The One Scientist at the Humanities Party

December 15, 2008

She’ll subtract her height from ten feet, divide it into
hundreds of gallons of water, the numbers
bouncing in her mind like molecules of chlorine
– Sharon Olds, “The One Girl at the Boys Party”

“Who here is taking this course to fulfill the core arts requirement?”

That was one of the first questions asked in my introduction to creative writing course this past semester. I knew from the moment I raised my hand in response that I was not in my element. Doubly so since I had not participated in a humanities class since CIE, Ursinus’ version of a Great Books program. Triply so since my idea of a fun class involved heavy use of integrals, gradients, matrices, and vectors. I could go on to infinity with reasons for my apprehension about taking this course. The problem was, I couldn’t draw, dance, or paint. Writing had been my creative staple since high school. And I hoped it would see me through college.

In a room full of peers that dislike (or as I would like to believe, think they dislike) science and mathematics, I found myself in a situation I had been in many times before. In fact, it’s a situation that society at large faces. C. P. Snow summed it up in his book The Two Cultures. In this text, he describes two cultures that exist in Western society: the literary intellectuals and the scientists. He goes on to explain how in the 1930s the literary intellectuals began referring to themselves solely as “intellectuals,” negating the prominence of scientists in the popular zeitgeist. As such, without the help of the literary intellectuals, scientific thinking did not pervade into pop culture. The gap between the scientifically literate and illiterate grew. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or a James Joyce specialist) to see some of the results of this cultural divide in current events. Just look at the Republican vice-presidential candidate in the 2008 election. She clearly could have benefitted from a stronger science education.

A growing group of scientists, myself included, wish to bridge this divide and create a new third culture, one that brings science directly into the common lexicon without dumbing it down to so-called pop science. Just as cultural literacy requires a certain amount of exposure to the Bible, Shakespeare, and War and Peace, scientific literacy requires exposure to evolution, the laws of thermodynamics, and the basics of statistics. More and more, science is defining the world we live in. As author Stewart Brand stated eloquently, “Human nature doesn’t change much; science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly.”

But if the third culture stands any chance reaching their goal, they must first consider their audience. The general populous is at once curious and fickle about what they learn. In general, they have no use for dry formulae and abstract hypotheses. Give them a story, an analogy, a metaphor to take hold of, and they will certainly grasp even the most difficult of concepts. If that is to be the case, an intellectual in the third culture must be both scientifically literate and entertaining. And as such, he must also be creative.

This was the context in which I found myself in introduction to creative writing: the one scientist at a humanities party (although a few compatriot chemistry and biology majors peppered the room as well). At first, I attempted to eschew from scientific topics. We’re all humans, after all, and it is not so difficult to write about human topics. However, as I became more comfortable in and with the class, I realized that maybe I should make an attempt at a third culture piece. As such, I wrote “Trinitrotoluene,” my short story selection. Although readers stumbled over the name and struggled to recall the Second Law of Thermodynamics, overall the reception of the story was very warm. Most people seemed to latch onto the human element of the story, which ironically I found was the least interesting part of the piece to write and read. Again, as Brand stated, “Human nature doesn’t change much.” We have been doing the same stupid things for as long as man could pick up a rock and knock his neighbor over the head with it. The only difference is that the rock is now a nuclear weapon and the head is now another nation. But the chemistry, that was new and exciting and recent! And always changing.

Regardless of how I felt about the piece, the little nuggets of chemistry hidden in a ‘human interest’ piece must have become dislodged and entered a few people’s minds. They now know what TNT stands for, and perhaps even how to pronounce trinitrotoluene. They may not know the difference between naphthalene and benzene. In fact, a classmate asked later in the semester regarding a fellow chemists use of benzene in a poem, “Is that an element?” But they have at least been exposed to a new scientific idea. And perhaps in the exposing, they will not find the next science class as distasteful.

Although I greatly enjoyed writing the short story, I am sure that my skills in turning science into quality edutainment have a long ways to go. One of my role models in this vein is physicist Alan Lightman. In his novella, Einstein’s Dreams, Lightman paints a vivid picture of turn of the century Zürich, as Einstein must have seen it while dreaming of riding on a beam of light. Not only does this book contain some of the most vivid and enjoyable prose I have ever read, but it also explains many of the ideas behind General and Special Relativity subliminally. Any reader will find himself entranced in the prose, lapping up a complex and beautiful theory despite himself. When my reader gets stuck on a name or a force-feeding of thermodynamics, I think of Lightman’s beautiful prose and realize how far I have to go.

One of the many benefits of a liberal arts education is a broadening of horizons, both personally and academically. It is rare for a science major at a state or technical school to participate in a creative writing course. But it is just these people that society most needs to truly ‘get’ creative writing. Journal articles are boring to read, even to the individuals well-versed in a particular field’s jargon. We must convert these important ideas into a language that the general public not only can read, but wants to read. Popularized science, not ‘pop science,’ is a necessity in a world where almost every policy decision, from environmental protection to biomedical research, and every private decision, from the choice of paper or plastic to the choice of a retirement plan, has scientific implications.

There is no doubt in my mind that there is room in every person’s life for both science and literature, for both quantitative and qualitative views of the world and life. In Jonah Lehrer’s book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, he makes the argument that a great deal of the scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century were predicted by authors, cooks, painters, and composers. If the artists of the world can so positively impact the scientific world in unexpected ways, the least the scientific world can do is make earnest attempts at translating important scientific thought into enjoyable prose. In that vein, I strongly believe that my introduction to creative writing course has made me a more productive member of the growing Third Culture.

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One Response to “The One Scientist at the Humanities Party”

  1. Kenny said

    Never mention the Second Law of Thermodynamics ever again! I don’t even understand what it means…what the hell is entropy!?!?!?

    You can’t say it’s equivalent to disorder…because its not.

    So if the entropy of the universe must increase, what does that mean??????????????????????

    AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

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