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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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May 11, 2011

Writing About Science, and Liking It

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Posted by Derek

Via John Hawks, here's an interesting interview with writer John McPhee, known to many for his long-form explorations (and explanations) of geology.

When he starting doing that in the New Yorker, though, editor Wallace Shawn told him to go ahead, although he warned him that "readers will rebel". And that they did - McPhee says that he got extremely polarized feedback from those pieces: loved them, loathed them. His explanation?

Two cultures. There are some people whose cast of mind admits that sort of stuff, and there are others who are just paralyzed by it at the outset, no matter how crafty the writing might be. A really nice thing that happens is when people say, I never thought I’d be interested in that subject until I read your piece. These letters come about geology too, but there are some people who just aren’t going to read it at all. Some lawyer in Boston sent me a letter—this man, this adult, had gone to the trouble to write in great big letters: stop writing about geology. And it’s on the letterhead of a law firm in Boston. I did not write back and say, One thing this country could very much use is one less lawyer. Why don’t you stop doing law?

Good point! But I know what he's talking about. I remember William Rusher, who used to publish National Review, writing about how he had to tell a colleague that "there is no concept so simple that I can fail to understand it when presented as a graph". That made me feel the two cultures divide, for sure. But it's perhaps not as stark as the classic C. P. Snow formulation: there are plenty of scientists who appreciate literature and the arts, and (as McPhee notes), there are plenty of people who know more about the humanities who find that they enjoy scientific topics once they're exposed to them.

My two cultures, then are the people who can appreciate science and the arts, versus the people who can appreciate only one of the two. (I'm leaving aside people who can't appreciate either one). So there are one-mode-only folks like the lawyer who wrote above (or William Rusher), and the corresponding scientists and engineers who might never pick up a book or appreciate a painting. And it may just be my own prejudices speaking, but I think that there are more one-mode-onlies who fit that first description, and that actually does take us back to a famous quote from C. P. Snow:

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. 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?

Right he was, and is. If you (scientist or literary type), are up for an in-depth discussion on the Second Law, with reference to Shakespeare and much else, try this by Frank Lambert, who's put a lot of thought into the subject.

Comments (41) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News


1. newnickname on May 11, 2011 6:23 PM writes...

Djerassi talks about science-IN-fiction as a sub-genre of literature that tries to realistically convey science and the lives of scientists in works of fiction. Friction between the "two cultures" appears often. So I wonder if I can ask Derek's readers for some help finding a long lost (funny) quote from a novel such as The Struggles of Albert Woods (Cooper), Lucky Jim (Amis) or The Search (Snow). I don't think it's from those, but from something similar.

The Approximate Story: At a university party / social gathering, the wife of a Lord Professor of Some Classical Subject says to a chemist about her husband, "But science is so much easier than mastering the classics. Sir So-and-so has always felt that he could master all the necessary science in two weeks." The chemist then says something like, "What a shame Sir So-and-so hasn't been able to find a fortnight to do so in the past 30 years." I was LOL when I read it. Anybody know the source?

Thank you.

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2. Anonymous BMS Researcher on May 11, 2011 7:21 PM writes...

D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson was both a very great scientist AND eminent classical scholar. When he got his honorary doctorate at Oxford, the University Orator (speaking in Latin) ended a speech full of praise for Thompson's classical scholarship with a perfunctory account of the scientific work that had been the primary reason for the honorary degree.

The Nobel laureate PB Medawar called Thompson's book On Growth and Form "the finest work of literature in all the annals of science that have been recorded in the English tongue."

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3. Rick on May 12, 2011 8:01 AM writes...

While I don't think there's much point in trying to get people in the "science-only" or "arts-only" to like or value each other's appreciation for their respective preferences, I believe it is a major problem for society that they don't try to understand each other's worlds.

People who think that science articles (geared toward the non-scientist, of course) do not belong in general interest magazines, willfully choose ignorance, but they still vote, which means that uninformed people shape our policies. Is it any wonder that climate change legislation can't seem to get out of the starting gate?

