As a science undergraduate in the mid-1950s I was aware of C P Snow’s attempts to awaken people to the problem of the two cultures. Perhaps my growing interest and work in theatre had given me an edge over my colleagues since I had already developed a love of literature. Incidentally, it is interesting how that word “literature” has been taken over by the humanities even though we still talk about the scientific literature.
I can still remember the outrage felt in the science departments when we were informed that we would be required to attend a weekly tutorial in some arts department and discuss classical and modern literature. What time do we have? Will we have to mix with those fellows who spend their afternoons reading “fiction” while we are at the laboratory? You know the sort. Filling up all the library space and enjoying books. Glasstons Physical Chemistry was not a book you enjoyed.
But I had discovered Arthur Koestler and in particular his The Sleepwalkers. What a book! Here was a man, scientifically trained, who wrote novels, plays and scientific essays. When I was a student, it was a hobbyhorse of mine that a basic knowledge of the universe you lived in was considered unnecessary. On the other hand, it would have been quite unacceptable to admit you did not read or understand the need for poetry, or pretend you did not know Shakespeare. But Koestler. He showed the incompleteness of such an outlook.
The Sleepwalkers, with its subtitle A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe, captured me from its very first sentence:
In the index to the six hundred odd pages of Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History, abridged version, the names of Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes and Newton do not occur.
Here was a man after my own heart. I devoured the book.
As I read, I realised how the poets of antiquity were simply describing beliefs about their universe and had obviously been aware of the “scientific views” of their time. Koestler reinforces this with some delightful quotations. Here, early in the book after discussing the Pythagorean ideals of number and “the harmony of the spheres”, he says:
The Pythagorean dream of musical harmony governing the motion of the stars never lost its mysterious impact, its power to call forth responses from the depths of the unconscious mind. It reverberates through the centuries, from Kroton to Elizabethan England – [as in] Dryden’s well-known:
From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
When nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay
And could not heave her head.
The tuneful voice was heard from high:
Arise, ye more than dead.
– [or] Milton’s Arcades:
[–] then listen I
To the celestial Sirens harmony –
Such sweet compulsion doth in music ly,
To lull the daughters of Necessity,
And keep unsteddy Nature to her law,
And the low world in measur’d motions draw
After the heavenly tune, which none can hear
Of human mould with grosse unpurged ear.
Koestler’s whole thesis is based on the idea that the development of scientific thought is not a straight upward-slanting graph of progress against time. It more resembles the wanderings of a sleepwalker. Some periods of fruitful development, other periods of darkness and ignorance. Humankind is not beyond shutting off parts of the reasoning brain and refusing to accept certain phenomena which do not fit with the prevailing hypothesis. And it was this revelation which drove me to question more closely the accepted lore in any field. For in the humanities, “progress” is not always the straight upward graph.
In my own case, I feel the current wave of deconstruction theory is akin to the dark ages of scientific thought. While saying this, I must also confess that no one has ever been able satisfactorily to explain deconstruction theory to me – though they have sometimes left me convinced that they understood it themselves. I am reminded of the story of Einstein on his voyage to America after fleeing from the Nazis. The dear friend who accompanied him said that Einstein explained his relativity theory to him so many times during the voyage that finally he was convinced Einstein himself understood it.
In conclusion, The Sleepwalkers allowed me to realise that the philosophy of science is at the heart of understanding and at the heart of creative thought. When the poets and writers fully comprehend the Uncertainty Principle, chaos theory and the host of current exciting ideas propelling today’s science, we are in for another explosion of beautiful, thought-provoking “fiction”.
Ray Henwood is a Wellington actor.