Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Scientific Stereotype

Paul Dirac was once famously (though perhaps anecdotally) quoted as saying, "In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in the case of poetry it's the exact opposite!"
And we laugh, and perhaps picture Sheldon on Big Bang Theory saying something inanely similar.
Of course, we have a right to laugh, and I do not wish to sound as though I am a spoil-sport.

A little context to begin. The anecdote involving Dirac comes from the book Brighter Than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists by R. Jungk. The full story goes thusly:
Nearly all of the Americans who became well known later on for the development of atomic energy had been at Gottingen at various times between 1924 and 1932. They included Condon, who complained in lively fashion of the lack of comfort in the Gottingen lodgings; the lightning-brained Norbert Wiener; Brode, always deep in thought; the modest Richtmyer; the cheerful Pauling - one of Sommerfield's pupils, who often came over from Munich; and the amazing "Oppie," who managed to pursue in Gottingen not only his physical studies but also his philosophical, philological and literary hobbies. He was particularly deep into Dante's Inferno and in long evening walks along the railway tracks leading from the freight station would discuss with colleagues the reason why Dante had located the eternal quest in hell instead of in paradise.
One evening Paul Dirac, who was usually so silent, took Oppenheimer aside and gently reproached him. "I hear,' he said, 'that you write poetry as well as working at physics. How on earth can you do two such things at once? In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in the case of poetry it's the exact opposite!"
The difference between the two men could not be more pronounced.
At the Trinity test, which demonstrated the success of the first nuclear weapon in history and culminated the years of the secretive Manhattan Project, the well-read Oppenheimer would quote the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." He is often cited as having additionally thought of the verse: "If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one." (Incidentally, this second verse is where the Jungk book derives its name.)
Dirac, on the other hand, was "pathologically reticent, strangely literal-minded and almost completely unable to communicate or empathise."
Which of these two men should we wish to emulate? Which of these two has stayed true to the calling of humanity, that is, to be human?
And yet, Dirac often spoke of beauty, especially the beauty of mathematics. He went so far as to say that "getting beauty in one's equations" was a "sure line of progress," and that in fact he preferred the mathematical beauty to the "physical concepts" he "learnt to distrust." So he obviously understood the poetic impulse, if only on an unconscious level.

My point in relating this story is that, while we find the renowned social ineptitude and narrow focus of the scientist (specifically physicist) humorous, we must not be taken in by the lie. We must not be content to fall into that stereotype. We must not continue propagating this myth. On becoming scientists, we do not resign our titles as human beings.
It is to the detriment of both ourselves and the world if we, as scientists, fail to engage in other spheres of life. We have so much to gain from literature, music, art, nature, food, politics, economics, spirituality, philosophy... and life has much to gain from our involvement. We are all the more hypocrites if we focus only on science and yet demand that the rest of humankind accept our scientific views in addition to their own. If there is never any quid pro quo, then we will never be considered trustworthy. I do not mean to say that we should allow religious doctrine to steer scientific inquiry or that politics has a right to direct the topic of scientific study, but instead that we, as scientists and human beings, should at least understand that these different views exist. We should try our best to see the merit in any point of view, not degrade them simply because they differ, and we should be able to take a step back - out of science, if you will - to understand the context of our own view. Science is not all there is, and we scientists should not live as though it is.
All of us, scientist or not, will benefit from the poetic impulse as well as the scientific one.

Humorous as it is, I have to side with Oppie on this one.


  1. Hi, Kelley-

    Great to hear from you. One could be even more extreme and say that poets (and especially spirutalists and religionists) are easily addicted to euphemism, buttering up, dressing up, gussying up, gilding the lilly, and, not to mince words, lying and self-deception.

    The scientist values truth, yet out in the bestiary that is humanity, it turns out that delusions are far, far more powerful than truth. They motivate where truth leaves flat. They incite where truth speaks in a monotone. Science itself is a romantic pursuit that imagines endless progress and human flourishing, if only we can drain the world of romanticism.

    It's a sad story, in way, and we seem to be condemned to having two cultures that have serious problems communicating, both inherent in, and necessary to, the human condition.

    1. Burk, thanks for the comment. I agree that science and poetry (for example) approach the world with different "techniques." But, like you said, having access to all of those techniques is imperative to the full human condition.


Think carefully before you post. I reserve the right to moderate any comments posted to my blog.