witnessed an increasing specialisation in the sciences and a widening of the divide. In painting, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood turned away from the machine age altogether and back to an idealised medieval past. In a lecture in 1880, T.H. Huxley issued a challenge to the defenders of traditional classical education. Science, he insisted, formed part of culture and made an indispensable contribution to the national good. This jibe was aimed at, and two years later responded to by, Matthew Arnold. A training in the natural sciences, said Arnold, might produce a practically valuable specialist, but it could not turn out an ‘educated’ man. Thus the battle lines were drawn.
In this historical survey I want to roll on now to a period around 1930. As we have seen, these were formative years for Snow. In 1930, at the age of twenty-five, he was elected a Fellow of his college, Christ’s. Among his Cambridge contemporaries were Humphrey Jennings, later to be a documentary film-maker and author of a documentary history of the Industrial Revolution, Pandaemonium (from which I’ve drawn a number of my quotations), and a young Polish exile named Jacob Bronowski. Arts and sciences (at this time, in this place) were in dialogue: Jennings, the English Literature undergraduate, and Bronowski, then a mathematician, co-founded a journal called Experiment. It was a great age for popular scientific writing: Arthur Eddington, James Jeans, Julian Huxley were all active. But these young men’s landscape was dominated by two imaginative writers whose every new book aroused intense discussion: HG Wells and Aldous Huxley. In these two figures, turgid as they can sometimes be in their prose, was a part fulfilment of Wordsworth’s ambition to unite the sensibilities of poet and scientist. It is often assumed that Wells and Aldous Huxley were at loggerheads, that Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), with its test-tube babies, its cult of sensation, its separation of sex from procreation, is a satire on the progressive utopianism expressed by Wells in, for example, Men Like Gods (1923), with its cheery vision of a future without overpopulation, prisons, police or party politics. In reality, as we have learnt from some recent scholarship, Huxley was very close to Wells’s thinking at this time, the early ’thirties. Both writers were dismayed by what they perceived as the failings of parliamentary democracy and were convinced that civilisation must be reconfigured as an aristocracy of intellect if it was to stand any chance of survival. Both were seriously attracted to eugenics (a respectable cause at the time). These were momentous times in our national life: 1931 saw the formation of Britain’s first National Government and the abandonment of the Gold Standard. Huxley was impressed by Oswald Mosley’s call for a ‘strong executive’ free from obstruction by Parliament. All were agreed on the need for systematic national planning. Reviewing Wells’s Experiment in Autobiography in 1934, CP Snow makes clear his admiration for this ‘great writer’ and his sympathy with Wells’s ‘urge for a planned world’.
You may wonder why I have drawn your attention to a small group of Dead White Males in one place at one time. It was to try to position Snow in the intellectual constellation of his youth. In 1959 he imagines that the ‘Two Cultures’ divide will be healed by a new class of scientific administrators, a meritocracy unencumbered by traditional social attitudes - people, one supposes, not unlike himself. These ideas, I suggest, revert to the schemes for ‘World Government’ and authoritarian central planning he read about and espoused in the 1930s.
In fact there were much more attractive, and less dogmatic, commentators on the two cultures issue than Snow. One such was his contemporary Jacob Bronowski. During the Second World War Bronowski pioneered the use of mathematical theory to increase the effectiveness of bombing raids. He was sent to Japan in 1945 to study the effects of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. This experience clearly changed his life; he gave up military research to concentrate on the life sciences and the ethics of science. As a child I was enthralled by Bronowski’s television series, The Ascent of Man (made just before his death) - I suppose if anyone could have turned me into a scientist, it would have been Bronowski. Unfortunately, he was not my teacher and I was repelled by the mind-numbingly dull science teaching we received at school. I don’t know whether Bronowski ever wrote about Snow - I’ve not come across anything. But in the last programme of The Ascent of Man he talks about his friend, John von Neumann, mathematician and one of the founders of computer science, and I suspect that his gentle strictures on Neumann might apply to Snow as well:
Johnny von Neumann was in love with the aristocracy of the intellect. And that is a belief which can only destroy the civilisation that we know. If we are anything, we must be a democracy of the intellect. We must not perish by the distance between people and government, between people and power, by which Babylon and Egypt and Rome failed. And that distance can only be conflated, can only be closed, if knowledge sits in the homes and heads of people with no ambition to control others, and not up in the isolated seats of power.
