H2SO4 Professor: The Two Cultures in 2020

1st June 2020
BY Dr Jamie Barron, Physics Don

Now, more than ever, we can see the importance of effective communication with scientists. But are we speaking the same language?

This is not a new concern. C P Snow, both a novelist and a chemist, addressed the split between the sciences and the humanities in his 1959 lecture The Two Cultures. The literary intelligentsia express derision at the scientists’ lack of appreciation of culture; the scientists are dismayed at the lack of scientific literacy of otherwise highly-educated people. Introducing their song The First and Second Law, 1960s comedy duo Flanders and Swann suggest how to talk to scientists:

“You have to speak to him in language that he’ll understand, I mean you go up to him and you say something like, ‘Ah, H2SO4 Professor, don’t synthesize anything I wouldn’t synthesize. Oh, and the reciprocal of pi to your good wife!’”

More seriously, scientists do use everyday words in different ways. Consider the word ‘theory.’ Probably the best way of describing the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection to a layperson would be scientific fact. The probability of it being disproven is vanishingly small. Unfortunately, creationists and others jump on the word ‘theory’ and say, ‘it’s just a theory.’ To the general reader, the word expresses more doubt than there is.

The core of science is the scientific method: if an idea does not agree with experiment, it is wrong. Perhaps the original name for Physics, natural philosophy, embodies this better than the Latin scientia (knowledge). Scientific ideas about the coronavirus are changing as the data comes in. This is science in development. Scientists are driven by the thrill of discovery and the development of new ideas.

More mature ideas are less likely to change, and when they do, it can fundamentally alter our understanding of the Universe. Newton’s Laws of Motion, published over 300 years ago in the Principia (there is a first edition in our Fellows’ Library), are supported by experiment in most circumstances. They break down when objects move at close to the speed of light. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity fills the gap, and it changed our understanding of space and time. But we still use the simpler Newtonian theory when it is valid to do so.

We can be hindered by the mainstream media in our attempts to improve scientific literacy. How many times have you heard about the “R rate” for coronavirus? R is the number of cases of the virus generated by one case. It is not a rate: a rate is something per unit time, e.g. we call the number of births per year the birth rate. If scientific concepts and words are not used accurately, how can we hope to understand the ideas?

Returning to C P Snow: he was also concerned about the British education system funnelling people into being science or humanities specialists, contrasting this against a more holistic approach in the United States. At Winchester we are fortunate to benefit from Div to draw together the disciplines and bridge the communication gap. Are we doing better than in 1959? I think so, and the more we talk of science, the closer we will be to fluency in its language.


Photographs by Carson White, Pupil

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