Science and the arts need not be strangers

Leavis was right: C. P. Snow was not a great intellect, or a great novelist. But you do not have to be either to say something that is true: and Snow did say something which was true, in his Rede lecture of 50 years ago, entitled The Two Cultures. There is something wrong with a civilisation, he said, where knowledge is so compartmentalised that people can count as highly educated and yet be wholly ignorant of huge swaths of what other highly educated people know. How could scientists not read Shakespeare? How could literary people never have heard of the second law of thermodynamics?

Obviously, there has always been specialised knowledge: Cicero would doubtless have been out of his depth in the further reaches of Archimedean mathematics; Richard Bentley would probably have found Newtonian calculus as obscure as did some of the classicists of my day who could read his Horace easily enough a century and a half later but not get the hang of dy by dx. Carlyle it was who talked about political economy as the dismal science. There is little new under the sun.

But the high ambition of cultured people was once to know the geography, at least, of all knowledge. Aristotle had a try at actually doing it all; Virgil, in his own great poem about agriculture, wrote that wonderful line about Lucretius, whose epic has the atom as its hero:

Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas (Happy the man who could understand the causes of things).

Newton wrote as much about early Christian doctrines as about optics; Coleridge and Davy planned to share out all literature and science between them; Shelley turned his brilliant classical mind and poetic sensibility to the celebration of reason and science, which he taught himself in his own time while he was at Eton.

So how come, 50 years after Snow, and just as he said, we still meet people who would think it shaming to admit difficulty in reading but who boast (sometimes untruthfully) about their incompetence at basic mathematics? How come the phrase “computer nerd” runs off the tongue more easily than “painting nerd”? Or that a cultured dinner party in W8 might find it odd if no one knew the name of the director of the Tate but not of the Science Museum? (It would not be our dinner party, I must add, as I am privileged to be Professor Chris Rapley’s chairman.) Some of the cause lies in the intense and exclusive nature of the science community itself. Science and medicine and engineering are, except in rare cases, co-operative, social activities. They require long and often extremely challenging training, at the end of which people share a powerful common culture and language that excludes others, not least because so much time is physically spent together in the workplaces of laboratory, hospital or design centre. At the end of it you are part of a priesthood; it would be contrary to human nature not to have a certain contempt for those outside the pale.

The police do this, and the Armed Forces; other kinds of scholars do it; people who think about nothing but horses or golf or steam engines do it. As a junior manager in an old-style British engineering firm thirty years ago I once sat down at a table in the canteen at the engineers’ table; I was soon on my way back to the nether regions where the purchasing department humbly ate. If you have spent fifteen years learning your art, and are fascinated by it, explaining it to someone who spent their time doing something easy like reading Herodotus can seem a waste of your time. What has Herodotus got to say about the high pressure end of a gas turbine? He can go below the salt.

Then there is the fact that it is difficult. I got quite a good degree, a long time ago admittedly, in classics and philosophy, and thought I could understand Plato’s Theaetetus and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and other showily difficult texts. But string theory? Or the structure of DNA? I can’t pick up a first-year undergraduate text book and understand a word of it. It has often been said that the last time when a reasonably intelligent lay person could envisage what the particle physicists were talking about was in the days of Niels Bohr. I can understand Fermat’s Last Theorem, but I have about as much chance of understanding Wiles’s solution to it as I do of running faster than Usain Bolt.

This is the other side of the priesthood phenomenon: the mysteries are indeed pretty mysterious, and we lay congregations are willing to say that only the holy man can understand them. Nobel laureates are our new cardinals.

And yet I am incurably optimistic. We can learn at least the shape of the landscape occupied by even the most advanced scientists and mathematicians. We can learn why the Higgs boson matters, or read a narrative telling us of the excitement of what Wiles has done, or look into the heart of the cell over the shoulder of a biologist with an electron microscope. In the way wider culture is developing, there are plenty of signs that the walls can be broken down and the common pursuit of true judgment includes all the objects of human curiosity and creativity, not just the motives of Anna Karenina but the meaning of dark matter too.

A very great deal has got better since Snow’s day, although much remains to be done. We have Richard Holmes writing his brilliant The Age of Wonder about science in the time of the romantic poets, celebrating Joseph Banks and the Herschels. We have fine novelists writing about science and medicine such as Ian McEwan in Saturday. We have Tom Stoppard filling theatres with a play with chaos theory at its heart in Arcadia.

Coming to meet them the other way, we have lucid scientists writing elegantly for the general reader such as Matt Ridley and Stephen Jay Gould and Graham Farmelo. If anyone has succeeded to Isaiah Berlin’s position as Britain’s best-beloved intellectual, it is David Attenborough.

Richard Dawkins and the Archbishop scrap away about evolutionary theory every bit as much in the public eye as their predecessors in Darwin’s day. There is more good science writing in the papers than ever there was — and thanks to The Times there will now be more. We should not despair.

Perhaps there is an even more fundamental confluence taking place. Anish Kapoor sculpts objects of scientific precision, while photographs from the Hubble telescope are as beautiful as Turner seascapes; or look at the Turner Prize exhibition opening tomorrow: Roger Hiorns, one of the four shortlisted, is known for his installation where he poured thousands of litres of copper sulphate into a London flat. Indeed, artists and scientists seem to have swapped roles when it comes to aesthetics: Richard Long tries to make us think about the natural world, and conceptual artists make analytical essays out of objects; they leave man-made beauty to scientists and engineers whose equations and machines meet A. E. Housman’s criterion for the beautiful — that the hairs on the back of the neck stand up as they do for Bach or Mozart.

The reason that Leavis went for Snow with an almost insane degree of vituperation was that Leavis saw scientific method as a dreary Benthamite calculus that was the antipathy of all sensibility, morality and cultural tradition; and he saw it winning a two-horse competition, with all that he thought important on the losing side. Science was never, in fact, like that, any more than literary culture was confined to the artificial Victorian poetry that Leavis himself despised; the binary competition was an illusion. All forms of creativity have the same complex roots in human curiosity, imagination, sense of beauty, memory and capacity to dream. Science often seems now dreamlike, and art a matter of curiosity; previous roles swapped, and methods overlapping.

As science becomes more like art, and art like science, perhaps at last the divisions between the two cultures will finally dissolve.

William Waldegrave. Lord Waldegrave of North Hill is chairman of the Science Museum.