Friday, August 27, 2010

Scientific Romance

When I took a year of biology, I remember the anti-science harangues of my fellow literature students. Scientists were sometimes caricatured as machine-men, without subtlety or profundity. And the achievements of science were denigrated.

Meanwhile, a vocal clique of science and engineering students portrayed my humanities peers as foggy-minded, lazy layabouts - their ideas worthless, methods clumsy.

I tried to defend the best in both traditions. If I remember rightly, my usual reply was to show the value of each in its rightful domain. Sometimes this took a Socratic approach: patiently asking questions. Other times I was more polemical (which was less helpful). My usual response was eventually frustration: that undergraduates would leave university, with little regard for great thinkers or artists, and their institutions.

Reading Sherborne's excellent life of H.G. Wells, H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life, I came across this:
At South Kensington [in the Normal School of Science] he liked to think of himself as an artist among scientists; later, as a famous novelist, he would claim to be a scientist among artists. Writing creatively proved the most effective way to reconcile the two roles. (p.61)
I obviously lack Wells' talent as a writer and man of science. But I sympathise with his twofold character. And more importantly, I'm impressed by his solution: creative writing, particularly fiction. (But sometimes essays.)

This doesn't achieve a grand theory of the two; doesn't unify, in thought, the two traditions, and their epistemological, metaphysical, social characteristics.

But it does diminish dogmatism; it reveals the achievements of each, within the world of the narrative. When I think back to my own education, science-fiction (what Sherborne calls 'scientific romance') prepared me to welcome scientific training: to see it as something worthwhile, and compatible with my humanities background. It had moments of awe alongside its rigour and precision; there was often wonder, even with the dystopian warnings.

Time to rekindle the romance, I think. Starting with Wells.


ravensmarch said...

In addition to Wells with his scientific philosophy and gaming manuals, your school fellows were neglecting Niels Bohr, the Kirkegaard-reading soccer-champion physicist. And, frankly, reading Einstein's little pamphlet about lamps on trains is a good indication that his sense of humour was running at full strength. Perhaps they were thinking of movie scientists of the 1950s?

Damon Young said...

Yes, stereotypes like that probably fed into the delusion. A combination of selective learning, pop culture and the need for enemies. (For identity's sake.)

And thanks for the Bohr reference.