“The remediable suffering of our fellow humans”

May 15, 2009 at 3:40 pm Leave a comment

The notion of “The Two Cultures” – the sciences and the humanities, and the inability or unwillingness of their respective members to communicate – is a familiar one to me, but I must confess that I haven’t read C P Snow’s essay. Apparently, it was based on a speech he gave exactly 50 years ago, as described in Nature.

The part I knew about his argument is summed up by this quote from his speech, reproduced in Nature:

Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company [of “intellectuals”] 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 about the scientific equivalent of: “Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?” [1]

And I sit here smugly thinking: I’m a scientist, with certificates and everything, and I’ve also read not one, not two, but THREE whole works of Shakespeare, and seen quite a few more on stage. With a bit of head-scratching, I can also summarise the three laws of thermodynamics [2]. Aren’t I part of both cultures? Aren’t I great?

But Snow had another challenge, one that really strikes a chord with me, also reproduced in Nature:

With good fortune, we can educate a large proportion of our better minds so that they are not ignorant of… the remediable suffering of most of their fellow humans, and of the responsibilities which, once they are seen, cannot be denied. [3]

To me, that’s a real challenge for education and for life more generally. To show people (including ourselves) humanity, including the suffering and misery along with the joy, so they/we can’t deny it nor ignore it. To remind ourselves that our little circles of life, filled with our own local challenges and excitements, are not all there is to life in all its breadth. And to see this humanity so that we can’t deny the responsibility of all of us to alleviate suffering as best we can. We’re all in this life together, so let’s make it as good as we can, scientists, humanities graduates, musicians, civil servants, politicians, workers, the lot of us.

Incidentally, though everyone’s response may be different, that’s basically why I’m a humanist.

[1] Apparently, Snow continued thus:

“I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, ‘Can you read?’ — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.”

[2] Turns out the way I remember the Three Laws of Thermodynamics is actually based on another CP Snow quote:

1. You cannot win (that is, you cannot get something for nothing, because matter and energy are conserved).

2. You cannot break even (you cannot return to the same energy state, because there is always an increase in disorder; entropy always increases).

3. You cannot get out of the game (because absolute zero is unattainable).

[3] The full quote is:

With good fortune, however, we can educate a large proportion of our better minds so that they are not ignorant of the imaginative experience, both in the arts and in science, nor ignorant either of the endowments of applied science, of the remediable suffering of most of their fellow humans, and of the responsibilities which, once seen, cannot be denied.

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Books and reading If this metaphor was a piece of elastic…

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