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)

The sun rises over St Andrews golf course, but will it be a new dawn for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club?
sportAnd it's Yes to women (at the R&A)
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
footballToure's lack of defensive work is big problem for City
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style

ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer your expertise as Trustee for The Society of Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Promising volunteer Trustee op...

Email Designer

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Psychology Teacher

£110 - £130 per hour: Randstad Education Reading: Psychology Teacher needed fo...

Food Technology Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Randstad Education are curren...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week