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Hearts and minds needed

February 12, 2014

We humans seem to be attracted to either/or choices, what formal logic calls a dichotomy. This can lead to silly questions like “are you a cat person or a dog person?” Actually, that example is a false dichotomy, because the two things contrasted are not mutually exclusive: it is perfectly possible to love both cats and dogs.

A more serious false dichotomy is the one separating art and science. Growing up in the age of Sputnik and the arms race, I certainly sensed a divide between kids who were good at science and math and those like me who gravitated to the humanities. Despite the stereotype that art was frivolous and science was important, math and science were taught pretty badly in the schools I attended, with the exception of a few beloved characters like my 8th grade geometry teacher, who startled us one day by wandering out of the room and down the hall, her voice trailing in the distance as she continued to explain that infinity just “goes on, and on, and on.” A memorable use of theatre to make a point.

My dreary view of science changed because of a man I met on television: Jacob Bronowski. He was a mathematician, a biologist, a poet and playwright and a superb teacher who brought to life the adventure of science as an ongoing exploration. His multi-part BBC series, called “The Ascent of Man,” held me rapt. Here was a man who illustrated scientific phenomena by quoting Shakespeare and celebrated the work of artists as an equally important journey of discovery. Dr. Bronowski taught me that the pursuit of knowledge—in science and in the arts—is a courageous act, and that the commitment to that pursuit makes us human. Most eloquently, he illuminated the idea that the ethics of science—the integrity of the scientific process—could also provide a beautiful model for community.