"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The scientific literature

Cards on the table time: I have always had the desire to teach English in a school setting primarily devoted to math and science. This may relate to a family proclivity -- my father, brother and son all are engineering types who were and are extremely articulate and verbal. (My brother is even a published author in his field.)

Or it just may be that teaching English to literature nerds is like shooting ducks in a barrel. How much more satisfying to lead science and math wonks to discover how important the ability to explicate and persuade is? After all, sooner or later, scientific progress depends on the ability to communication with non-scientists, even if for something as crude and utilitarian as writing grant proposals and accurate succinct abstracts of reports?

Literature and Science have a lot to say to each other, and science has provided a number of protagonists in literature, going back to the near-mythic character of Doktor Faustus, who poses the elemental question as to whether it is possible to know too much. More recently, we have turned scientists into characters of legend and, yes even myth. Galileo, Curie, Pasteur, Fermat, Edison, Tesla, Einstein, Oppenheimer, Heisenberg and Feynman have all proved to have achievements and personalities large enough to gather deep cultural resonance, beyond the specific facts of their lives.

Let's leave aside science fiction* and mad scientists, and acknowledge there is a body of film about good and real science. A Dangerous Mind, Infinity, October Sky, and Apollo 13 which has at least as much science as it has adventure. Sloan Science and Film is a major NGO project that celebrates good films about real science.

But the theater has been a far more hospitable place for the serious consideration of science, including Brecht's Life of Galileo, Copenhagen (about Heisenberg and Bohr and the atomic bomb), Proof, In The Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, RUR (the play which originated the word "robot"), and the musical Fermat's Last Tango. Any of these would be marvelous to study and/or produce in a high school setting. And, in a way, Shakespeare's Tempest, while about a magician rather than a scientist, deals with the problem of having so much knowledge that on the one hand, you can manipulate the people around you, and on the other hand, the community becomes dependent upon you.

Today, in a technology driven age, it can be argued that Galileo, Tesla and Einstein are more significant mythic figures than Odysseus, Sisyphus and Pandora. In any event, it would be exciting to explore them with students who know more science than I do.
Bad science fiction is about adventure and most good science fiction is actually about politics, which make them irrelevant to this discussion.

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