Sunday, June 13, 2010

Where I disagree with ... Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an USian astrophysicist and well knows as a popularizer of science. I get to disagree with him because it's about the "two cultures" idea that was popularized by C.P. Snow (not astrophysics) and for this I am as qualified as he is to comment. A recent post at Uncertain Principles reminded me how much I disagree that with his statement "...that the scientists, by and large, know more liberal arts than the science that is known by liberal artists..". That is a pretty divisive statement designed to make science students feel exceptional.

It's easy to denigrate liberal arts and non-physical sciences. Most people can read/write a sentence and did at least finger painting in primary school. And it's easy to expect more from people in terms of science knowledge since, at least in a G8 country, we live in a technical world using computers, using science based medicine and ... well electricity. But how much does a science major really know about arts? Can they discuss artistic styles or do they just know what they like? Is baroque music the same as medieval music? What about stages of childhood development? Here's an easy one, what are the visual cues for a successful font - after all we all use computers.

There is a possibility that most US university students would be able to answer of these questions but I doubt it is true in Canada. Not because Canadian students are lacking but because universities have become more concerned with ensuring graduates are "job ready". Most undergraduates with a major in science, minor in science or math because they already know the language - like the difference between theory and Theory.

Science and art have more commonalities than differences. Exceptional art and innovative science rely on people making a creative jump to the next idea. Both use the past practices to build new concepts. As our society becomes more technical, knowledge of each will become more important. We will need to visit the sociological effect of changes, the ethics of innovation and how to communicate to laypeople. Different does not need to create a dicotomy. I worry more about the loss of legacy skills than the two cultures idea.