Two Cultures, or what does science have to do with studying German anyway?

This is my first post and I was thinking long and hard about what exactly to write and whether I should ‘just’ present some of the strange things that I’ve discovered hidden away in the depths of the Science Museum. I will be getting around to that in the coming months, but instead I want to share a few of the thoughts about the relationship between science and literature developed by some of the Year 12 students at a German study day at St. John’s. Of course, questions like this run to the heart of the Knowledge Exchange project that I’m working on with the Science Museum at present, so in a way, the students were helping me think through some of the questions I get asked on a daily basis.

To think about the “Two Cultures” of the arts and the sciences is nothing new and it might not even be that accurate a model for understanding the links and differences between science and literature. The phrase is drawn from C.P. Snow’s classical discussion of these problems from 1959 where he describes a “gulf of mutual incomprehension” between scientists and writers and of the ‘hard’ sciences being open-minded, future-oriented and factual in opposition to an almost Luddite sense of tradition that dominates the writing and study of literature. By highlighting a practical, factual nature of the sciences against the intellectual tradition of literary studies, he appeals to a categorical distinction between literature and science that is not new: Aristotle and Plato already thought precisely that. In “Ion” Plato writes that the ideal city would banish all poets because they don’t know what they’re talking about. Now if the poets don’t know what they’re talking about, what hope is there for literary critics and historians?

I say Snow’s idea of “Two Cultures” may not be an accurate model for a couple of reasons. In fact he was wrong: modern literature and popular culture is full of science, and many scientists would fundamentally disagree that there studies are lacking in aesthetic features, as the visualization technologies of medicine, physics, chemistry and many other disciplines suggest. Almost everything that he writes undermines this curiously static distinction: as a writer and a scientist he is living proof that there need not be such a categorical difference here. Secondly his argument seems to only refer to a definition of literature as fiction and ignores the long tradition of the didactic poetry and other similar forms of practical literature. Thirdly, he speaks at length of the social sciences as a developing ‘third’ culture that doesn’t adhere to his simplistic model. Finally, and more importantly, Snow changes the focus somewhat. He fashions himself as a cultural anthropologist, looking from afar at two different sub-cultures. He talks of a “living culture”, “scientific culture”, “literary culture” and defines culture as “common attitudes, common standards and patterns of behaviour, common approaches and assumptions.” Of course this raises the spectre that literature and science may not in fact be categorically different at all and that the problem may simply arise as a result of two different communicative cultures, two different modes of speaking. And indeed this has been at the core of “Literature and Science Studies” ever since Michel Foucault.

This was also the conclusion reached by one of the Year 12 students at the end of a day of reading Snow and poems by Friedrich Schiller and Robert Gernhardt (see here for the reading material: Thinking about why Robert Gernhardt’s satirical depiction of the poet “Dorlamm” might still retain some dignity despite having got his knowledge of electricity hopelessly wrong (“Wenn das Ohm sie nicht mehr alle hat,/heisst es nicht Ohm, dann heisst es Watt”), she wondered whether the difference between literature and science might not be more a question of how they each construct narratives of understanding the world in different ways.

This reminded me of a talk given by Marcus du Sautoy as part of the recent interdisciplinary series organised in Oxford entitled simply “Humanities and Science” (see here: Du Sautoy was also interested in the communicative structures of the sciences, in his case as a mathematician. He argued that mathematical proofs are not simply numbers-based, but that they also construct a narrative of sorts. Other theories have argued that scientific experiments also have a fictional and poietic (i.e. constructive) moment, with literature and science being joined in the moment of fictional thought experiments. Either way, these Year 12 students seemed to be much further than Snow was in 1959. What does this have to do with studying German though?

Apart from the obvious fact that we were reading German poems, quite a lot in fact. Another student saw the value of Dorlamm in relation to science to be precisely his poetic skill (“Dorlamm irrt. Doch formulieren kann er”!). This ability to work well with words also helped us to reflect on how the sciences construct knowledge in specific ways. In his misunderstandings presented in fabulous rhymes, Dorlamm could alert us to how (in the words of du Sautoy) scientific narratives also draw on metaphors, descriptive methods, specific registers etc. to generate their knowledge. Literature might help us to at least understand how the sciences work in this regard, even if it might not be able to teach us anything about the laws of electricity or the pharmacology of inhalation therapy (my Science Museum project is already slipping in here). Studying language and literature can be an effective way of understanding the development of scientific ‘cultures’ and also how the sciences generate knowledge, they thought.

That was a brilliant conclusion to our discussions and it helped me to think about how we as German scholars and students can highlight how what we do on a daily basis is of broader importance in education, career choices and chances, and society in general:

  • From a purely utilitarian perspective: German is the second most commonly used scientific language and Germany is the third largest contributor to research and development. Studying German with a knowledge of science subjects, and vice versa, can be an incredible career accelerator
  • Experience of communicating with speakers of other languages makes you more open to learning how to communicate with those whose languages you don’t yet speak and you become alert to issues of cultural difference
  • That also applies to career choices when you study German: these are analytical and communicative skills that prepare you ideally for working as a lawyer, in media, in business, in banking – and they can also help immeasurably in thinking about scientific problems in a more abstract manner too. Even if you don’t study German at university, studying German as a second language can help you in different contexts and disciplines.
  • Where students of language and literature can come into their own is that we are specialists in understanding, analysing, and reconstructing stories. We know about communicative nuances, we know about arranging information and constructive narratives, and this isn’t just limited to the classroom or to essays on Shakespeare, Schiller, or Robert Gernhardt.

There are ways in which science and German can be linked and this is also one of the ways in which I understand Knowledge Exchange to be possible. In terms of my own project with the Science Museum, museum exhibitions show us objects. Now, they can simply be a ‘Wunderkammer’, leaving us alone with an assortment of objects, or they can construct narratives around and through these objects. This is where language and literature experts can help. While we can learn from the experts about the objects and about displaying objects, they can likewise profit from our skills in communicating stories and histories.

It was great to see Year 12 students realising this for themselves and it was great to see them going home thinking about how their language studies inform their scientific studies as well.

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