The Week In Radio: It's science, but not as we know it

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The Independent Culture

Finding an anniversary that no one else has noticed is about as rare as digging up an Anglo-Saxon hoard these days. Wars are revisited, the dead resurrected and debates rerun inexorably, every time the significant date comes around. But I might just have stumbled across one anniversary that hasn't yet made a set of stamps or a theme week on BBC4. It was exactly 50 years ago that C P Snow gave his seminal lecture "The Two Cultures", in which he argued that there was a growing and dangerous divide between the arts and the sciences. Liberal intellectuals were deserting the sciences in droves. Whereas educated people would be ashamed not to have read Shakespeare, Snow said, they were completely unembarassed not to know the second law of thermodynamics.

Fifty years on, I imagine C P Snow would be rather pleased. Radio 4, led by In Our Time, has been bringing the two cultures together and giving them coffee for some time now and there's a plethora of programmes that advance the public understanding of science. It's hard for even the most casual listener to avoid superstring theory, spintronics or reverse gravity. Switch on The Food Programme and they're discussing the molecular structure of fatty acids. Elsewhere, it's the mutating properties of the swine-flu virus. What next? Eddie Grundy and Alistair discuss the Higgs boson over a pint?

Metaphor for Healing, narratedby Dr Phil Hammond, was a perfect example of using the humanities to understand the science. Thirty years after Susan Sontag argued in Illness as Metaphor that we need to challenge the language we use to describe illness, doctors have begun to recognise that metaphor is "one of the most powerful tools in the medical kitbox". Giving patients the right word picture really can help them heal. Dr Grahame Brown, a musculoskeletal specialist, said the use of powerful metaphors alone helps him save 100 people from surgery for every six that actually need joint replacement. He cited something called the "nocebo" effect, whereby using negative metaphors to describe illness is proven to lead to worse outcomes. Fired by these statistics, some GPs have started to pep up their programmes with images that ordinary people can relate to. This sounded fine until you actually heard them. "I say, your hardware's functioning fine, but your software's corrupted," offered one GP. Another doctor has taken to instructing patients to "close open anger file". Time for a reboot, I feel.

Another mingling of the two cultures came in Science vs the Stradivarius, which brought in a professor of physics to explore what it is that makes a £3 million Strad sound different from any other fiddle. A key factor, it seems, was the sea salt and borax used to preserve violins made in Cremona, Italy, 300 years ago. Not to mention the density distribution of the wood. But most science has focused on the varnish. High-tech microanalysis has now identified 22 different minerals in Cremona varnishes and it is these fragments that made the violin sound so exquisitely pure. Apparently, Antonio Stradivari would go personally to the varnish shop to ensure he got the stuff from the top of the barrel because it was that which had the finest particles in it.

Dismaying then, that the more beautiful a work of art, the more someone, somewhere, will want to vandalise it. Art Attack attempted to probe the psychological motivations of iconoclasts and what it found was that iconoclasm is never random. The suffragette Mary Richardson knifed the Rokeby Venus in 1914 because she wanted to attack the most beautiful woman in myth to protest against the detention of the person she considered the most beautiful female in England, Emily Pankhurst. The Taliban destroyed the Bamyan Buddhas, Afghanistan's most important historical monument, because they believed international donors cared more about heritage than human beings. Edward VI, who perpetrated this country's most comprehensive destruction of religious art, saw himself in the image of the Old Testament's Josiah, with a God-given mission to stamp out idolatory. One of the most egregious examples was his attack on the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral, which saw reformers armed with chisels hack off the faces of all the figures, targeting the eyes and the mouths with chilling thoroughness as though to blind and silence each one. In wiping out England's religious art, Edward VI's reign, said one contributor, was as bad as Mao's Cultural Revolution. There's more of this sobering series to come, but I sense not much good news. "Our compulsion to create is probably matched by our compulsion to destroy," noted historian Tim Marlow glumly. Or as the second law of thermodynamics states, disorder in the universe is always increasing.