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Science and the humanities April 19, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in reminisces-1990s, science.

Physicist Brian Green on the Science-Humanities debate :

Mathematical equations were a completely different story. I loved their precision, their unwavering certainty, and the way they just plain worked.

As I got a little older, my tastes became more nuanced. It’s not that my devotion to the exactitude of mathematics diminished. Rather, I began to better appreciate the gray areas of life and literature. The gray areas of ambiguity, the gray areas of human paradox. The gray areas where, search as you might, you will never find a solution. I spent increasing amounts of time wrapped up with Balzac, Gorky, Faulkner, Orwell, Sartre, and Camus. A messy and wonderful world opened up for me, and the burden of words lifted.

Even so, the two realms — the humanities and the sciences — seemed thoroughly separate, a view that remains widely held. In fact, the divide between the “two cultures” runs even deeper now. As Nicholas Kristof emphasized in a recent New York Times op-ed, the “hubris of the humanities” is extensive. There is an implicit agreement in “educated circles” that
it’s “barbaric to be unfamiliar with Plato or Monet or Dickens, but quite natural to be oblivious of quarks and chi-squares.”

He later on goes on to answer this and suggests remedies. Read on.

I relate to these ideas, not because I am on one side or the other. I feel quite at home with the humanities and the sciences. I think if all computers and computer science disappeared, I would still be able to earn a living being a history or political science teacher/journalist/writer/news-anchor perhaps. I relate to these ideas because I spend a lot of time thinking about how life would have been if my education was very different from what it was – emphasis on norms, rules, on theory, with emphasis being more on classroom discipline than creativity, where going to the lab gave us no joy beyond the marks/grades we earned. In other words, for much of my life, the education was stereotypically Indian/South-Asian/Eastern.

Some of this was redeemed by days of IIT-JEE preparation – solving ( at least sometimes ) problems from Russian physics/math books was a joy. But even that was so because it was more of a confidence booster for your exam preparation than like being in a movie you hope never ended. Today ofcourse things have changed to some extent, but maybe I am failing to realize that for most of us, science and mathematics is more so the means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

Yet, I go back to thinking about kids in high school and see how their lives are being ruined with all that they are fed. Perhaps a strong statement, but we are in danger of living with millions perhaps way below their potential. But as a quote that Dr.Nandini (last name unknown), a co-passenger on a Manipal-Bangalore bus on July 22nd, 1999 told her 18-year old co-passenger, goes : “What you never had, you never miss.” ( the other two of her favorites were – “what you have is not enough, what you can’t have, you can’t resist.” We don’t know what progress we haven’t had ( or what destruction we have averted ) by not accelerating/starting earlier the process of educating humanity.



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