Thursday, February 23, 2006

trotting out stereotypes

Listen to physicist and novelist C.P. Snow's description of scientists v. artists in 1959:

They have a curious distorted image of each other. Their attitudes are so different that, even on the level of emotion, they can't find much common ground. Non-scientists tend to think of scientists as brash and boastful. They hear Mr. T.S. Eliot, who just for these illustrations we can take as an archetypal figure, saying about his attempts to revive verse-drama that we can hope for very little, but that he would feel content if he and his co-workers could prepare the ground for a new Kyd or a new Greene. That is the tone, restricted and constrained, with which literary intellectuals are at home; it is the subdued voice of their culture. Then they hear a much louder voice, that of another archetypal figure, Rutherford, trumpeting, 'This is the heroic age of science! This is the Elizabethan age!' Many of us heard that, and a good many other statements beside which that was mild; and we weren't left in any doubt whom Rutherford was casting for the role of Shakespeare. What is hard for the literary intellectuals to understand, imaginatively or intellectually, is that he was absolutely right.

Now compare all that with the diligent blandness of corporate and legitimate academic science today, versus the tiny, therapy-bolstered heroism of writer-teachers out to transform society through creative self-affirmation. In literature classes now, Eliot is the high-modernist priest from a lost heroic age of Difficult Literature, with the glamorous literary life involving steamer trunks and half-insane egotists who could actually read what he wrote; in current freshman chemistry texts, Rutherford is hardly a man at all. If the student bothers to imagine him, he's an Edwardian moustache and some gold foil. Otherwise, he's the clever, powerful experiment that suggested atoms are heavy nuclei surrounded by light charged particles. The man himself is lost by Chapter 2. If the two cultures have not exactly changed positions since 1959, they've come near enough to switching that I don't think it's any particular stance or self-conception keeping them apart.

My suspicion is that there's something deeply fallacious in this talk of two cultures, or "scientific minds" and "artistic souls", and that although there are real and distinct differences between thinking like an artist and thinking like a scientist, they are not the sort of thing that leave people staring at each other across a divide. I suspect those differences are more like north-north magnets, where if you try to drive them together head-on they resist and slip past each other. My guess is that most of the other differences are superficial, artifacts of how we get paid and short-lived excitements.

I've gotten off the track a little; I'd wanted originally to talk about how people in ordinary life pick up scraps of science's operating assumptions, and what that does to how they regard themselves and the world, how they deal with themselves and other people. I'll return to that in the next post.

I don't know yet whether this exploration of how artists and scientists can talk to each other will be useful for anything, but I figure I'll let it run here a while, and see. If you've read a good article or book on the subject, please recommend it.

1 comment:

JohnM said...

The Snow essay had been on my TBR list for years; I finally read it last week and am now in the middle of E.O. Wilson's Consilience as a follow-up. "Brash and boastful" brings to mind Craig Venter, and while I don't picture writers like Dave Eggers as shrinking violets, the impact of human genome sequencing will most likely be more culturally significant than 826 Valencia. Would Rutherford make a more interesting protagonist in a novel than Eliot?

PS: I found your blog via, and am really intrigued by your premise. I've been trying to think (without much success) of extant, non-SF literature that might reflect that worldview. I'll throw out a couple for discussion: Richard Powers' Operation Wandering Soul; Jim Crace's Being Dead; and Lorrie Moore's "People Like That Are the Only People Here".