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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Why Scientists Should Study Art And Literature

Follow on Twitter as @orzelc
"How studying "the humanities" will make you a better and more successful scientist, as well as a better human being." according to Chad Orzel, write about physics, science, academia, and pop culture.

The author speaking at TED@NYC in 2013. Cell-phone photo by Terry Plank.

My “day job” is as a professor at Union College in Schenectady, NY, a small liberal arts college, and because of that, I’ve offered a bunch of academic advice. I’ve written about why small colleges are a great place to be a science major, what science students should study in college, and why non-science majors should take science classes. This covers most of the topics on which I’m most obviously qualified to give advice.

The obvious gap in this collection of advice is why science students ought to take non-science classes. I sort of feel like I shouldn’t need to write this, as essays defending the importance of the collection of academic disciplines known as “the humanities” (a term I hate, because it implies that the sciences are inhuman, which is very far from the truth) are an evergreen topic in writing about academia. Lots of scholars of arts and literature have written at great length about why the study of art and literature and history and philosophy and all the rest matters even in our modern, technological, consumerist age.

The problem is, I mostly hate what they come up with. I wouldn’t be where I am and do what I do if I didn’t believe that arts and literature and the study thereof have an important role in the world, but most of the defenses people offer are just maddening to me. They’re soaringly vague, or make grandly empty claims about “big questions” and “critical thinking” (as if those don’t come up in science), or attempt to distinguish themselves from science in a way that mostly serves to demonstrate that the author knows basically nothing about the practice of science. (One of these made me get a little rant-y yesterday, and is the proximate cause of this post.) They purport to be defending “the humanities” from attacks, but mostly just pander to the sensibilities of an educated elite who already agree with them.

I’ve read a lot of these, and hardly a week goes by without another one showing up in my various social-media feeds. But I’m consistently disappointed by the failure to articulate a clear, concrete case for the value of arts and literature in terms that make sense to somebody who isn’t already committed to these fields. Which I guess means I’ll have to make my own attempt at it.
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Additional resources

Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist
Chad Orzel third book entitled Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist, published December 2014 by Basic Books.
"Even in the twenty-first century the popular image of a scientist is a reclusive genius in a lab coat, mixing formulas or working out equations inaccessible to all but the initiated few. The idea that scientists are somehow smarter..."

A short video based on Chapter 8 of Eureka - YouTube

Source: Forbes