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Friday, 8 May 2009

Where science and art meet

When I was a school teacher a pair of evangelical Christians gave an assembly the to pupils in which they stated that the sun came out of the earth. I raised my concerns at the weekly staff meeting, suggesting that the school ought not let people ‘teach’ its students who have such a flimsy grasp of basic science. The headteacher seemed perplexed that me, a mere physical education teacher, had complained whilst members of the science department voiced no objection. Other teachers took issue with me for trying to ‘impose’ my views. After all, it’s just a matter of opinion.

It is not just a matter of opinion. The guitar-wielding Christians were mistaken, plain and simple. It seemed to me that their religious persuasion was irrelevant. Truth is truth, whether one wears a cross and has a bad haircut or not.


Things become a bit more complicated when art enters the conversation. In his 1959 Reith Lecture C.P. Snow famously distinguished between ‘the two cultures’ of the sciences and the humanities. I’ve never understood the vitriolic reaction to his thesis that there was a breakdown of communication between the two camps. This seems almost self-evidently true, even today. But perhaps that is because I work in Universities, where there is not just a chasm between the arts and sciences, but between different arts and different sciences, and between academics within what might superficially appear to be the same discipline (a sociologist friend once sneeringly dismissed the work of another as “just figurational sociology”. I didn’t let on that I had no idea what he was talking about, nor did I ask what flavour of sociologist he would be).

Critics might object that there are many examples of artists and scientists working together. As I write this, London’s Science Museum is hosting a major art exhibition, and similar events take place around the world. You can barely turn on BBC2 without seeing a programme in which dancers try to represent the movement of electrons around the nucleus, or a painter recreates the structure of the brain with cardboard and pig sperm.

Presumably, a primary motivation for the BBC is its desire to offer at least a few programmes about science without actually talking about science:

“Next, as part of our funding commitment, we have a programme in which the Milton Keynes Light Opera performs a new show ‘Lives of a Plant. But, before you all turn over to ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, we’d like to assure you that there won’t be any facts or other boring stuff.”

I’m not persuaded: why would people need to go to such lengths to bring art and science together if they were already united? Just as it is a good policy to doubt the veracity of someone who describes themselves as ‘a real laugh’, it seems sensible to question an organisation that, over and over and over again, tries to persuade us that the arts and sciences really are best friends.

Maybe this is not a problem. After all, artists and scientists usually work on fundamentally different questions. And even when people talk about ‘artistic truth’ (or more commonly and incomprehensibly ‘truths’), we secretly know that they don’t really mean truth in the sense usually understood. They are not claiming that their creation offers some sort of objective representation of reality. Rather, they mean that it seems true for them, which of course means not true at all.

Every now and then, though, an artist has the temerity to engage more fully with science in their creative work. Sometimes this works; more often it doesn’t.

Whatever other pleasures might be gained from watching Rachel Welch running away from Dinosaurs in a fur bikini “One Million Years BC”, the plot is somewhat undermined by the fact that anatomically modern humans would not appear on the earth for another nine hundred and fifty thousand years, by which time most dinosaurs would have been extinct for more than sixty million years.

Creative folk might respond, as Ray Harryhausen did, that he did not make the film for "professors" who in his opinion "probably don't go to the cinema anyway." But this is an empirically inaccurate statement: I know of at least three of my colleagues who have seen a film; and one Professor of Physics who is an avid fan of the works of Miss Pamela Anderson.

Art is never an excuse for sloppiness.

Sometimes artists get things pretty much spot on. I’m sure physicists and astronomers can list hundreds of factual errors in the popular America sitcom ‘The Big Bang Theory’, but overall the writers of the show have managed to avoid the lure of ‘artistic license’, aka, error. Even better is the show’s theme tune by the Canadian band ‘Barenaked Ladies’.

How is this for a palatable introduction to the cosmos?

Our whole universe was in a hot dense state,
Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started. Wait...
The Earth began to cool,
The autotrophs began to drool,
Neanderthals developed tools,
We built a wall (we built the pyramids),
Math, science, history, unravelling the mysteries,
That all started with the big bang!

"Since the dawn of man" is really not that long,
As every galaxy was formed in less time than it takes to sing this song.
A fraction of a second and the elements were made.
The bipeds stood up straight,
The dinosaurs all met their fate,
They tried to leap but they were late
And they all died (they froze their asses off)
The oceans and pangea
See ya, wouldn't wanna be ya
Set in motion by the same big bang!

It all started with the big BANG!

It's expanding ever outward but one day
It will cause the stars to go the other way,
Collapsing ever inward, we won't be here, it wont be hurt
Our best and brightest figure that it'll make an even bigger bang!

Australopithecus would really have been sick of us
Debating out while here they're catching deer (we're catching viruses)
Religion or astronomy, Encarta, Deuteronomy
It all started with the big bang!

Music and mythology, Einstein and astrology
It all started with the big bang!
It all started with the big BANG!

Aside from one minor spelling error (it is ‘maths’, not ‘math’), this seems to achieve two admirable goals: it is both good poetry (i.e., it rhymes) and good science.


So perhaps the arts and sciences can live harmoniously together. Artists can be creative; and scientists can tell them when they make mistakes.

There was a wonderful example of such synergy in action a few years ago. The fragrant pop star Katie Melua had a hit with a song entitled ‘Nine Million Bicycles’. To a pleasant back beat, Ms Melua sang:

“There are nine million bicycles
in Beijing,
That's a fact,
It's a thing we can't deny,
Like the fact that I will love you
till I die.

We are 12 billion light-years from
the edge,
That's a guess,
No one can ever say it's true,
But I know that I will always be
with you.”

What is wrong with these lyrics? Sino-cycle experts might spot that the song radically under-estimates the number of bikes in Beijing. But it gets worse: we are not ‘12 billion light-years from the edge’ of the Universe. Admittedly, Ms Melua’s estimate is much better than those numerous folk (mainly Americans) who think we are six thousand light years away. But relatively not-wrong is still wrong.

The science writer Simon Singh spotted the mistake and helpfully pointed it out in the Guardian newspaper: “there are thousands of astronomers working day and (of course) night to measure the age of the universe, and the latest observations imply a universe that is almost 14 billion years old, not 12 billion”. Worse, for Singh, was the unforgiveable use of the word “guess”: “to say that the age of the universe is ‘a guess’ is an insult to a century of astronomical progress. The age of the universe is not just ‘a guess’, but rather it is a carefully measured number that is now known to a high degree of accuracy”.

Mr Singh did not stop there. He graciously offered to re-write the erroneous lyrics, informed by modern science. Ms Melua took the criticism in the spirit in which it was intended, although she felt that “"it was quite hard to get all the syllables in”.

Nevertheless, science is science, and she agreed to sing her song with the revised verse:

“We are 13.7 billion light-years from
the edge of the observable universe,
That's a good estimate with
well-defined error bars,
Scientists say it's true, but
acknowledge that it may be refined,
And with the available information, I predict that I will always be
with you.”

Proof, if any was needed, that art and science can live in perfect harmony.

(You can hear the ‘correct’ lyrics, sung by Katie Melua, at

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