Likewise, people who prefer being deliberately uninformed on the arts still play a role in shaping arts policy. Is it any wonder that arts organizations are underfunded and failing, being replaced by "Reality TV"?

Understanding little art, theatre, music or knowing the basics of the laws of thermodynamics or motion won't kill anyone, so why not try to understand both worlds better in the interest of making smarter policy choices? Contemplating the first line from Blake's "Auguries of Innocence" ("To see the world in a grain of sand") can help.

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4. gyges on May 12, 2011 8:12 AM writes...

"My two cultures, then are the people who" ... cannot distinguish between subjective reality and objective reality.

As for two cultures scientists - Kappa immediately springs to mind. Distinguishing between the two hydrogens on NADH was very impressive stuff.

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5. patentgeek on May 12, 2011 8:30 AM writes...

I couldn't agree more re your comments on Thompson.
Medawar himself was a brilliant writer as well as Nobel laureate in medicine. His "Pluto's Republic" collection of essays is an outstanding read, and includes a couple of choice examples of "book-review-as-demolition."

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6. luysii on May 12, 2011 9:20 AM writes...

I was there in '60 when C. P. Snow gave the Godkin lectures on these point in Memorial Hall at Harvard. It was pretty mundane stuff for a chemist quite used to being dumped on by philosopher roommates. For details and some catharsis see

What I remember were the questions asked of the great man by several typical Harvard idiots. The questions really weren't questions, but quite long and designed to show everyone in the audience just how very smart the questioner was. I remember wishing I could sink through the floor as this was going on. This sort of thing isn't asking a question, it's telling a question.

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7. Vader on May 12, 2011 10:20 AM writes...


It's all but inevitable that, in a mass democracy, most policies in most areas will be shaped by people who are mostly ignorant. Public-choice economists call it "rational ignorance", which is a clue that this is actually an intelligent response by individuals to the incentive structure they confront in politics.

Take care, though, that you not make the mistake of thinking that people have different policy preferences from you only because they are idiots. This is a common conceit among scientists.

Example: Why on earth do we need an arts policy? And what does it mean to say that arts organizations are underfunded? Relative to what? How do you know when we have enough art or whether it's of the right kind? I speak as a great fan of Shakespeare who is also the rare scientist who got a near perfect score on his English GRE, and who has never watched a reality TV show and has no plans to.

For that matter, how do we tell if the sciences are underfunded? Relative to what? How do we know when the amount of funding is enough? From my individual perspective, I might say there's enough funding when the funding agencies are so flush with money that I can get money to research whatever interests me with a 2-page proposal, but how likely is that? How likely should it be?

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8. Rick on May 12, 2011 11:04 AM writes...

Vader (#6),
Point taken. However, it leaves me wondering what economists would say about how profound the ignorance can get before the "rational ignorance" becomes counterproductive. Perhaps they would say that it's not too deep until it reduces the demand for economists. What if that's a bottomless pit?

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9. RKN on May 12, 2011 11:09 AM writes...

The origin of the cold response may go back to school where, it was taught, in science the answer is right or wrong. Nobody wants to be heard giving the wrong answer to the 2nd Law. In the literary arts, especially at certain gatherings behind a cocktail or two, there's a good deal more wiggle room.

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10. lt on May 12, 2011 12:25 PM writes...

#4: "cannot distinguish between subjective reality and objective reality"

I think it's probably more of a case of finding either reality irrelevant from their point of view.

For some, truth is almost exclusively what exists inside heads (also "hearts"), or possible very old books...

Indeed, the vast majority of the time all of our lives are tied with other people, our success and failure depends on having the "correct" beliefs, or at least the pretense of belief. You can be objectively correct but might still get fired (modern times) or burned alive (dark ages)...

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11. Still Scared of Dinosaurs on May 12, 2011 12:45 PM writes...

I feel like that lawyer whenever I see an article about fashion in the New Yorker. Not that I haven't read such articles and had the "can't believe I'm interested in that" reaction but I also skip a lot of them.

New Yorker has an outstanding record of quality science writing but they also have a sad reluctance to present ideas graphically (except in cartoons). Think about what a publication they could have if they bought a couple of copies of Tufte and brought the same standards to graphics they bring to words.