‘A democracy of the intellect’ - this was Bronowski’s ideal of cultural renewal, no doubt fostered by the many years he spent in America, at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California. He was well-attuned to the post-war spirit, probably better than Snow. He understood the potential of television for democratising intellect:
Television is an admirable medium for exposition in several ways: powerful and immediate to the eye, able to take the spectator bodily into the places and processes that are described, and conversational enough to make him conscious that what he witnesses are not events but the actions of people. [...] Unlike a lecture or a cinema show, television is not directed to crowds. It is addressed to two or three people in a room, as conversation face to face - a one-sided conversation for the most part, as the book is, but homely and Socratic nevertheless. To me, absorbed in the philosophic undercurrents of knowledge, this is the most attractive gift of television, by which it may yet become as persuasive an intellectual force as the book.
I’ve selected a clip from the series (made in 1973). This is the last four minutes or so of a programme called ‘Knowledge or Certainty’. He’s talked about the irony that just at the moment Heisenberg was enunciating his ‘Uncertainty Principle’ in physics, Europe saw the rise of dictators who arrogated to themselves a ‘principle of monstrous certainty’:
There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering, has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit: the assertion of dogma that closes the mind, and turns a nation, a civilisation, into a regiment of ghosts - obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts.
[at Auschwitz; to camera]
It is said that science will dehumanise people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. [...] And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods. Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known, we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken’. I owe it as a scientist [...], I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act.
Bronowski arrived in England at the age of twelve, speaking, so he tells us, rather badly two words of English which he had picked up on the Channel ferry. Over the next few years he mastered his new language and read ‘with a perpetual sense of discovering a new and, I slowly realised, a great literature’. He speculates that the difficulties he faced when encountering English literature were precisely those that ‘intelligent people today have in trying to make some order out of modern science’. As he commuted between science and literature (his output included an important biography of William Blake in addition to scientific writings), he exemplified a kind of cultural bilingualism. He wrote in The Common Sense of Science:
Here in fact is one of the few psychological discoveries of our generation to which we can hold with a reasonable certainty: that the general configuration of intelligence factors which distinguish the bright from the dull is the same in one man as another, in the humanist as in the scientist. We are divided by schooling and experience; and we differ, though we differ less, in our aptitudes; but below these, we share a deeper basis of common ability. (p.10)
In other words, why can we not be bi-lingual in the language of art and the language of science?
A creative artist who responded to Bronowski’s syncretic vision was the composer Michael Tippett. Tippett was of the same generation as Snow and Bronowski. As a student at the Royal College of Music in the ’twenties he read HG Wells’s Men Like Gods and was much enamoured of its presentation of a future scientific utopia. One of his earliest efforts at composition was a piece for chorus and orchestra based on a didactic passage on Time in that book. Sixty years later his vast choral work The Mask of Time, premiered in Boston in 1984, is explicitly inspired by, and sometimes textually dependent on, The Ascent of Man. (Tippett was a real TV junkie in old age - photographs of him show an octogenarian couch potato curled up on the sofa watching the latest soaps.) Thus, for example, one movement of The Mask of Time, called ‘Mirror of Whitening Light’, is directly related to an earlier programme in Bronowski’s series where he describes the advance from the primitive processes of the first coppersmiths, through the magical speculations of the alchemists to the discovery of the atom. (It’s difficult to excerpt anything from this piece because all the movements are at least ten minutes long - it would never make it on to the Classic FM playlist!) Tippett and Bronowski were not, however, identical in their viewpoints. For Bronowski the scientific achievements of the twentieth century justify confidence in the future ‘ascent of man’, notwithstanding the catastrophes of two world wars. Tippett was more cautious, more sceptical. He believed that as an artist he had to defend values which were in danger of being ignored or obliterated by societies which had put their economic resources primarily at the disposal of technology.
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