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Gateway to ideas. Gateway to ideas. A new series of conversations in which ideas are discussed in relation to reading. On today's program entitled Is science sterilizing humanistic thought Bell science editor of The New York Herald Tribune talks with Iraqi Nobel Prize winner and physicist at Columbia University. We are rapidly approaching the time when no corner of the universe public or private will be immune to the probes of science the distant galaxies the microcosm of the atom even than the lightning of nerve cells all come under the regular gaze of the scientist. Perhaps I ought to amend that slightly public sensibility seems to want to keep scientists out of the jury
room. But it has failed to keep them out of the bedroom as the continuing reports of Dr Alfred C. Kinsey's colleagues demonstrate. In this a proliferation of the regions accessible to science with the rather distinctive triumph of scientific investigation as a prime route to reality and with the pervasiveness in our lives of the things of science or more properly the things of technology we might ask about the power of science to change the human animal and in particular his mode of thought up to very recently ours has been largely a tradition of humane letters of poetry of literature of the classics. In just one generation or at most two this tradition has changed and science has come forward to challenge that literary preeminence in response to that challenge the men of letters have been anguished Thus when See piece no attempted to describe the dichotomy between the two traditions which he called the two cultures. He was promptly vilified by the literati and in some sense
disowned by the scientists. The former seem to be saying that science is outside interest and the latter seem to be saying that Sir Charles was struggling with the cliche. To what extent has science changed man's thought willing or not. This is the question for us today. With me is Dr. II Rabi a Nobel Prize winning physicist who is university professor of physics at Columbia University. I do not think we should attempt Dr. Robbie to catalogue all the poems in the novels and plays and other things of literature which reflect the current scientific temper rather let us talk you and I about some of the differences which science has introduced into our thinking. Before we do that Dr. Robbie let's get the two cultures problem out of the way please erupt on the issue. First let me erupt on the title of my professorship. Oh God it's not in the verse the professor of physics it's university professor. The general idea that I'm a sort
of intellectual maid of all work and can roam from department to department. So far I've kept on my travels when i'm still have my office in the physics book. I had physics with a small P.. Now with respect to the snows the two cultures. I think he made a tremendous contribution with this happy phrase. Because he revived the discussion which had become dormant and more under the name of science and the humanities he brought us up again from an instinct point of view in the sense that as a successful novelist he spoke more from the literary camp perhaps not the extra literary character but definitely from the literary camp and was a man who could not be ignored by the literary people. As such he sharpened the issue. He made one other very important contribution and that is he brought the issue into the
moral region that there was a moral difference between the position of the literary people and the position of the of the scientists and that the scientists were more morally sensitive to the needs of the world than the literary people who would or after talking about it did not try to do anything about it whereas the scientists really did. Actually that point of view is taken by Martin Green who was somewhat more sensitive as a literary man to Snow's point of view than say Levis who attacked snow violently. GREENE And his science in the shabby curate of poetry points out that literature and at least modern literature is just terribly against society and for the individual. I think that something terrible has happened. The great prestige of science and the mathematical language in which so much of it is written
has prevented literary people to from understanding what it's all about. They their education has been faulty. They do not have the mathematics which will enable them to enter this language more easily and as a result they find themselves in the position of living in the world which is continually being changed by science without having any part of it and they're alienated and they cry out in anguish. But they don't do anything about it in the sense of educating themselves to know what they're talking about. Well Green attempted to do this you know I mean attempted to do this I think is to be honored for it and he's very sensitive in the very interesting very interesting book. Yes. Well do you think anything can be done by the average human is to say has gone through a tradition of education which includes only surveys in science elementary algebra and perhaps geometry. I'm very sorry if I'm if is willing to work all right but it probably won't be. But it should not stand in the way of educating the young so that they get a proper
education with science as the central core of the curriculum to enable people to live in the 20th century rather than. In another century and Bandy sense the feelings and cliches amongst one another. You know it's interesting that Sarkozy who is a historian of science really went the other way and worked devilishly hard to understand Greek and Latin in order to do his work. Oh there's nothing against it that's fine. You know I'm talking about a scientist to requite who was writing a history of science and he was not going to take sources that second hand. And he really wanted to understand what it was writing about. Nothing I've said is against scholarship. What I'm talking about is the education of the young in order to enable them to understand the world in which they live. I would love to see people with a good grounding in science. Going to walk a ology or going to a literary criticism. But they should have the basic background just