"It could happen."
- Judy Tenuta

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12. BS on May 12, 2011 1:06 PM writes...

I would say that there are overall more 'humanists' that are lacking in 'science' interest than the other way around, possibly because it would stain some versions of humanistic thinking with the drab colors of realism and facts.

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13. johnnyboy on May 12, 2011 1:30 PM writes...

I have learned long ago to never deflate party conversations among non-scientists with actual truth and facts (unless specifically questioned). There is nothing quite like the dead silence that usually greets a clear statement of fact.

To my own perception, conversations among humanities types are never geared towards getting to a specific truth. They are more like discussion-for-discussion's sake, for the pleasure of argumentation, for the venting of opinions drawn out of thin air, or for showing off one's truly fascinating 'ideas'.

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14. Zachary Williams on May 12, 2011 1:49 PM writes...

"there is no concept so simple that I can fail to understand it when presented as a graph"

I spent a not inconsiderable portion of my morning trying to parse this.

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15. pete on May 12, 2011 2:46 PM writes...

For all values of Concept (complex to simple) rendered as a Graph (complex to simple), Understanding will = zero (naught, zilch, f*k all).

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16. pete on May 12, 2011 2:50 PM writes...

For all values of Concept (complex to simple) rendered as a Graph (complex to simple), Understanding will = zero (naught, zilch, f*k all).

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17. marmot on May 12, 2011 2:59 PM writes...

Derek, it seems to me that you yourself could easily bridge both of these worlds with a compilation of your "Things I won't work with" and "Things I'm glad I don't do". There's plenty of drama and comedy here to satisfy any Shakespearean devotee! Many of your loyal bloggers have suggested this in the past. Perhaps the time is now?

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18. TFox on May 12, 2011 3:52 PM writes...

@14: I had the same reaction. Despite its profusion of negatives, I think the quote needs one more: can -> cannot. He's saying he doesn't like graphs.

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19. Reverse Fault on May 12, 2011 3:56 PM writes...

# 13 johnnyboy

Very well put. As a Geologist/Artist, I have had the pleasure (and otherwise) of residing in both worlds at various times. These two points-of-view reflect the classic right-brain left-brain model of human thinking.

The original tv series "Star Trek" pitted these two viewpoints against each other in the characters of the all-logical Mr. Spock and the all-emotional Dr. McCoy. As I recall, each character won their argument about half the time.

It is nice to combine the two, when possible. It is a rare person who can do so.

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20. Zachary Williams on May 12, 2011 4:26 PM writes...


Or replace 'so' with 'too.' I think. Which interested me, as I'd never thought of 'too' as a replacement for a negative. Which led to much perusing of Language Log...

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21. McChemist on May 12, 2011 5:08 PM writes...

My Google-fu yields another variant of that Rusher quote:

"There is no idea so simple that it cannot be rendered unintelligible to me in the form of a graph."

I suspect this is the correct one, mostly because it makes sense.

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22. Vader on May 12, 2011 5:25 PM writes...


"However, it leaves me wondering what economists would say about how profound the ignorance can get before the "rational ignorance" becomes counterproductive. "

The economists I've read on this topic don't see any broader social value to it at any level. It benefits the individual at the cost of society. It seems like the perfect example of diffuse benefits versus concentrated cost.

Society benefits when voters are informed. However, that benefit is diffused over all society. On the other hand, the cost of informed voting is concentrated on each individual who takes the time to be informed. Think of it this way: Being really informed before I go in the voting both would take at least several hours of studying positions and issues before hand, at a bare minimum. (Better still to have spent an hour or so a day every day all along, which is even costlier.) But when I pull that lever, I am exerting 1/100,000,000th of a say in who the next President is. Is 1/100,000,000 of a say in the next President worth many hours of study? Not to most people. If you like politics or studying things, there are other benefits that subsidize the cost, of course.

So rational ignorance is a rational choice (not to be confused with morally right choice) exercised by individuals to their own benefit, at the cost of the wider society. It isn't a policy any public choice economists advocate; it's a reality of human nature that they study for its lessons.

