I fought the law

The First Law of Thermodymamics:
Heat is work and work is heat

The Second Law of Thermodymamics:
Heat cannot of itself pass from one body to a hotter body
Heat won’t pass from a cooler to a hotter
You can try it if you like but you far better notter
‘Cos the cold in the cooler with get hotter as a ruler
‘Cos the hotter body’s heat will pass to the cooler

And that’s a physical Law!

Flanders & Swan, First and Second Law

It’s been some fifty years since CP Snow’s famous rant on the state of the British education system, with its overemphasis on humanities at the expense of science. You might remember that he was somewhat bewildered at the scientific illiteracy of otherwise ‘highly educated’ people:

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 the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?

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 saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language.

Picturing Science
One would hope that (British) society might have matured by now, and maybe it has—only last week I read somebody complaining that maths and science were compulsory subjects in GCSEs (exams sat at age 16), whereas humanities and modern languages are optional. One might be excused for thinking, then, that the pendulum has swung (too far) the other way, and we now have a cutting-edge, scientifically literate and equipped society.

Be that as it may, there remains a painful gap in public perception of science: witness, for example, the scientific awareness/public understanding initiatives—many of them grass-roots—in the UK and North America. But more than that, the idea of two disparate, indeed warring, cultures is still embedded in the public consciousness, despite valiant efforts to reconcile the two.

All this came to mind when I saw, in one of London’s free papers, the sub headline “Two worlds join forces as science collides with art.”

There is a new exhibition opening this weekend, Picturing Science at the Riverside Gallery in Richmond. (I’d like to go along to the workshop on Sunday afternoon, if London’s transport system can recover from the snow.) I love this sort of thing, even though some of it can feel a little forced, there are also instances of sciart that are artistic as well as scientifically meaningful (and accurate).

But while that’s great, the interaction between art and science is still couched in combative terms. The ‘Picturing Science‘ website, even while drawing similarities and saying that art and science ‘harmonious’ in their use of symbolic representation, uses ‘collide’ and ‘contaminate’ to describe the interaction. The curator, Mark De Novellis is forced to preface commonality with contrast: “Although science is seemingly the logical, rational, ordered antithesis of artistic creativity…”.

I know artists can be scientists, and scientists can be (and often are) artists. Scientists are poets and musicians and novelists and painters just as any profession can be—perhaps more so because scientific enquiry is inherently a creative pursuit. As De Novellis has it, “artists and scientists still share a common drive to innovate, explore, dissect and reveal.”

But doesn’t this antagonistic language make you want to throw up your pipette and/or keyboard up in despair?

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Filed under art, Culture Friday.


  1. biologist says:

    Science may be at loggerheads with the humanities (the study of the arts/artists), but not with art itself. Collaborations and friendships between scientists and artists have been common and strong with a mutual admiration for the creative effort (eg JD Bernal & P Picasso, among many others).

  2. Paul Stein says:

    I feel that most of the antagonism comes from the non-scientific side. Could it come from some jealousy that many scientists are also serious, competent artists but there is so little vice versa? Could it be a semi-self-revulsion rolling over that most scientists are not “starving”, having not quit their day jobs to struggle with life/existence? Could it come from an irritation of the lack of overly overt enthusiasm from the scientists for many of the modern artists’ projects? Could it come from more jealousy regarding the potential that scientific endeavors will have a much greater effect on most people’s lives than artistic ones?

    There truly isn’t too much negativiity towards most artists coming from most scientists, especially in print, blogs, etc.. The worst I ever heard might be some off-hand remark in a museum like, “Huh, I could do that.”

  3. I think you’re both right.

    I guess, also, that anybody can understand or ‘get’ art, but not everybody can do science—and the appreciation of science comes mainly from the doing?

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