Is it true art and science don't mix?: The 'Independent' and the Science Museum invite you to a forum on the great cultural divide. Tom Wilkie reports

What has happened to the Great British Scientist? Apart from Stephen Hawking, propelled to international celebrity status by A Brief History of Time, scientists in this country tend to a public profile of grey anonymity: they are industrious, but their horizons reach little farther than the end of the laboratory. The pursuit of science, in this picture, differs little from the accountant's dreary concentration on minutiae, except that science is very badly paid.

Art, on the other hand, has a high public profile. It speaks to and illuminates the human condition, while the imagination of the artist knows few bounds. Ironically, as the scientists have retreated into the laboratory, over the past few years the literary and visual arts have shown great interest in exploring the consequences of scientific ideas such as relativity, quantum theory and chaos.

Nevertheless, there is a continuing tension between these two pinnacles of our cultural achievement. In his most recent book, Black Holes and Baby Universes, Stephen Hawking complains that his ideas have been persistently misunderstood and his statements misrepresented, while Fay Weldon in a newspaper polemic and Mary Midgley in her book Science As Salvation warn against the dehumanising influence of scientism.

To explore the inter-relation between science and art, the Independent and the Science Museum are organising a public forum 'Art and Science Don't Mix?' where an invited audience from both sides of the cultural divide will be asked to outline their hopes and anxieties. The participants will address the topic 'Art has nothing to say about science; science has nothing to say about art'. Melvyn Bragg will chair the meeting, which will contain no long formal presentations but will be structured so as to be lively and productive.

Artists do take on big scientific ideas. One of the most widely discussed analyses of science in recent times was Michael Crichton's book Jurassic Park, recently made into a Steven Spielberg film. Some expert scientists might complain that in its treatment of the details this is not an appropriate vision of progress in genetic research, but this is to miss the point: the central ideas of genetics have been run with imaginatively. If science refuses to let grand, loose theorising play any part in the life of the lab, then culturally we're all done for. Why do scientists voluntarily limit their own field in this way, when science ought to be all about new horizons?

Artists and writers, meanwhile, unconsciously regard science as really a form of literature. This was certainly true in the great 19th-

century heyday of Victorian gentlemen savants. When one considers Darwin's Origin Of Species or Lyell's Principles of Geology, part of the importance of each book, considered as science, was its impact as a work of literature. For the literary artist, of course, writing about the world is intrinsically a way of investigating it; in the modern scientific age, 'writing up' the results of an experiment, or explaining the consequences of a theory, are boring irrelevancies tagged on at the end of the really interesting work.

There is a twist to this analysis. When scientists such as Stephen Hawking do set their minds to writing about their craft, they tend to exhibit science in the simplest, oldest and most accessible of literary forms. A Brief History of Time was such a success in part simply because it told a story. Hawking presents science as narrative, with a beginning, a middle and an end, just when so many literary novels today decline to tell a story.

Yet his exposition still baffled many. Could it be that some science is untranslatable into common English, perhaps because it is a sort of rare poetry, not paraphrasable? It may be that Einstein's celebrated equation E = mc2 is the only way to express relativity. Perhaps the prose versions of this idea falter without the immediacy and clarity of the formula itself.

Such an answer did not satisfy an earlier generation of British scientists. From the late Thirties to the Sixties, Britain produced a series of scientists who figured large in the intellectual life and in the political counsels of the nation. In The Social Function of Science, published in 1939, the Marxist crystallographer J D Bernal expounded for a wide readership his passionate vision of the social relevancy of research. But one is hard put to find scientists of comparable stature in the non-scientific world today to that generation which included Julian Huxley, Patrick Blackett, and Solly Zuckerman, nor do there seem to be outstanding successors to the Nobellist and elegant essayist, Sir Peter Medawar.

Today, most scientists are dependent on the state or have hired their expertise to commerce and industry. As the effect of their work on society has expanded, so most researchers have progressively disengaged to the self-effacing status of the civil servant - in sharp contrast to the previous generation of scientists, many of whom had independent means, and in contrast to the situation of most artists. So it may not just be factors intrinsic to science, but also the background and social position of today's scientists that produces cultural division.

These are among themes to be explored during the discussion forum, which will be held in the Science Museum Lecture Theatre on 25 March. The meeting will form part of Britain's first National Week of Science, Engineering and Technology. From the Orkneys to Plymouth, more than 1,000 events have been organised to involve the public in science and technology.

The National Week begins on 18 March with 'Baysday' - two days of 'discovering the shape of things to come' organised by the Youth Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at the Natural History and Science museums in London. William Waldegrave, neither particularly young nor a scientist, but who is the cabinet minister responsible for science and technology, will launch the national week at the Baysday meeting.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: PCV Bus Drivers / Car Movers

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Do you enjoy bus driving and are looking for ...

Recruitment Genius: Software / Web Developer - ASP.NET

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company produces a wide ra...

Recruitment Genius: Office / Sales Manager

£22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones