The two cultures and how they met

A beautiful piece (thanks to Allen Esterson for sending me the link). Studded with gems.

[Natalie] Angier’s book is called The Canon, and subtitled ‘A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science’. It is not a long book and it contains, as the title suggests, a breathless Baedeker of the fundamental scientific knowledge Angier believes is the minimum requirement of an educated person…The result is the kind of science book you wish someone had placed in front of you at school – full of aphorisms that help everything fall into place. For geology: ‘This is what our world is about: there is heat inside and it wants to get out.’ For physics: ‘Almost everything we’ve come to understand about the universe we have learned by studying light.’…’Entropy,’ Angier writes, ‘is like a taxi passing you on a rainy night with its NOT IN SERVICE lights ablaze, or a chair in a museum with a rope draped from arm to arm, or a teenager.’ Entropy, unusable energy, leads to the law that states that everything in time must wear out, become chaotic, die. ‘The darkest readings of the Second Law suggest that even the universe has a morphine drip in its vein,’ Angier suggests, ‘a slow smothering of all spangle, all spiral, all possibility.’ No wonder CP Snow thought we should know about it.

One wants to rush straight out the door to find the nearest copy of that book, doesn’t one.

‘Science is rather a state of mind,’ Angier argues and, as such, it should inform everything. ‘It is a way of viewing the world, of facing reality square on but taking nothing for granted.’ It would be hard to argue that this state of mind was advancing across the globe…Numbers of students still studying science at 18 are falling in Britain and America, perhaps because we are becoming generally less motivated to address difficulty. As a culture, we allow ourselves too many excuses. ‘Western parents are quite comfortable saying their children have a predilection for art or for writing or whatever, and allow them just to pursue that. In the Asian education system, if you are not good at something, it’s because you are lazy and you just have to work harder at it. Just because things are hard does not mean they are not worth doing.’

I did that. When I was in school, I did exactly that – I just decided early on that I was a literary type, and that settled the matter. A very stupid way to think. I was determinedly stupid in that way for years and years. I wish I could go back in time and kick myself really hard.

That idea of difficulty, I suggest, cannot really be helped in the States in particular, when all of the presidential candidates of one party stand up in televised debate and say they believe in ‘intelligent design’ and suggest that the world could well have been created by a bearded God a few thousand years ago. Angier laughs, somewhat bleakly. ‘I see all that as a macho kind of posturing. It’s like, I can believe the impossible: look, I can lift a tree! It is a Republican initiation ritual, like having a hook pulled through your cheek and not flinching.’ But no, she concedes, it doesn’t help much.

That’s good – believing the impossible as a kind of macho posturing; I like that.

[John] Brockman perceived a third way. ‘Literary intellectuals are not communicating with scientists,’ he suggested. ‘Scientists are communicating directly with the general public….Third Culture thinkers tend to avoid the middleman and endeavour to express their deepest thoughts in a manner accessible to the intelligent reading public.’ Brockman’s cross-fertilising club, the most rarefied of chatrooms, has its premises on his website Eavesdropping is fun. Ian McEwan, one of the few novelists who has contributed to Edge’s ongoing debates, suggests that the project is not so far removed from the ‘old Enlightenment dream of a unified body of knowledge, when biologists and economists draw on each other’s concepts and molecular biologists stray into the poorly defended territory of chemists and physicists’.

Why one of the few novelists? Because most novelists go on thinking of themselves as literary types and refusing to take any interest in the other stuff. Chumps.

I wonder why there are still so few literary contributors to Edge, which has remained a predominantly scientific and philosophical forum. Is there not some evidence there that the divide persists? Brockman explains how Edge evolved out of a group called the Reality Club that held actual meetings with scientists, artists, architects, musicians. Ten of the leading novelists in America were invited to participate. Not one accepted.

Stupid. If someone invited me to participate in an actual meeting like that I’d be there so fast the chairs wouldn’t be set up yet. And that refusal is probably why most novels bore me rigid these days; why I give up on them after a few pages. I’ve gotten truly deeply bored with minute descriptions of daily life, and all literary novels are stuffed and clogged with details of Jennifer’s Mood As She Sorts The Socks. Life is short, there’s a lot to learn, and I just don’t care about Jennifer’s mood, I think she should get over herself and go learn some geology or something.

James Watson ends on a hilarious note.

‘I recently went to my staircase at Clare College, Cambridge and there were women there!’ he said, with an enormous measure of retrospective sexual frustration. ‘There have been a lot of convincing studies recently about the loss of productivity in the Western male. It may be that entertainment culture now is so engaging that it keeps people satisfied. We didn’t have that. Science was much more fun than listening to the radio. When you are 16 or 17 and in that inherently semi-lonely period when you are deciding whether to be an intellectual, many now don’t bother.’ Watson raised an eyebrow, fixed me again with a look. ‘What you have instead are characters out of Nick Hornby’s very funny books, who channel their intellect in pop culture. The hopeless male.’

You know, if you combined Nick Hornby and Ian McEwan, you’d really have something.

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