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
Monday 28 February 1994
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.
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