as I think they should have the basic background of being able to speak the English language with some personal distinctions. Well I don't want you to define science for us because that's sort of one of the undefinable in a way. I like art and music and what is good music and good art. But I wonder if you would just talk for a moment or two about what you think are the essential ingredients in science which makes it somewhat different from a literary tsk tsk elastic point of view. Basically we would like to know what we're talking about. I would like to be able to say to subject our ideas to verification by comparison with the universe. We are basically revolutionary in the sense that we are very happy if in the stablish system of ideas upset there's great distinction in that which is in a certain sense the opposite of the Humanistic culture. We
do not look to the past. We look to the future. We're creative we're optimistic we're progressive. We build on the past but we look toward the future. Where is the most of the literary culture is partly in the present with tremendous nostalgia for the past and can hardly accept the present. Much less the future. I have no idea the future except the direst expectations. Of course it was on this point of view that Levis attacked snow most violently namely Snow said that scientists had the future in their bones so to speak and Snow pointed out that people like Orwell hated the future and didn't want any part of it. And again this seemed to be particularly irritating to the literati. Do you think this is part of the idea that science itself perforce pushes us into the future. Oh no question. It's perhaps the dominating
force which is shaping the future because we're pushing ourselves in the future you doesn't have to go into the future when you step off the bus any time although it's against the law. But the future will be more and more dominated. Buy the whole new set of ideas attitudes built up by the scientific revolution since the Renaissance and even the the most severe critics of science nevertheless are caught in it in their language in their attitudes. All one has to do is to compare a martyr with a man of a century ago and you see how great the change has been. Well you know Whitehead cited Promethea some bound as an unconscious use of scientific language. In fact he quoted a a transcript in which he said
I spin beneath my pyramid of night which points into the heavens dreaming the light murmuring victorious joy in my enchanted sleep and so on. And then what had goes on to say this stanza could only have been written by someone with a definite geometrical diagram before his inward eye a diagram which is often been my business to demonstrate to mathematical classes. Don't you feel that something similar is going to be happening as we go forward that is people will put into their inward eye the ideas of quantum mechanics mechanics geometry the works. Shelley of course was greatly interested in science and I think he was kicked out of Cambridge. Typical English trick to playing this trick. I am worried about the second part of your point that people learn that quantum mechanics relativity will enter
into the thought of our times. Unfortunately it is very difficult to express those ideas without some mathematical language and it seems that the very people who would enjoy it have a certain block a certain Haar of mathematical symbols. They forget that it's a language shorthand and the precise language for conveying ideas which would be very difficult otherwise. But as soon as they see a letter X they somehow get into a dither and unless great care is taken in their earlier education to make them at home with this language there will never be able to catch on what we're talking about. Well we believe these ideas of relativity and quantum mechanics to some extent have ended. Our thoughts for example we speak now the relativity of
cultures. I think this is a phrase which was unheard of before Einstein. It's true when you talk of the relativity of cultures in that it wouldn't make any difference at all because there was not only in relativity the Einsteinian relativity is a much deeper more subtle idea. And it is as radical at this placement of the human as the Copernican theory was already as the Darwinian theory was. But I do not believe that this has ended to any great degree into the thinking of the nonscientific educated public. Why do you think that's so. I've seen no sign you think they've simply given up simply giving up. There was a great deal of interest when I was a young man who in the early twenties which has since died out especially with the death of Einstein was this great world figure and an interest focused on his personality and his
ideas. I see very little reference to these basic thoughts. In other words the intellectual side of science is getting less and less attention from the educated public and from the from the press. Where are some of the tricks which. Should more be given which more to the credit of engineering are called science and the intellectual side deeply intellectual side was not touched on but more of the engineering the construction side. Not that it isn't very great very important but the other side of this neglect. Well if it is neglected whose whose problem is that is that the problem of that of the scientists who have been themselves sort of made their own world and lived in it and said If you want to come along with us you have to jump on a bus. Have they made any attempt to reach out and to
put scientific material or just at the disposal of humanity. I'm afraid the scientists haven't. The scientists have become and the elite. And this. And science to become a certain sense of sekret Col.. It does not have to defend itself. So they make their own private language and talk to one another and do not talk to the public. Galileo said that he had to spend 11 months doing philosophy for every month he could do science because he had to defend himself against the clerics. Now the scientists don't have to defend itself against anybody except the budget cutters. And therefore I have no direct connection with the public. There are science popularizers but they rarely come from the ranks of the scientists themselves. Mr Bell has done very well. But thanks for the compliment but it's not the that it's not the scientists say they themselves have done very little.