There are a couple of ways of mitigating its effects. One is to impress voters with a sense of duty, relying on their belief in a transcendent moral order to drive them to do their duty. There is some evidence this is the only reason voter turnouts in the U.S. aren't even lower than they are. Another way to mitigate rational ignorance is representative democracy. A person who has 1/500th of a say in a federal law, and is being paid to exercise his say, has strong incentives to make an informed vote. Though evidently not strong enough for some Congresscritters, I cannot refrain from snarkily adding.

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23. Poetic Synthesis on May 12, 2011 5:35 PM writes...

While my passion lies in the sciences, I am a lover of the arts. I fall in the "rare" category of someone who can enjoy both thoroughly. However, when I was obtaining my undergrad, it was abundantly clear to me which "group" was more aggressive about rejecting the others thoughts. Those were the people pursuing humanities. I remember one frightful conversation where an acquaintance suggested that the value of a Chemistry degree was practically worthless in comparison to a Creative Writing degree!

While I still enjoy classical literature every bit as much as I do research literature, I became disenchanted with the humanities and their desperate desire to cling ignorance and the past. Many I spoke to even seemed to hold the belief that scientific knowledge would damage their creativity!


"To my own perception, conversations among humanities types are never geared towards getting to a specific truth. They are more like discussion-for-discussion's sake, for the pleasure of argumentation, for the venting of opinions drawn out of thin air, or for showing off one's truly fascinating 'ideas'."

Never have truer words been spoken. I could have saved myself a lot of humiliation if I had learned this earlier! Humanity types LOVE talking about their half-formed, circular ideas but if you introduce a FACT that would destroy it, you might as well have punched them in the face, stolen their girl/guy, and taken off in their car. They loves questions with no answers and answers with no questions. If their is a path to follow they will eschew it as though it were on fire.

As for the "pure" science types, they tend to keep themselves or just never bring up arts unless it specifically interests them. I rarely saw protests in front of the Arts buildings, but there was at least one demonstration denouncing a science filled with humanities majors every month in front of the buildings I needed to go to.

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24. Texascarbon on May 12, 2011 6:39 PM writes...

A lawyer-type that doesn't appreciate science. It seems so familiar but I just can't put my finger on it...

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25. luysii on May 12, 2011 7:47 PM writes...

As an amateur musician, I've been going to chamber festivals and gatherings where fellow amateurs get together to make music for nearly 40 years. Invariably, at least 20% of the participants are physicists or mathematicians or computer programmers/computer scientists or chemists or MDs. One such is Edwin Gould, who wrote the bible of physical organic chemistry 50+ years ago.

Their music making is not dry and mechanical, and can't be told from the other 80%, some of whom are touchy feely types, and others who are classic liberal artsy fartsy types.

So there's hardly a dichotomy between science types and those interested in the arts.

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26. Saintmichael on May 13, 2011 12:43 AM writes...

A few commenters here are beginning to show their biases. Sure there are humanity-types that react with disgust to anything remotely scientific, but I think it’s just as prevalent to see the scientific-types deriding modern art or interpretive dance.

Next time you're at a party with a bunch of science nerds, bring up some simple philosophy and see how quickly everyone becomes defensive and hostile. (Hint: Truth, logic, and even the scientific method aren't as self-evident as most scientists would like to believe)

I used to get angry with "scientific tourists" who loved to talk about pop-science but who immediately tuned out if presented with anything more substantial. That is until I realized I was an "art tourist". Sure I love art and literature, but I'm certainly ignorant of the critical theory behind the works, nor am I trying to create masterpieces of my own. It takes so much time and effort to master any one subject; we should not be surprised if people only have time to dip their toes into other fields.

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27. Cartesian on May 13, 2011 4:23 AM writes...

If you want to continue to write about science, there is no problem for me.

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28. Cartesian on May 13, 2011 4:28 AM writes...

If you want to continue to write about science, there is no problem for me.

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29. Mayhem on May 13, 2011 4:35 AM writes...

Heh, I don't know where I heard this originally, but its a handy little metaphor.

