RICE UNIVERSITY SCIENTIA TALK
NOVEMBER 14, 1996
I am delighted to be back at Rice. If, in fact, home is where the heart is, this is really home. I have only the fondest memories of my Rice days. I hope that they are not all in the past.
It is an honor to deliver a Scientia talk. I remember looking forward to attending them. Today, I am challenged to live up to the performance of many past distinguished speakers. That will be very difficult! I will, perhaps, be briefer than others in order to have more time for lively discussion.
In the spirit of encouraging that dialogue among the diverse interests in academia I want to recount a recent anecdote. Three academics--a physicist, a humanities scholar, and an economist--from an unnamed university found themselves stranded on a desert island. They were making the best of it and had learned to survive quite ably in their primitive surroundings by forming a committee.
One day, one of them picked up a small glass bottle that had washed onto the beach. He pulled the cork from the bottle and a genie appeared in a puff of smoke. The genie said, "For releasing me from my captivity in the bottle, I will grant each of you one wish. The physicist said, "I wish to be back in my lab monitoring my experiments again." Poof, she disappears, leaving a faint wisp of smoke. The humanities scholar then said, "I wish to be back studying the ancient texts and manuscripts." Poof, and he too disappears. The economist then says, "Gee, I was really enjoying it here. I wish the other two were back." "Poof...Poof"
So much for anecdotes. I hope the dialogue lasts longer. Without the need of outside influences.
The theme of this year's colloquium series, "Approaching The Millennium: Global Changes, Local Effects" carries an impending sense of a greatly different future. And anything that is different is inherently an alteration or a change from what we know as familiar.
The renowned psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson, said of change, "All change is perceived as loss..." I think he was probably right on the mark because few of us go gently or willingly into change. But the idea of the "approaching millennium" should make us think not only of what might be ahead that is unanticipated--the sense of change as loss, but also of what has been still unattainable but nonetheless needed or sought after.
In elaboration of that thought, "still unattainable but nonetheless needed," I have titled my remarks today, The Dream Of A Common Language: Making The Bridge Between Science And Non-Science. By that title, I do not want you to assume that I have missed another recent focus on a bridge, the "Bridge To The 21st Century," (Clinton election theme). By that title, I do mean that we as a society are constrained and inhibited by attitudinal and communications barriers that exist between disciplines, and definitions of scholarship, between different ways of thinking, and between various modes of life. And our goal, or the "dream" should be a common understanding of the larger picture.
Most of you know me very well and are aware that I am not at all a humanities scholar. And this talk is not--by any measure--a scholarly talk. However, in the spirit of these seminars that encourage the free exchange of ideas and de-emphasize disciplinary boundaries, I will share a few ideas. I have given similar talks before but usually to audiences that are largely if not entirely made up of scientists and engineers. So, I will certainly appreciate hearing more diverse perspectives today in the discussion period.
Jacob Brownowski, the great chronicler of science and civilization, wrote in 1958 in the Scientific American, "The most remarkable discovery made by scientists is science itself. The discovery must be compared in importance with the invention of cave painting and of writing. Like these earlier human creations, science is an attempt to control our surroundings by entering into them and understanding them from the inside. And like them, science has surely made a critical step in human development which cannot be reversed."
One should note that Brownowski does not say that once science came along that painting or writing or any other process by which humankind searches for control through understanding has become unnecessary or obsolete.
On the contrary, he makes the point that science was "discovered" in two periods--the great age of Greece (600 BC-300 BC) and during the Renaissance (roughly the 14th-16th century). Each of these periods is known primarily for its flourishing art, literature and ideas.
Throughout the early history of humankind, the world of "scientia" encompassed all human understanding. Renaissance scholars were supreme generalists. They were untroubled by any demarcation of compartments or fields of knowledge. Brownowski's characterization of this time is that "The sciences and the arts have flourished together."
The 17th and 18th centuries, the time of Galileo and Newton, saw the rise of modern science with its partition of knowledge into broad disciplines, which since have split and subdivided into the system we know today. Modern science, engineering and technology and the humanities have not flourished together.
For the purpose of today's discussion I use the word humanities broadly as a term to encompass studies that concern humans and their culture such as history, philosophy, literature, the fine arts, and the like.
Part of the growing separation between the sciences and the humanities is rooted in the dilemma that, over the centuries, the reservoir of human knowledge has become vast and specialized. Fields and disciplines have become islands, expert in their own knowledge but often isolated from the larger context of knowledge. Distinct cultures have even emerged from these fragmentations.
I know that I am not telling anyone here something about which they are not perhaps excruciatingly aware. There is much dissension and even antagonism on our campuses across the country between the sciences and the humanities. This is a sad season of mistrust for many brilliant and talented scholars.
