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An interview with Booker-prize winning novelist Ian McEwan caught my eye the other day. He spoke to Nature about the gulf between science and the humanities. The classification of this boundary throws up some interesting areas of contention, especially when looking at those who attempt to stride the gap between the two giants of academia – taking their preconceptions with them.

Ian McEwan talked about emotion, literature and the brain

Is the flow between the two disciplines equal? Is the literal physicist as wary as his charismatic literary counterpart is of him? Have you read Shakespeare, do you understand quantum physics? Perhaps you know both. I’m envious.

Shakespeare - sexier than quantum physics?

Romanticism aside, McEwan raised some interesting points. He noted the wall between the two trains of thought, saying it was ‘intellectual madness’ for the humanities not to be interested. By the gulf between the archetypal scientist and literary scholar, he refers to differing philosophies. which can lead hostility.

McEwan said: “There’s something very warm and human about rationality. I think we are all both emotional and rational creatures and many of our conflicts or interactions with each other are mediated through our sense  of a natural justice, logic, and rationality. Somewhere along the line in Western culture, probably about the time that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, an idea grew up that Science was an unruly beast, both cold, abstracted and antithetical to the deep, warm-blooded human nature.

Frankenstein - is modern scientific apathy his fault?

“I think that needs to be unpicked. There is great warmth, to be had, a great cross fertilisation, if you take the time to think, reflectively on what your emotional state is and how this might be changing your decisions.”

How to go about unpicking this perception? McEwan refers to the separation of mind and body imbued in the characters novelists portray – and cites this as an antidote to the embodiment promoted by scientists. Is this part of the greater problem in the public’s perception of the scientific community? Does the notion of science as an inaccessible, dusty discipline trickle down subconciously from those providing our well-thumbed method of escapism? If the two cultures were at peace – what would this acheive?

Charles Percy Snow CBE (1905 – 1980), an English physicist and novelst, famously lamented the dead space between scientists and literary intellectuals. In his lecture ‘The Two Cultures’, after finding a widespread incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists and a lack of scientific understanding of the scholars, he mused: ”The great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.’

There are, however, those in the Scientific community whom have, arguably, perpetuated this dusty reputation of the literal scientist. It doesn’t get much more literal than Charles Babbage, the ‘father of the computer’.

Babbage's 'Difference Engine' could perform mathematical calculations

Babbage (1791 – 1871) felt a little disgruntled after reading English poet Alfred Tennyson’s poem ‘The Vision of Sin’, so contacted Tennyson. He wrote: ‘In your otherwise beautiful poem, one verse reads –

Every moment dies a man

Every moment one is born

‘if that were true, the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth the rate of birth is slightly in excess of that of death. I would suggest:

Every moment dies a man,

Every moment 1 1/16 is born.

‘Strictly speaking, the actual figure is so long I cannot get it into a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry.’ Now that’s romance.

Aristotle (384 -322 BC) - Philosopher or Scientist?

The scientific community has had a larger role in refuting the validity of work from those of a literary persuasion. In an article this week in The Times, Professor Armand Marie Leroi from Imperial College cited Aristotle as the ultimate heavy weight of science. He argued: ‘You know him as the inventor of logic and political philosopher, yet Aristotle was, above all, a scientist. A third of his works were about animals. He made living things the centre of the cosmos. What he thought defined biology for 2000 years.’

The octopus was one of the animals that inspired Aristotle

Upon observing the fauna in the lagoons on the Greek Island of Lesvos, a 39 year-old Aristotle compiled observations, classifications and dissections, writing a book spanning anatomy, physiology and the soul.  But his work was refuted by the founders of the Scientific Revolution, as science is ‘about the study of nature, not books.’

McEwan sums up today’s gulf as a conflict between innatism and constructivism. This brings the discussion back to the two sides of the highest and oldest wall in science; the battle of nature versus nurture. Considering the basics of this debate may remind those in each community to marvel plainly at the wonder of the natural world, just as Aristotle did in 349BC. Perhaps considering this may bring the lab coats and the quills closer, and the gulf may begin to lessen.

Perhaps we should all take a leaf out of George's bush

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