There's this little book of Einstein and Infeld. There are a few but. No real attempt has been made to make all this understandable. And it's the only way I think it would really do it. As if the top people were obligated to teach freshmen in the universities not only freshmen who are going to be scientists but freshmen in general than they would have to make themselves plain. Well you know there are many top people who have undertaken just this task for example Dick Fineman at Cal Tech and Teller has also undertaken to teach freshman. But I agree with you these are few and far between. There was an nother element not only to teach the subject of freshman teaching science to freshman in the sense of giving them a tool is one thing but connecting it up. With other elements
of life is another. I think the first is rather ineffective for those who were not going on the science. It simply withers away in time since they're not going to use it. If it's connected up with other elements of their lives if it's connected up with a biography the way literary people connect up writers. If it's connect up connected with philosophy if it's connected with history if it's connected with the technological results with sociology then I think it's real meaning and effect would become clearer and the impression would probably be a lasting one. Martin Green whom I referred to before who just published this book science in the shabby curate of poetry makes exactly this point of view and as a matter of fact he draws a parallel between Edison and Mark Twain for their time which is very much to the point him and points out that Twain and Edison are sensually
duel figures of the bombastic days of our industrial revolution. I think this could be promoted generally in our modern times the biographies of Bohr Oppenheimer perhaps yourself might might mean something to a new generation Well it's very interesting to me that there is a four volume biography of Henry James who certainly was very great writer. Not yet. There was no real biography of Einstein which not I mean a definitive biography not one which starts one day little Albert said to his father and that sort of thing. And as far as I know there's no no such biography in progress. I don't know that sounding American side where there's a biography of Henry Rowland when the great physicists of the 19th century and one could go on of this way th Morgan. Well there's a biography of Joseph Henry but it's only a slim volume slim volume.
But I'm I'm going on if you take literary figures of equal dimensions you'll find libraries about them. This is again a situation where the scientists are not compelled toward that kind of scholarship and the literary people don't know how to approach it. Well literary for the public hasn't been educated to it although I think if it but well done there would be there would be a public just as there was for Jones a biography of Freud. I think that's certainly true and it is kind of interesting that even the minor biographies of scientific individuals have had their influences for example the Cripes microbe hunters was read by a generation of high school students and it seems to me very interesting that every time I meet a microbiologist to a say of the ages of between 40 and 55 which they would have been in high school at the time the school was published and I asked them what got you started in microbiology or
biochemistry or even science. They say I read called the Christ micro punters and that was not a depth you know but I ate well a few pains from immigrant to inventor. Had a wide sail and we had students who came to Columbia as a result of reading that long after peeping with that. Well isn't it isn't the fact here though that the reason that we have more biographies of literary people than we do of scientists is a two fall thing namely that after all writers can write and their interest is in other writers and not in not necessarily in scientists. So they're more likely to write about things of their interest than about other things. And secondly in order to write a intellectual and definitive biography of a scientist you really have to come to grips with the body of his work. Well this and for this it is very difficult for people in the literary field to do well scholarship is no novel to people who want to become scholarly in the history of art of other
fields. Study and really dig very deeply and learn new languages. And I see no reason why anybody wanted to write a biography of vice and can learn enough mathematics and physics to begin to have a feeling for what he did. But of course in addition to that you have to give the dimensions of the man who lived a rather long life had extraordinary experiences in different worlds met with the top statesman and crowned heads of the world. Others but dissipated in many movements what sort of man is this. He had an early divorce. Why. It was all he had children. What happened to that one who has relations all the things you'd want to know about a human being. But the scientists into the human family. Now this has not been done. The scientists has done so
somehow or other the moment when no science no matter what else he is he's become a specialist. And apart from the rest of the nonscientific world and I think what's one of our big problems in this part of the century is to bring the scientists back into the human educated into the family of educated humans. Well maybe we have to wait a hundred years or so after all the kind of definitive biography has been done for Kepler and for me and for others. Yes we have him wait 300 years for the good scientists. Particularly when I started who is probably the greatest scientist perhaps since Newton or perhaps I was shadows of fear real influence will be no. Well just to go back to the influence of the US of the kind of science which has been done in modern times on the way we think a great deal has been made of the