None of us, in either the humanities or the sciences, are unaware of C.P. Snow's denotation of the "two cultures." That division seems more ingrained now than when he wrote; it damages individuals and undermines collegial relationships. But it is also a destructive force for our nation, the subject I want to address in this "Scientia" talk.
As the gulf separating our two processes of understanding ourselves and our universe grew, science and technology became one of the most powerful driving forces in human society.
It is, however, my belief that contemporary society has not benefited, and is even undermined by such a separation. Today, research scientists and engineers are frequently in a pivotal but isolated position on those islands. Their knowledge and expertise provide much of the leverage that propels our human activity. All too frequently, however, their education has become narrow and fragmented.
Today, our humanists do not always speak out, and when they do they feel that they are often drowned out by the din of computers, machines, and sound-bytes. We should be able to look to them for the historical context of our actions and for the other perspectives of defining the world that could help our society understand an appropriate path for its future. All knowledge, rather than being separate, is a seamless fabric of integrated and overlapping ideas and relationships.
You might be wondering why a Director of the National Science Foundation is focusing on these issues. As important as I believe science and technology are in contemporary society, they do not, and can not, stand alone in determining a responsible and fruitful path for the millennium and beyond. In his book Beyond The Culture Wars, Gerald Graff depicts a scenario that serves as an apt metaphor for our separation of science and technology from the humanities and the impediment it creates in our overall judgment. I might add that the metaphor can be extended into the further fragmentation of all disciplines.
Graff says, "It is as if you were to try to learn the game of baseball by being shown a series of rooms in which you see each component of the game separately: pitchers going through their wind-ups in one room, hitters swinging their bats in the next, then infielders, outfielders, umpires, fans, field announcers, ticket scalpers, broadcasters, hot dog vendors, and so on. You see them all in their different roles, but since you see them separately you get no clear idea of what the game actually looks like or why the players do what they do."
The world in which the work of scientists and engineers bears fruit is the real world of integration and overlapping consequences. The world in which the work of all the non-scientists and non-engineers bears fruit is the same world of integration and overlapping consequences. And it is a world that none of us would deny is, in large part, powered by science and technology.
It is also a world in which the nonscientific social and ethical questions are frequently much more difficult to grapple with than the scientific ones. I believe that today, more than at any other time in the history of humankind, our values and principles are needed to undergird and guide the increasingly powerful knowledge that flows from science and technology. One has to look no further than the questions presented by our knowledge of genetics and neuroscience to recognize our need for social philosophy, history, law, and every other context of our lives.
Murray Gell-Mann, the 1969 Nobel Laureate in physics, portrayed this concept much more concisely than I am doing. In an interview he gave a few years ago with Bill Moyers, Gell-Mann said, " I have never really emphasized distinctions among different subjects. The unity of human culture is what really impresses me, with science being an important part of that culture....Specialization is important, too. It's necessary that people study particular fields deeply, simply because our knowledge has become so detailed in those fields. But that shouldn't lead to the exclusion of a concern with the unity of human culture."
It seems to me that our inattention to what Gell-Mann refers to as "the unity of human culture" has created a disturbing discontinuity in contemporary society. We are able to do increasingly more complex and challenging scientific and engineering research at the same time that we are experiencing greater societal disparities and problems. Sounds a little bit like the misunderstandings about baseball that Graff's separate rooms could create.
This dilemma of "isolated cultures" has been with us for a long time and will not be simple to solve. I am, however, encouraged by what I sense as the beginning of a dialogue on this issue. For example, on October 3, Jonathan Cole, Provost and Professor of Social Science at Columbia University, gave a talk at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Engineering in which he related a recent survey he had conducted.
He asked three distinguished Columbia University historians to give him the titles of the leading books in American history covering the timeframe between World War II and the present. In addition, he obtained titles of leading American history textbooks used in current college and high school courses. After reviewing them he suggests that the term "paucity" would be a "gross understatement" to describe the references to science and technology in these texts.
In speaking of one seminal text covering Roosevelt to Reagan, he says, "...there is not a single reference to science and technology topics in the index. There is space devoted to the 'upheavals' of the 1960s and some references to popular culture, and counter-culture....But you won't find discussions of the discovery of the double-helix by Watson and Crick,...nor of the transformational effects of computers and telecommunications on American society."
And yet, when we think about sheer economic and social impact, the "absent topics" rank among the most powerful and pervasive influences on our society--milestones, if you will, in America's history.
