A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company 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's?
Two polar groups: at one pole we have the literary intellectuals, at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension.
Snow saw this bifurcation of the academic landscape as a hindrance to progress within the intellectual community and the world as a whole.
As a physics major, it's reassuring to know that my parents' money was invested in skills that can be readily demonstrated. Having read a book on phase transitions, I can estimate and calculate the melting point of gold! The same cannot be said for my friends who majored in English Literature, for their set of acquired skills is far less “testable” and demonstrable than mine. Having read a piece of Shakespeare and subsequently discussed it in a classroom setting, it's hard to say what specific pieces of knowledge I gained in the process. The following xkcd comic, a parody of academic literary criticism, implies that there is no real academic knowledge about literature:
Snow's dichotomy suggests that physicists value knowledge that can be rigorously tested and immediately applied, whereas literary intellectuals give value to a form of knowledge that is more subjective, personal, subtle and (hopefully) transformative.
It is essential that educators and students work to bridge the gap between these two methodologies. I have two suggestions about how to do this:
- Figure out what stands to be learned from the literature you read.
- Do a literary reading of scientific thought (and everything else in the world too).
The physicist’s insight: it's important to know what you know.
After every book, page or paragraph of literature you read, try figuring out what you've gained from that experience:
- Can this reading alter the way you perceive the world?
- What does the narrative teach about human psychology, vulnerability, fallibility, corruption and courage?
- How can the characters in this book inform an understanding about real human beings in the real world?
- What insight, perspective and ideas must an author possess to compose this piece of art?
- Can this work bring your thoughts to new places or your ideas to new formulations?
The insight of literature: the untestable is often more important than the testable.
Following the study of a chapter of physics, I recommend asking the following questions (these questions happen to be far more important and far more interesting than the melting point of gold):
- What assumptions and intuitions about the world are challenged by this knowledge?
- What models and simplifying assumptions do physicists make to aid their understanding of nature?
- What alternative simplifying assumptions were available to them?
- How does this topic speak to the themes of complexity and simplicity within the natural world?
- How much of physics is definitional (tautology) and how much is relational (formulas)?
- What physics was constructed to match observation and what was derived from fundamental assumptions?
- How can physical formulas and models affect the way we imagine the world and our position in it?
- Through what channels do human beings perceive and affect their physical surroundings?
- What ambiguities, questions and contradictions still remain?
- How would the world be different if physics or the constants of nature were altered?
- How are the different laws of nature interconnected?
- What is the relationship between advances in science and the historical climate in which those discoveries emerged?
- Explain everything you've learned in simple terms to be understood by a layman without using a single mathematical formula.
By bringing together insights from the sciences and the humanities, we might hope to enrich both intellectual pursuits, academic culture and the world.