Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Hawking’

On the two cultures

March 14, 2017

Years ago C P Snow wrote about two cultures, the arts and the sciences, and the gulf between them. I oversimplify greatly, I know, but it’s an opposition that I regularly return to in terms of my own life and experience.

I’m clearly on the arts side, from my studies at school, at university and my teaching career, as well as my wider interests throughout life: languages, literature, history, religion for starters. I was about to say that science never really got a look in, when I recalled an interest in astronomy from a very young age, and that at primary school, my best friend and I wanted to be the first men on the moon (!). He’s now a Russian Orthodox priest, by the way, or was when I last had news of him…

At boarding school, there was no real opportunity to study science properly, and so the die was cast, I suppose. Maths was interesting, as our teacher was one of the pioneers of what was called ‘modern maths’ in those days; I understood and liked a good deal of it as far as O Level where I managed grade 2, but it was arithmetic, especially mental arithmetic, that was always my strongest point. I retained my interest in astronomy, even going to evening classes at one point, but whenever it strayed into the realms of maths and physics, I have to say that I very quickly got lost, and began to develop a headache. I genuinely do seem to have a mental block about some things once they go beyond a certain level… How much of this is because of my background, my upbringing and how much is the real me, as it were?

I do stray out of the arts bubble in my reading. I’ve long been interested in the calendar and its development over time, and there’s a fair amount of arithmetic involved in that. I’ve read some works on science and astronomy – Carl Sagan on the search for life elsewhere in the cosmos I found particularly interesting, and I have actually read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, though how much of it I understood I cannot honestly say. I like to read about the development of human knowledge in all fields, and find books like Pliny’s Natural History and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies fascinating because they show us learning about ourselves and our world, developing our understanding over time. This relentless desire for knowledge, and the pursuit of it, are surely one of the things which make us human and allow us to be proud of our species.

I’ve also found myself wondering about gender-related issues in connection with the arts/sciences dichotomy. I have the picture that maths and sciences are largely a male field, and the arts rather more female, and yet I know this is clearly a gross oversimplification. But do some subject areas and ways of thinking lend themselves more readily to brains of one or the other gender, despite the opening up of opportunities in recent decades? And what does this say, if anything, about female scientists and mathematicians of whom I have known many, or male students of literature and languages, of whom I have known rather fewer. And what about me?

Is the separation between arts and sciences inevitable, a result of there nowadays being so much knowledge in so many areas that it’s impossible for anyone to acquire mastery of everything? It has been said that Athanasius Kircher, in the seventeenth century, was the last man who knew everything, as in the amount of available learning and knowledge was capable of being mastered by a single person. I don’t think that the separation does us any good, in terms of our society, or our education systems; I have often felt intellectually poorer for my lack of scientific and mathematical knowledge. And of course currently we are made to feel that only subjects with practical applications, ie maths, science and technology, are worth expending the time and money on, and our country and the world is the poorer for such philistinism. It is curiosity, the act of studying and the eagerness to learn that are important, rather than the subject-matter.


On maths and science

April 6, 2016

51F6wH7UHeL._AA160_ 51h6BFLBjiL._AA160_ 51PtUSpds0L._AA160_ 51r2u2D8-tL._AA160_I wouldn’t want any of my readers who is a mathematician or scientist (and I hope there are some of you!) to get the impression that these are subjects I am indifferent to, even though my knowledge is pretty scant: I do have O-Level Maths, and was one of the very first students to study what was called ‘modern maths’ in the sixties, and I also have what was quaintly known as ‘General Science’ O-Level (ie very basic).

Some of the most interesting conversations I used to have as a teacher were with science and maths-teaching colleagues; I am still proud of my abilities in mental arithmetic and calculation, and I’ve always found playing with numbers in my head fascinating, along with other connections I’ve been able to make between what I learned in school, and later life. As far as science goes, I’ve had a lifelong interest in astronomy – my primary school best friend and I used to fantasise about whether we could get to be the first men to land on the moon! – and my enjoyment of detective fiction means I’ve always liked reading about forensic science. However, I do have to admit that an awful lot of mathematical and scientific knowledge does give me a serious headache after not very long: my brain just doesn’t seem to be wired that way… I did actually get to the end of Stephen Hawking‘s A Brief History of Time, but please don’t ask me what it’s about.

Maths and science feature noticeably in my reading. I loved Norman Juster‘s The Phantom Tollbooth, a book for children that introduces one to the joys of playing with words and numbers, as Milo visits the cities of Digitopolis and Dictionopolis. And, as I thought about this post, I realised that I’ve liked science fiction ever since I was a small boy, perhaps beginning with the Lost Planet series by Angus MacVicar, and never looking back since. But I must then confess that it’s never really been the ‘hard science’ variety that’s gripped me, much more the speculative kind.

Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein plays with what scientists were exploring in her day, and she couples it with a powerful story and incisive reflection on the morality of what scientists can get up to, reflections which perhaps we would do well to remember nowadays. Just because we can do something, doesn’t necessarily mean we should…

I found the fictionalised travels of the eighteenth century polymath Alexander von Humboldt, in Daniel Kehlmann‘s novel Measuring the World so interesting that I then went on to seek out and enjoy (an edited version of ) Humboldt’s travel journals. And Primo Levi, a chemist who survived Auschwitz, though not much of life after Auschwitz, wrote a fascinating fictionalised autobiography called The Periodic Table; each chapter is named after an element, the last is carbon, and the ending of the book is both witty (in the best sense of that word) and masterly.

I like reading popular science from time to time, because it’s accessible; I’ve enjoyed Steve Jones‘ takes on Darwin and evolution, The Descent of Men and Almost Like A Whale, and have also found what I’ve read about science and medicine in the Islamic world during our so-called ‘Dark Ages’ very interesting. In the end, there’s plenty of approachable material out there for the non-scientists like me; if only there was the time…

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