Two cultures, or none?

Just a quick rehash of an old post by way of a follow-up to Sunday’s blog about Emotion and Creativity which touched on the negative stereotypes sometimes used to characterize scientists.

Anti-science attitudes are far from unusual among the Arts & Humanities fraternity, even in the supposedly enlightened environment of a University, which I think is a real shame. After all, you’ll have to work very hard to find a scientist who would be prepared to stand up in front of audience and proudly announce “I hate art”. Many of my scientific colleagues have deep passions for the performing arts (especially music and drama) as well as being very well read across a wide range of subjects.  Many also hold strong  (and often idiosyncratic) political opinions and are involved in a huge range of activities outside science.

In short, scientists don’t just sit in their labs and offices making dangerous chemicals or torturing small animals. We live in the real world and have as much contact with wider society as anyone else. Imagination, creativity and free thinking can be found in scientists, just as they can in the arts.  Scientists both contribute to and participate in our society’s cultural heritage. Scientists are human beings. Culture belongs to us too.

Some time ago there was an article in the Times Higher with the title “Life depends on science but the arts make it worth living“. I agree with a lot of what is written in the piece, in fact, although it does seem also to contain numerous examples of non sequitur and I think it’s both poorly argued and highly exaggerated. The arts are undoubtedly among the things that make  life worth living, but there are others, such as “ordinary” human relationships and the “simple” enjoyment of the natural world, which academics of all persuasions all too frequently neglect.

One of the most prominent examples of non sequitur in the Times Higher article is that we have music, literature, poetry and the rest but how much of this is actually done in universities? The article compares Einstein with Beethoven. Albert went to University in Zurich. Beethoven didn’t go to a university. There’s a big difference between making art and writing about it. One of the big cultural differences between art and science is that we don’t have science critics, although we do have people who popularize it and also people who try to explain it to the general public. Much of the impenetrable cultural analysis that emerges from academia concerning the arts seems to have the opposite aim. Does any university have a Professor of the Public Understanding of Art?

You probably think I’m going to go off on a rant about the famous Two Cultures thesis advanced  by C.P. Snow, but I’m not. I think Snow’s analysis is only marginally relevant. I do think that there are “two cultures”, but these are not “science” and “the arts”. One is a creative, thinking culture that encompasses arts, the humanities and science. The other is its antithesis, a “culture” that sees the sole function of education as being to train people  to take their place on the never-ending treadmill of production and consumption.

The way we are heading, it’s not “two cultures” that we should be worried about. It’s no culture at all.

19 Responses to “Two cultures, or none?”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I wholeheartedly agree that the title of that THES article is foolish. Electricity does a huge amount to make life worth living, for instance, and the author might try living without it for a month.

    Personally I’d lump the debasement of the humanities subjects since the 1960s in with the anti-culture of which you speak. And consumption has become a bad word today but it does mean that you can go out and buy all these things that help to make life materially better like clothes washing machines, spectacles, personal computers, jazz and classical CDs, etc.

  2. Who said that art criticism is as important for art as ornithology is to birds?

    Dirac springs to mind: “In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in the case of poetry, it’s the exact opposite!”

    From an old usenet post of mine (note: I still spend more time on usenet than on blogs):

    In a speech entitled “I, Thou and the Computer” (back in 1973 or something like that), Isaac Asimov commented on an anti-science article by a certain Mr. Laurie in the magazine NEW SCIENTIST, in which Laurie stated “Sure, science has turned a few tricks like tinned food (that’s the way the British say “canned food”, you know), but what has science done to add to the happiness of man’s three score years and ten?” Asimov replied in a letter: “Man’s three score years and ten. Before science, the average lifespan was more like one score year and ten. If you don’t want it, Mr. Laurie, don’t take it.”

    (I recorded the speech, which was broadcast on the radio, on an old-style cassette recorder with the microphone in front of the radio speaker. I still have that cassette (and, yes, a cassette player—one of the early “Walkmen”).)

    • My university discontinued its usenet feed long long ago. Are there useful public servers out there somewhere?

      • Yes. My ISP has one, which is what I use. I suspect that many ISPs do, but the support people might not know about it.