First Law of Thermodynamics: You can't win.
Second Law of Thermodynamics: You can't break even.
Third Law of Thermodynamics: You can't stop playing.

Along with my other favourite
Entropy isn't all it used to be.

That being said, the Shakespeare analogy is probably a good one - most western people are forced to read a shakespeare play as part of their education, and that is the last they will ever see of it. Ask them to quote something from memory, and if you're lucky you'll get a line from Hamlet, Macbeth or R&J. The others pretty much don't exist.

Equally, their exposure to science is probably also limited to high school, when they mostly wanted to get out of the classroom. The law itself they probably know, but not by name, rather it would just be a random piece of knowledge unconnected to anything else.
As in:
"describe a science law"
"Every action has an equal and opposite reaction"
"Who said it?"
"um. Einstein?"

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30. Still Scared of Dinosaurs on May 13, 2011 10:28 AM writes...

It's sad that a discussion of the sciences and the humanities inevitably involves so much smugness on the part of the science crowd. Clueless humanities types aren't incapable of responding when you throw a fact in their faces. They are just hoping that if they stay silent you'll go away.

The ones with a clue know to avoid you in the first place.

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31. Vader on May 13, 2011 10:48 AM writes...

I had a date once who was an artist and took me to the local art museum (a fairly famous one in a major metropolitan area.) It was very educational. I discovered that she saw stuff in the art right away that I had to have pointed out to me. I just wasn't attuned to it; she clearly was, and in a way I think other artists would share.

There really is a different way of thinking involved. I think it's a mistake to regard one or the other as superior.

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32. johnnyboy on May 13, 2011 10:49 AM writes...

@30: hmm. I think I'll stay silent just now.

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33. RandCraw on May 13, 2011 5:13 PM writes...

Maybe the the two camps diverge only when art or science has an impact on your life and the other does not. No child wants to hear disembodied or irrelevant facts about art or science. But what kid doesn't care that blue whales are often over 100 feet long and can hold their breath for 20 minutes? Or that van Gogh sold only one of his paintings, which now sell for over $20 million? When a story is compelling, you want to hear more; art vs science be damned.

What interests me is why folks in either camp would be wholly disinterested in the other. I would think the works of great artists or great scientists should be fascinating to anyone. How can brilliance be boring?

I suspect the problem often begins with poor communication skills or bad attitude from an early art or science teacher, or parent, who poisons the subject forever after. Maybe it's just another example of learned prejudice.

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34. newnickname on May 14, 2011 6:11 AM writes...

#31 Vader: "I discovered that she saw stuff in the art right away".

Art is highly interpretive and dependent on an individual's knowledge and experience. [Skip long essay.] One example: A woman wrote to Rachmaninoff asking about the meaning of Prelude in C-Sharp Minor. "Is the 1st movement supposed to be the sound of ... and are the chords in the final movement supposed to be ...? Is that what it means?" He wrote a short reply: "It can mean whatever you want it to mean."

Having discussed art with art majors who complained about having to take "technical" classes (e.g., perspective - too much math!) that would crush their creativity, I wouldn't be surprised if many scientists recognize (see, hear, etc.) things in art that (poorly) trained artists do not. (Personally, I DO prefer to have others try to educate me about what I might be missing.)

Another essay, abbreviated here: science PREDETERMINES art. E.g., poets did not write about "hot blood, coursing through veins" until early scientists started to understand and explain anatomy. Colors and pigments developed by alchemists, then chemists (and sometimes artists) created new palettes for painting. The industrial revolution and, back to thermodynamics, the steam engine(!), changed the way that artists expressed themselves.

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35. Luysii on May 16, 2011 8:24 AM writes...

Participants in this discussion will probably love "Red in Tooth and Claw Among the Literati" -- Science vol. 332 pp. 654 - 656 '11 (6 May issue). It contains such gems as "Most humanities scholarship today is unable to contribute in any useful way to the serious world of adult knowledge", and the denunciation of literary critics who use scientific ideas in their analysis as 'protofascists' by a 'prominent academic' at a meeting for literary scholars in the 90s by someone who admitted he hadn't read their work.

