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Sciences, arts share common source of inspiration

Author  :  Miao Desui     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2018-01-16

Nearly 60 years ago, the British physicist and novelist C.P. Snow delivered his famous “two cultures” lecture at the University of Cambridge. He lamented that a great divide between the sciences and humanities had split the intellectual life of Western society into two cultures. Since then, the concept of “two cultures” has been a fixture in Western academia. Snow also took the British physicist Ernest Rutherford and poet T. S. Eliot as the archetypal examples, pointing out the animosity between scientists and literary intellectuals, who regarded their own culture as superior, leading to an ever-deepening gulf of incomprehension. 

On the other side of the Atlantic, American physicist Richard Feynman faced similar misunderstandings. One of his friends, an artist, once said to him jokingly, “A great scientist like you, immersed in the quantum of the microscopic world all day, may not even know how to appreciate a flower.” The brilliant Feynman retorted that the artists may appreciate beauty but not as delicately and profoundly as the scientists. Only a deeper understanding makes it possible to appreciate a flower beyond its physical beauty.

In fact, scientists’ pursuit of beauty and ability to appreciate it are on par with artists.

It is noteworthy that among the early modern Chinese scientists, there were a number of masters such as Ding Wenjiang, Li Siguang, Zhu Kezhen, and Hua Luogeng who were both excellent in the sciences and humanities. Most of these scholars had been influenced by classical Chinese literature and art since childhood. They could conduct leading international scientific research and also write eloquent articles with profound insights. For example, Zhu Kezhen, founder of China’s modern geology and meteorology, has always been lauded for his profound mastery of poetics demonstrated in his works on phenology. In addition, most ancient Chinese literati utilized the philosophy of simple materialism, and the influence of the natural sciences could often be found in their works.

In its early stages, China’s reform and opening up was also a revival of the sciences. The reportage novel Goldbach’s Conjecture by Xu Chi, a modern Chinese poet and writer, drew many teenagers like me who harbored literary aspirations into the field of science. Today, a new generation of scientists skilled at both the liberal arts and sciences has been produced among this group of people, some of whom I am familiar with, including Rao Yi, an evolutionary biologist from Peking University; Long Manyuan, a geneticist from the University of Chicago; Deng Tao and Wang Yuan, paleontologists from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. 

I remember that Aldous Huxley said the arts and sciences are not two different things but two sides of the same coin. Samuel Coleridge put it more subtly, “Poetry is not the proper antithesis to prose, but to science.” Therefore, the integration of the arts and sciences is not only possible but also necessary. We can say that the two share a common source of inspiration.

I am so pleased to see that in recent years, the renowned Chinese-American physicist Li Zhengdao has been ardently advocating the integration of art and science. I sincerely hope that Chinese scientists and artists could initiate dialogues on this topic as soon as possible. As far as I know, the academicians Wang Pinxian and Zhou Zhonghe from the Chinese Academy of Sciences as well as Rao Yi have already been initiating such dialogues, and I hope scholars from the field of literature and art can respond with the same enthusiasm. I hope to witness the day when scientists are able to recite poems of Li Bai and Du Fu as well as works of Shakespeare, and writers and artists will be able to converse about quantum mechanics. 


This article was edited and translated from the People’s Daily. Miao Desui is a paleontologist at the University of Kansas. He is the recipient of the Romer Prize from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Also a science writer, he is the author of several books in Chinese and English.

Editor: Yu Hui

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