        There are also public servers but since, in contrast to your ISP, they don’t know who has what IP address, they usually require some sort of authentication, but many newsreading clients can do that. One I haven’t used, but have heard good things about, is Eternal September.

  3. People in Universities do make music – I know because I once made the mistake of going to a lunchtime concert organised by the music department and they put in one of their researchers compositions in the program. Of course they thought it was amazing and pushing boundaries and etc – to me it was just rehashing modern classical music from 80 years ago and sounded much like any music I had heard from that genre.

    As you say most (possibly all) amazing pieces of music were not written by people at Universities….but it appears its not true they don’t try to make new music at Universities. I don’t think its worth it though, really new musical directions do not seem to come from them, but from people who make music outside their sphere of influence – pick your favourite genre from the last 30 years and I really doubt people in university music departments had much to do with its evolution. I suspect part of the answer is e.g. Led Zeppelin who were very talented musicians could make vast amounts of money simply playing their music to people, where as no-one is going to pay me to do science research except a University realistically. So why would they want to work at a University even if one would have them?

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, there are writers, artists and musicians working in universities but they constitute a minority of faculty in arts and humanities departments.

  4. We can walk our road together
    If our goals are all the same
    We can run alone and free
    If we pursue a different aim
    Let the truth of love be lighted
    Let the love of truth shine clear
    Armed with sense and liberty
    With the heart and mind united in a single

    5 extra points if you can name the source without using any internet resources. 500 points if you admit it here. 🙂

    • Rush, Hemispheres

      To be more precise, Cygnus X-1 Book II, Part V – The Sphere: A Kind of Dream

      [No internet source required. As a teenager I learnt to play the entire first side of Hemispheres on guitar by listening to it over and over again. As a result the lyrics have been rather firmly ’embedded’.]

      I claim the 500 points with my head held high (and with Red Star proudly high in hand). Neil Peart’s dalliances with Ayn Rand’s ‘philosophy’ are something I’m rather less keen about…

      • Couldn’t have said it better myself. (Hey, if people can listen to Wagner, then people can listen to Peart.) Fortunately, Peart seems to have distanced himself from Rand in the meantime. I’ve also read all of Peart’s books: recommended if you like this sort of thing (ramblings on various topics while travelling), and written in his older, wiser phase. Peart is probably not worse than most in this regard, but if you sell millions of albums in your 20s people don’t forget your goofs. Nonetheless, Peart’s lyrics (except for the early Rand-influenced stuff) are better than most rock lyrics, and even if he had never written a single lyric he would still be remembered as one of the world’s greatest drummers, probably the greatest rock drummer. I have a ticket for the concert in Cologne in June. I can be glimpsed in the Rush 30 DVD from 2004 (filmed in Frankfurt am Main); I was extremely ill but I went anyway. (A couple of days later, I went into hospital for several weeks.)

  5. […] “… Anti-science attitudes are far from unusual among the Arts & Humanities fraternity, even in the supposedly enlightened environment of a University, which I think is a real shame …” (more) […]

  6. SandraFromAcrossTheChannel Says:

    Wonderful topic !

  7. @bohemiangirl Says:

    I think Scientists really shouldn’t try to create things. I went to an exhibition launch for a new mammal, they’d sort of hidden it in a programme of existing mammals, but it was just a rehash of a placental one and wasn’t very good, and the fur was really ropey. Plus it was infertile. Same thing with the star some scientist created. They said it shined, but it didn’t really. The next night I looked for in in the sky but it wasn’t visible. Guess the fusion just didn’t take or it failed or something. They’re just not as good at it like the professionals who do this all the time are. I think they should stick to sometimes complicated explanatory work about what’s already there so we understand our world, like they do in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

  8. @Phillip Helbig, Feb. 18 2013, 09:15

    I am sure that Peter won’t mind if we hijack this comments thread with mutual appreciation of Rush. After all, he’s a big jazz fan so would readily appreciate the suspended 4ths, 7/8 time signatures, and progressive sensibilities. (Geddy Lee’s vocals might be another matter entirely…)

    Saw them on the R30 tour in Birmingham and London. I also saw them last year four times because they played Moving Pictures in its entirety. I must admit, however, that I can’t match your dedication – I wasn’t severely ill at the time!

