Compartmentalising our Passions

As scientists, many in the world believe we are reductionist, breaking everything down into component parts. For some humanities’ scholars this can be equated to the fact that we can’t possibly be creative or, in Thomas Carlyle’s words (in 1833), that

‘The Progress of Science…is to destroy wonder, and in its stead substitute Mensuration and Numeration’.

That attitude is, I fear, one part of why scientists are too often seen as ‘other’, not part of our nation’s culture, despite the fact that it is a complete misunderstanding of how scientists typically operate. For further thoughts about this take a look at what I wrote about the philosopher Mary Midgley’s take on science here .

The fact that, at least since around Carlyle’s time, science and arts have been put in opposition by some otherwise wise people, formed part of my Presidential Address to the British Science Association this week. I have posted the full (if not necessarily completely precisely followed) text of this address up as a page on this blog, but let me tease out a minor theme that wasn’t particularly developed there but which underpins it: compartmentalisation. (The text is also up on the BSA’s website)

This post is really prompted by a passing comment exchanged after I had recorded Private Passions with Michael Berkeley for Radio 3 (to be broadcast at noon on October 4th). This is a programme about the influence of (usually classical) music on the interviewee’s life, a classical Desert Island Discs if you like. Not everyone might want to participate, however passionately they might be able to talk about their day job. Since I spent a lot of my teens playing in orchestras and singing in choirs I was willing to attempt to sound intelligent about my choice of music and, more importantly, to sneak some science unexpectedly into the listener’s sitting room. In fact, I enjoyed the experience: Michael was easy to talk to and only occasionally did I feel I was adrift with his professional musicological thoughts.

However, the throwaway remark that has given me pause for thought was when the team asked me to let them know if I could think of other people who might be willing to record a programme. Now, I’m sure I know many scientists who are deeply appreciative and knowledgeable of classical music but I don’t think I know who they are. I don’t go to concerts with them (or, indeed, go to concerts at all as life just seems too busy); I don’t exchange ideas about the music of Schubert or Bach over a cup of tea, raise the subject of Hindemith in the bar at a conference or discuss Monteverdi as I pass the wine around at a formal College dinner. I could, there’s no reason why not, but as it happens it rarely comes up. So, at that point in the conversation with the production team I could only think of one scientist I knew for sure was deeply into music (because I’d seen him tweeting during the Proms this year). Since then I’ve come up with a couple of other possible names.

This is sad. For all I’m proud that I’m not a complete literary or musical dunce, I am much more likely to discuss a novel or non-fiction book that’s taken my fancy with colleagues than to discuss music. I’m not sure why. Why have I formed this compartment around music that doesn’t apply to books? Do people think this a common experience and does such fragmentation apply more broadly or are some topics more likely to be hidden away than others?

I will continue to think about possible names to suggest to Private Passions. I will go on pondering what this means for me about how I view the strands of my life. In my College, once home to CP Snow who dreamt up the Two Cultures meme, I hope that we can continue to mix and match the (intellectual) passions of our students and fellowship to create a rich and thriving cultural environment. In the meantime, do read my full Presidential Address to see precisely why I think ‘Education Matters more than Ever’ – and listen to my musical choice in a couple of weeks.



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6 Responses to Compartmentalising our Passions

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    I would have suggested Dr Robin Richards of the UCL Medical Imaging Group, who has appeared on TV several times in the ‘Meet the Ancestors’ programmes when they were reconstructing faces from skulls dug up by archaeologists. Robin is also a long-time Promenader.

  2. Laurence Cox says:

    Unfortunately, you did not allow comments on your British Science Association text, but I would like to reiterate my proposal that we should be teaching History of Science in History. Rather than teaching schoolchildren about (say) the Tudor monarchs, we should be teaching them about Copernicus, Tycho, Kepler and Galileo, who between them changed our whole outlook about the Earth and its place in the universe. We could scotch a few of the myths, particularly about the last of these, as well.

    There is a great deal of History of Science information now available on sites such as Whewell’s Ghost ( but to make it part of History as taught in school we need syllabuses and trained teachers. For this to come about we first need people in senior positions in organisations like the BSA and the Royal Society to make the case for treating History of Science as History. Everything I have said about Astronomy could equally well be said about Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Geology. All have had periods where ideas that had held sway for centuries were overturned. Even when the mathematics underlying the solutions are complex, the problems can often be stated in terms that lay people can understand. If there is one thing about science that we need to inculcate in everyone, it is the idea that theories need to be tested by experiment and it is through this process of theory-experiment-better theory that science develops.

  3. saskia says:

    Although I was trained in classical music before going to university. I still enjoy it, but it is not my music of choice to listen to. I can say that with scientists my age (+- 10y) we do talk about music, but mostly ‘modern’ music. So I do know a few, where I could say, go and talk to them if they wanted to learn more about how music influences their work. For me, without music, I wouldn’t be able to write. It is the one thing that puts me directly in the zone. On the other hand, it is also that which allows me to escape and let me thought wander, exactly what is needed. Freedom to be creative and focus when you need to figure out those details and write those papers.

  4. Veronica van Heyningen says:

    Walter Bodmer used to play the piano at lab parties and always said that Mozart and RA Fisher are his great heroes. Never short of strong views, he would be excellent on Private passions

  5. Caroline says:

    I echo your experience of compartmentalization – though in my small world of physics/engineering, music is a well accepted topic of shared conversation and experience, and it’s art and literature that are hidden beneath the surface. I have had visitors to my house express incredulity at the number and variety of books, “have you read all of these?” as though a scientist cannot possibly read anything approaching literature.

  6. Ian Kane says:

    I would venture the thought that because of its intrinsic nature music is difficult to discuss, literally verbalise.

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