But on Thursday night, the august plaster of the Royal Society of Literature in London resounded with non sequiturs, denunciations and gratuitous abuse as two of the bigger beasts in the jungles of art and science indulged in an orgy of mutual misunderstanding.
There they were on the podium, both magnificent specimens in their way: Lewis Wolpert, Commander of the British Empire, professor of biology, former engineer in the Israel Water Planning Department, author of books such as A Passion for Science and The Unnatural Nature of Science, 67, tall and bony, with great brown bowls of eyes, a Roman emperor of a nose, a black polo-neck, horn-rimmed glasses clamped on his greying pate; Will Self, so far undecorated author of seven books, even taller and bonier than Wolpert, with a long, brooding, horse's face and the permanent air of a sixth former just returned from the back of the bicycle shed - Self, the part-time journalist who had a better election campaign than the rest of Fleet Street put together, on the basis of one article and a trip to the lavatory in John Major's aeroplane.
"Do science and literature cross-fertilise?" was the title of the event, and Prof Wolpert's view, opening the proceedings, was no, no, no. Science is a totally peculiar business, he insisted. "It's a really peculiar mode of thought, because the world isn't built on a commonsense basis. It's a really weird place: if a view of the world sits with your commonsense expectations, it will be false." To understand this world, and to enlarge scientific understanding, requires the utmost rigour. "Science is very imaginative, but the idea that the act of creation in art and science are the same is sentimental nonsense."
Shakespeare's plays, he pointed out, did not render those of Aeschylus or Sophocles redundant. In science, on the other hand, "individuals are of no importance whatsoever. Whatever you contribute becomes assimilated."
The scientists' starkly simple task is to reveal the truth about the universe, in all its bizarre detail. And steadily this revelation is coming to pass. "With enough scientists and enough money, all will be discovered. Geniuses only speed things up."
What role can literature play in this endeavour? None at all, it seems; all writers do is to snipe from the sidelines.
"The whole of English literature is filled with nasty remarks about science," Wolpert asserted. "Mary Shelley is the evil fairy godmother of genetics. Thanks to Frankenstein, it is impossible to have an intelligent discussion about genetics."
The only contributions that literature can legitimately claim to have made to science are the character of Tertius Lydgate in Middlemarch and the scientific terms "quark" (from Finnegan's Wake) and "oskar" (from The Tin Drum).
The Royal Society of Literature is not accustomed to rambunctious exhibitions of this sort. Wolpert sat down, and for several nanoseconds the audience gasped for breath, before breaking into tactful applause. But if any literary gent were to be a match for such knockabout, Self is he.
"You old sourpuss!" he began, then went on to assert that "science without literature is like bacon without eggs, a sandwich without bread, sex without orgasm". Literature is full of brilliant scientific writers such as John Dalton, Charles Darwin, TH Huxley and James Lovelock.
"Literature unites with scientific theory to create a strange chimera which propels scientific thought," said Self.
He developed the conceit of "enlightenment scientists going out ahead, chipping away at conceptual space" - with the artists close behind, handing them tools, perhaps, or carting away the chippings.
The problem was that, with the atomic bomb, and megalomaniacal ideas such as the human genome project, "scientists have become arrogant". They think they can fend for themselves. The artists have become spare scalpels at a brain transplant.
It was like being in the public gallery for an unusually messy divorce, where both partners were convinced that they alone had been betrayed, cozened, cuckolded, insulted and abandoned. Self: scientists think they don't need us any more; they've grown too big for their boots. "Lewis is the representative of elitism; I'm the representative of democracy," he declared. Wolpert: scientists have allowed the notion that science and art can cross-fertilise "because scientists want to be artists; it's all about social snobbery". Furthermore (the old complaint), scientists are "far better read" in literature than artists are in science. (Has no one tried pointing out that literary works are on the whole much more fun to read than Heisenberg's Physical Principles of the Quantum Theory, or worse?)
There were several pungent contributions from the floor, of which the best was certainly the assertion that "in 20 years, Shakespeare may well be recognised as one of the great scientists". "Enough!" shrieked Wolpert. "But you haven't let me explain why!" squeaked the Shakespearean.
But if the debate never really became the blazing bonfire that it had promised to become at the beginning, it was perhaps because while Wolpert certainly wants to give someone a kicking, that someone is not Will Self. Will is too woolly. The ones Wolpert has it in for are the relativists: those for whom the whole panoply of scientific knowledge, far from having objective, absolute reality, is a "cultural construct" like any other human creation, and just as fallible.
"I attack them at every possible opportunity," Wolpert told The Daily Telegraph last year, referring to the so-called "Edinburgh school" of sociology. "I hate them. They are the true enemies of science. These people are the kiss of death. They have a political agenda to control science themselves, to diminish it at every possible step."
These people, however, are not Will Self, who would only like to hold hands with science, walking into the garish sunset, borrowing nifty terms and cool ideas when the opportunity arises: words such as flocculate, inspissate, phyletic, diplopia; ideas such as the "quantity theory of insanity" (the title of his first book).
Give over, Lewis, you old sourpuss. Will means no harm. And you'd make a lovely couple.Reuse content