problem of the statics. In science we sort of give lip service to it and very few people who have not done a scientific experiment which has never been done before and seen the result come bouncing out out of the equipment or out of the page or whatever can really in my view really feel this systematic experience. Is there any way that you think this experience can be made real to the non-scientist. It's very very difficult. Certainly I don't think literary people for example have made the experience of a poet who's written a successful poem. Real to those who've never tried to write a verse. This some particular feelings can be communicated only to those who've had similar experiences. I think one can get a sense of it but one can't really get the thing itself. And
so I don't think in that sense it's any different from any other creative act. I mean if you read the Romane Roland what was the young core stuff I mean in there he has a has a great life but you don't get the feeling of his excitement when he creates a cause along. I think it's the same sort of thing. But I think the scientists can talk to the composer and they will both have had a similar experience and perhaps you can talk to the poet and exchange views about the moment of insight the feeling when you've had written something and it's exact and true. When you when you've done an experiment or complete a piece of work and feel that this has a kind of solidity quality which will carry through I've had that experience only once as you know my scientific experience is limited but
I remember once working on a crystal structure of a molecule and we had a computer set up to compute the Fourier pattern obviously of the molecule. And they were all I was watching. In that instance after weeks of work I was just a teletype writer touching out numbers and after the first 12 numbers you realize that yes I finally had the answer to those intricate puzzles. And you could hardly contain yourself. Yeah exactly exactly I think you described the beautiful yet this kind of experiences really described in the literature in the in the nonscientific literature I'm talking about snow attempted in the search as you recall. I gave a talk last year at the 100th anniversary of the National Academy of Science but I was to science to scientists and I did try to describe the situation. But just so to speak amongst friends not
the general public cause it was very pretentious. Yes I agree with you but but nevertheless this is high drama in a certain sense it's the act in the moment of creation the fulfillment of weeks if not years I only worked on it weeks but some people work years and then suddenly see this congealing of all the things that come together and yet the times which is has been described in the literature is I think trivial flatness. Well having experienced it maybe you go ahead and write. Yes I am good for talking. Well there are there are practical problems as you know. I was just wondering if there's anything one can say about the ways in which scientific research and the way science is going has changed our values in any way. I think he's done a great deal to change in values. I think it has brought to a great deal of clarity into situations which didn't exist before. For instance for example
we take the word insanity that's a legal word but not a psychiatric word. We have probed enough into the human mind to understand the gradations which exist and enough of the workings of the mind to look at things quite differently from the rather outmoded legal. Categories. I mean this is an example of the sort of thing which occurs in everyday life sort of speaks for the newspaper reader. I think this is a classic example. I think we've gone far enough to show that in these various ways the way people experiment with the concepts of science the future looking ideas and science that these are going to incontrovertibly incontrovertibly continue to have a kind of pressure against modern thinking and
will push modern thinking into a new mold which is which are pretty hard to foresee but nevertheless will occur. And perhaps if the world of science made more of an outreaching toward the other world the changes will be more controlled and for the better. You've been listening to gateway to ideas a new series of conversations in which ideas are discussed in relation to reading today's program is science sterilizing humanistic thought has presented earlier Bell science editor of The New York Herald Tribune. Talking with I Robby Nobel Prize winner University professor and physicist at Columbia University to extend the dimensions of today's program for you a list of the books mentioned in the discussion as well as others relevant to the subject has been prepared. You can obtain a copy from your local library or by writing to gateway to ideas post office box 6 for 1 Time Square Station New
Gateway to ideas
Is science sterilizing humanistic thought?
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WRVR (Radio station: New York, N.Y.)
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This program asks the question of the extent to which science has changed the way humanity thinks. The guest is I.I. Robbie, Columbia University.
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This discussion series, produced by the American Library Association, features noted authors, critics and scholars on various topics related to reading.
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: Meyer, Eva
Host: Bell, L.U.
Interviewee: Robbie, I.I.
Producing Organization: WRVR (Radio station: New York, N.Y.)
Producing Organization: American Library Association
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University of Maryland
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Chicago: “Gateway to ideas; Is science sterilizing humanistic thought?,” 1965-05-13, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed August 20, 2022,
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