In Girls this past Sunday (season 3, episode 9, “Flo”), Hannah and her cousin Rebecca initially seem worlds apart. Rebecca is straight-edge, unwavering in her goals, and is in the process of trying to get into med school — scientific, if you will. Whereas Hannah obviously hails from a more artistic background. At the bar, they’re on clashing wavelengths: “Why did you want to go to a bar?” Hannah asks. “Because I feel a bar is the kind of place you go to with a person like you,” Rebecca said caustically. When Rebecca admits that she’s seeing a guy who already has a girlfriend, she seems blind to the gray areas; like the type of girl who only sees things in black and white (“No, it actually works out really well, I mean I don’t have a lot of time, so…” Rebecca says, attempting to explain her situation). When Hannah asks Rebecca why she even asked her to go to the bar if she hates her so much, Rebecca has a hard time finding the right words and settles with, “I thought it would be fun.” Hannah, by contrast, articulates her hopes for their relationship beautifully and realistically, like a writer should. She says, “I would really like it if we could be the kind of cousins who like spent time together, sleep in the same bed in the summertime, jump in a lake, have inside jokes about our grandmother, were molested by the same person but we’re not, we do not get along.” And finally, when Rebecca tells Hannah that she’s really “not that funny,” Hannah snaps back with, “I knew that if I sent you my funny stuff you’d be like ‘what is this, martian?’ You don’t understand funny.”
The relationship portrayed here seems awfully emblematic of the relationship between thinking artistically vs. thinking scientifically — a topic that requires much exploration if we’re going to make any conclusions.
In Cultural Amnesia, Clive James mentions a Charlie Chaplin quote. In 1931 at the premiere of City Lights, Chaplin said to Albert Einstein, “They cheer me because they all understand me, and they cheer you because no-one understands you.” Here, James gets at the crux of the scientific vs. the artistic — or, as James put is, “the discrepancy between two kinds of knowledge: the artistic and the scientific.” James makes powerful statements — made all the more powerful by their succinctness — that attempt to illuminate this discrepancy. He says, “The power of science is to transform the world in ways that not even scientists can predict. The power of the humanities—of the one and only culture—is to interpret the world in ways that anybody can appreciate.” And he also mentions how the two fields differ in their developmental processes, “A scientist can revisit scientific history at his choice. A humanist has no choice: he must revisit the history of the humanities all the time, because it is always alive and can’t be superseded.”
And just at the top of my head I can already recall a glaring example in the arts: music. James Brown used the blues and jazz — building on the history of black music — to create a unique style that couldn’t go unheard. And rap is just another extension of this — of building on history while adding your own flavor. In Ralph Ellison and the American Canon: Invisible Criticism, Alan Nadel articulates this point well when he explains that, for T.S. Eliot, “newness is…an essential quality for a work of art,” a quality that builds upon a precise historical knowledge.
In 1959, the British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow gave a lecture called The Two Cultures, in which he argued that someone who knows nothing about science couldn’t possibly possess even a sliver of knowledge of the modern world. Yet the irony of Snow’s lecture — that he required language, the basic tenet of the arts and humanities, to make his point — ended up invalidating his argument entirely. And it also shed light on a pivotal truth: that science and art rely on one another at their very cores, whether consciously or not. It’s evident in Chaplin and Einstein — two men who arguably represent the penultimate of the arts and the sciences, respectively. Chaplin only became who he was because of genetics — that is, because of science. And Einstein openly expressed his need and constant hankering for the arts. As James explains, Einstein “gained added faith in his general relativity equations from finding hem beautiful, and frowned on the propositions of quantum mechanics because he found them shapeless.”
It’s a truth that even presents itself further on in the Girls episode when, despite their differences, Hannah and Rebecca clearly needed one another, as they quietly and peacefully held hands in the hospital.
The scientist Nima Arkani-Hamed, back in November 2013 during a conversation with Ian McEwan for The Guardian, did a great job of detailing some of the core similarities in both fields: In studying science, she explains, “there is an obsessive element…which should be familiar to the artist — to many people in society.” She gives the example of Leonard Bernstein’s lecture “about the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth,” in which “he used precisely the same language we use in mathematics and theoretical physics to describe our sense of aesthetics and beauty.”
Though science and art might have conflicting ideas of what beauty may be, one still needs the other to see it. Ian McEwan recalled Jim Watson’s famous remark “when Roaslind Franklin came to look at his Crick’s model of a DNA molecule.” The remark was: “that it was too beautiful not to be true.”