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36. Still Scared of Dinosaurs on May 17, 2011 8:55 PM writes...

Anybody else here in Factopia take issue with the last two posts?

"science PREDETERMINES art" doesn't appear to raise any hackles in an audience that could reasonably be expected to question "biology is destiny"? Science brought pigments to art? (Ultramarine, anybody? Cochineal? Yellow ochre? Charcoal?) New pallettes for painting? Not a real driver in the history of art. The steam engine? The steam engine?

Then we get "Most humanities scholarship today is unable to contribute in any useful way to the serious world of adult knowledge". Did Science really publish this sentence? Most, huh? More than 50%? I'm too lazy at the moment to dig further but wikipedia defines the humanities as "ancient and modern languages, literature, law, history, philosophy, religion, and visual and performing arts such as music and theatre. The humanities that are also regarded as social sciences include technology, anthropology, area studies, communication studies, cultural studies, and linguistics." (Technology, hmmm...) Most of that fails to contribute? How? Not useful? Not serious? Not adult? Hopefully not too adult.

These posts present exactly the kind of flimsy logic and factual errors that many science types so smugly cackle at when they hear them from the arts crowd.

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37. luysii on May 18, 2011 8:10 AM writes...

#38 -- Don't be like the 'prominent academic' at a meeting for literary scholars in the 90s who denounced literary critics who use scientific ideas in their analysis as 'protofascists' without every having read their stuff.

Read the article.

The quote is from a literary critic who is applying ideas from evolutionary psychology to try and figure out why every society produces stories (written or not). It's a very interesting way of looking at literature. Whether evolutionary psychology is just a collection of 'just so' stories a la Kipling or not is still an open question.

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38. Still Scared of Dinosaurs on May 18, 2011 6:11 PM writes...


I was not responding to the article, I was responding to your post. Your presentation of a quotation in the article is at best sloppy - it reads to me as quotation of the author's text. It is only in your later post that it becomes clear that s/he is quoting someone else. It's the kind of mistake a humanities major learns to avoid.

Presented without context I stand by my position that the quotation is idiotic. Defend the use of the word "most" as presented in your post.

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39. newnickname on May 19, 2011 7:15 PM writes...

#36: The much abbreviated thesis was a response to the creativity claims of artists who were often oblivious to the scientific underpinnings of their productions. Some are led to think that an artist creating random plastic blob sculptures had "discovered" polystyrene.

As you point out, many dyes and pigments are naturally occurring or easily obtained from Nature: no discovery or invention credit granted. Some artists got raves for the emotional impact of colors that others hadn't used before ... or couldn't have used until color chemists had whipped them up and figured out how to render them as stable paints SO all artists could use them.

As you read Western poetry you see that it is transformed by science. I mentioned thermo specifically because that is where Derek's blog began. Thermodynamic concepts and the steam engine changed what poets wrote about as well as the way they wrote. Nowadays, you can probably say the same thing about black holes and string theory.

Scientists are often influenced by art but I think the preponderance of examples would show that new science has a greater influence on new art than the other way around.

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40. David on May 20, 2011 1:35 AM writes...

I regard those without an appreciation of the social sciences (I tend to not care about whatever 'art' is in vogue) and the hard sciences as rather sad.

I'm predominately focused on humanities in my sutidies, simply because I find it all extremely easy to grasp and integrate, yet I have no real appreciation for things such as poetry.

There are myriad misconceptions on both sides, and plenty of fucking idiots, from evolutionary psychologists to some radical feminist woman who thinks that women are oppressed because of our 'linear understanding of time, and our 3-axis spatial sense'.

For the record, I loathe psychologists. Intensely.

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41. Dylan on May 24, 2011 6:47 AM writes...

It seems plausible to me that the reason you might see more "two-modies" in science than in the humanities is simply due to the career prospects for each. Say what you will about the poor job market for chemists at the moment, if you were in school and were equally interested in Philosophy and Chemistry, but also wanted to get a job at some point in the future...which would you choose?

I say this as a former Philosophy major who went back to school for a degree in Econ after being in the real world for awhile.

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