Subterranean Back-chat

Today I watched the Deciding Brain episode of Charlie Rose’s the Brain Series.  In it Kandel references an essay by C.P. Snow called Two Cultures about the mutual distrust of the humanities and the sciences. Snow states the issues as this,

The non-scientists have a rooted impression that the scientists are shallowly optimistic, unaware of man’s condition. On the other hand, the scientists believe that the literary intellectuals are totally lacking in foresight, peculiarly unconcerned with their brother men, in a deep sense anti-intellectual, anxious to restrict both art and thought to the existential moment. And so on.  Anyone with a mild talent for invective could produce plenty of this kind of subterranean back-chat.

It goes further to discuss the essential language barrier between the two cultures.  Snow was both a writer and a working scientist who spent time in both arenas.  As he became more aware of the wall between the two fields he began to ask his colleges questions.

when one tried to probe [scientists] for what books they had read, would modestly confess, “Well, I’ve tried a bit of Dickens”, rather as though Dickens were an extraordinarily esoteric, tangled and dubiously rewarding writer

He goes on to say

Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the
company [of literary intellectuals] how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of Have you read a work of Shakespeare?

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question, such as, “What do you mean by mass, or acceleration?” which is the scientific equivalent of “Can you read?”  not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language.

As we discuss the why of this project it seems important to keep in mind that posing questions like “How does brain process the totality of stimuli generated during a live performance?” and attempting to answer them through a piece of art is step toward bridging this gap.

Snow’s view seems to be that science cannot just be plugged into art, but that

It has got to be assimilated along with, and as part and parcel of, the whole of our mental experience, and used as naturally as the rest.

Let’s see if we can do just that.


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