I do not present these omissions as criticism, but rather as observation. Someone is finally noticing the discrepancy and opening the issue for discussion. The discrepancy is not new. It has just been unobserved, invisible, if you like. One might respond that it is impossible for a history text to be completely inclusive. Or one might suggest that the omission doesn't matter because you can look in a history of science and technology text and find all the examples you ever wanted. But these retorts would miss the point.
Because we have not approached American history from the perspective of Gell-Mann's "unity of human culture" we ignore some of the most significant forces in our culture--primarily those that belong to C.P. Snow's other culture. This must surely make our total understanding less accurate. But more importantly, it denies us the connections and interconnections that allow us to grasp patterns, envision comprehensive scenarios, and understand the past as instruction toward a reasonable future path for a diverse society.
If this is what we can lose in omitting science from our history, think of what we lose by omitting the integration of history, philosophy, literature, and the like into the education of scientists and engineers.
The major problems facing the whole global society are, for the most part, human problems. Because we live first and foremost in a human society, our most pervasive influence is always the human reaction to circumstances--in economic systems, in nation states, or as individual family members. There is never a purely technical or purely intellectual solution to any human problem. And so, I believe that any technical, scientific, or scholarly pursuit must be understood in the larger context of Gell-Mann's human culture and its great unsolved problems.
In America, those problems are numerous. In other parts of the world, they are myriad. We face urban physical and social ills, the dilemma of generating jobs while technological advances change the demands for workers, and the need to sustain the global environment while supporting sufficient economic development to accommodate growing populations. The extended problems of safe and sufficient water, an adequate food supply with sustainable future production, a long-term global energy solution that respects our finite resources and assures dependable access, greater socioeconomic equity among domestic populations and among nations, a diminishment of societal violence and terrorism, and education--especially of women and girls--in developing nations--these are just the beginning of a global agenda for the new millennium.
Why do I recite this litany of global challenges? Because they are the backdrop and context for all of our scholarly pursuits, whether our field is romance languages, ancient history, biochemistry, or political philosophy.
You might be unconvinced and suggest that the list centers on problems of primarily a scientific or technical nature. An important reminder, applicable here, comes to mind. It is from biologist and writer Paul Ehrlich and colleagues in their book, The Stork And The Plow. The authors were describing the interrelated dilemmas of human hunger and environmental damage. Although it is easy to recognize that an important part of each one of these problems is connected to proper land use, the authors expand our perspective.
They write, "Still, extensive environmental damage and hunger do not arise simply from ignoring nature's constraints. They are produced by a complex and often self-reinforcing interplay of social, economic, political, and natural forces operating at all scales--from rural villages to global trade agreements."
This is the perspective of interconnectedness and overlapping consequences. Whatever we discover or uncover in the natural sciences--be it in biology, astronomy, chemistry, geology, physics, or in engineering--that knowledge gives us only part, albeit an essential part, of the wherewithal for beneficial use of that knowledge. It is, in the long run, the pattern of human application of that knowledge in social, economic, and political systems that determines our societal success or failure. It is our understanding of these patterns through work in the social sciences, through our knowledge and perspective from the humanities, combined with an evolving system of individual and collective human values, that can keep the human race from continuously falling on its collective sword.
But if we are shackled by a singular focus on our disciplinary details, we may miss the meaning of the forest by fixating on the foliage. We may neglect an important opportunity to portray each of our fields in the larger societal context in which it must be used and often measured.
And I think we must remind ourselves and each other that all the important thinking and knowledge is not necessarily generated on university campuses, although a more than ample contribution comes from academe. There is also a highly educated and dynamic society outside our universities in industry, small business, government, and other sectors and institutions that drives our economy and influences our daily lives to a very large extent. They can always benefit by knowledge from the academy but we need their perspective, too. It will not only enhance and freshen our own scholarship but it provides the context in which our work at the university has universal meaning.
I believe, we must enter into the dialogue of economic and social goals for the nation and for the global population. If that dialogue is dormant, then it becomes our task to initiate it--to engage not only the humanists and scientists but also the lawyers and doctors, lobbyists and dramatists, futurists and farmers, and most importantly to include the populists.
Have I strayed far afield of the dream of a common language--making the bridge between science and nonscience? That dream is the preservation and protection of the whole human culture by recognizing the value and interaction of all our knowledge.
Do I have a prescribed formula for constructing the bridge? Assuredly not. I do, however, know that before any pragmatic steps can be taken to reach a destination, the destination itself must be articulated. Otherwise, any road can be appropriate for the journey but it will never bring you to the desired end. And so I have come here to present and discuss the destination. I leave to all of you the formidable tasks of creativity, discovery, innovation, and assimilation that can construct not only the needed bridge but an environment of lively, free-flowing, energetic traffic across its span.