    All the best,


    • I saw them twice on the Signals tour, on two consecutive days. I discovered them shortly before Moving Pictures and regretted having missed the previous tours. After Moving Pictures, they appealed to me less (1980s production—even Joni Mitchell had a Fairlight then—, too “modern” sound (not to mention haircuts), no more long pieces etc; actually, some of the lyrics from this time are quite good). I intentionally didn’t go to the Presto tour (this was around the time they were touring less in Europe than before or after, so opportunities were rare) since I thought the concert would be mostly new stuff, but after the fact I read that they played mostly old stuff. (Actually, looking at DVDs now, the old songs were still performed well around this time.) I saw them again on the Rush30 tour, and again on the Snakes and Arrows and Time Machine tours (yes, the full Moving Pictures during the latter).

      I’m sure jazz fans would appreciate at least some of their instrumental pieces (if they can get over the prejudice of listening to something written by a modern beat combo—though Peart actually listens to mostly jazz in his spare time). They have amassed quite a few over the years (3 on Snakes and Arrows). Anton mentioned recently the “head, not heart” aspect of modern jazz. In some sense, this applies to Rush. A friend of mine and I spent a lot of time listening to Rush around the time we spent a lot of time looking at M.C. Escher woodcuts. There is a similarity; I don’t think Escher intended his works to be beautiful (whatever that means), but there is certainly a pleasure to be derived from them which is in part but not only intellectual. I would put, say, Magritte and Grandville in the same category.

      Quote of the day:

      I don’t know how we got this image, maybe we wore too many robes in the ’70s…

      —Geddy Lee

      • I’m a huge fan of everything Rush did up until Power Windows. I bought Signals when I was 14 and the lyrics (particularly to Subdivisions!) really ‘resonated’ with me. I still listen to it a couple of times a week. Grace Under Pressure similarly kept me sane during my days attending an all-boys Catholic school in rural Ireland in the early eighties (*shudder*).

        From Power Windows on, my interest declined – but I still bought the albums and went to the gigs. (I was a very happy PhD student when I found out that the wonderful Primus was the support act for the Roll The Bones tour). Nonetheless, Clockwork Angels is probably the best thing they’ve done in 20 years…

        I’m not sure about the “head over heart” aspect of Rush’s music. Sure, it certainly involves virtuoso playing and technical riffs but Lifeson’s solo in La Villa Strangiato, for example, is a masterclass in dynamics. It’s packed with emotion and builds perfectly.


        P.S. To return to an earlier thread:: We can subtract 1 off Brian Cox’s Pegg number to bring it down to 4. Gary Moore and Darren Wharton played together on Thin Lizzy’s swan song album, Life. (Moore was a guest for “Emerald” and Wharton was the keyboardist on the final tour).

        Sorry, Peter. Normal service now resumed…

      • Power Windows was the last album I bought until Counterparts, then Snakes and Arrows and everything since then. (Of course I have everything before Power Windows.) Until recently they consciously stuck to the rule “four studio albums, live album, change in style”. Thus, Moving Pictures was the end of the second phase (and there were only two phases after that; after the fourth phase, the scheme broke down). However, Moving Pictures foreshadows the next phase (as does 2112) and Signals looks back a bit to the previous phase. For me, the big break is after Moving Pictures, though Signals still has some good stuff on it. Yes, Subdivisions…at the time, I was living in a subdivision in the States, and was 18 or whatever, so I’m sure we share that resonance.

        I agree with the solo in La Villa Strangiato. Is there a better interplay of guitar and drum kit anywhere?

        Back to science: Today, I finished John Barrow’s new book The Book of Universes. Highly recommended, as are his other popular books. A very good introduction to non-cosmologists to things that Peter and I think about when when we aren’t involved in music or other pleasures (not that cosmology isn’t a pleasure). It covers both the history and the modern aspects of cosmology. And quite a daring prediction in the last chapter. If observations bear this out, the Nobel Prize for Barrow and Shaw will be more or less automatic. (This would also imply a spatially closed universe. On the other hand, other recent work by Barrow involving magnetic fields argues for a spatially open universe. Peter, if you see John before I do, ask him which prediction he has the most faith in.)

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