P. D. Smith: the extraordinary ability of science to transform people's view of the world around them

P.D. Smith is a writer and independent researcher. He is currently writing a cultural history of the city for Bloomsbury. His most recent book, Doomsday Men: The Real Dr Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon (Penguin, 2007), explores the links between science, popular culture and the technologies of mass destruction. He writes a bi-weekly round-up of science and cultural history books for the Guardian Review, as well as reviewing for The Independent and the Times Literary Supplement. His website is called Kafka’s mouse.

I’m not a scientist. I even failed my maths O-level - not a good start for someone who went on to write a short biography of Albert Einstein. But I am endlessly fascinated by what science and scientists can tell us about the universe we live in.

When I look back across the history of science, what strikes me is the extraordinary ability of science to transform people’s view of the world around them. This is a theme brought out wonderfully by Brecht in his play about the Life of Galileo (1955). At the start of the play, Galileo explains to his housekeeper’s 10-year-old son how the Copernican theory has turned their world-view upside down: “I just want you to understand,” says Galileo. “To make people understand - that’s why I work and buy expensive books instead of paying the milkman.”

The play shows how ordinary people are hungry for knowledge. They are not satisfied with the obfuscations of the Church. They want to know the truth about the world in which they live. Galileo, the archetypal scientist, is driven by this quest for understanding, for enlightenment: “Sometimes I think I would let them lock me a thousand feet underground in a prison cell, where no light could reach me, if only I could find out what that thing is: Light!”

Science is the most reliable method we have of finding out the true nature of light and other physical phenomena. That’s why it is important. Of course, we can (and should) debate what that knowledge means to us. And the question of what to do with the discoveries of science remains deeply problematic for a greedy and violent species like our own.

But that’s where great literature comes in. Works like Brecht’s play explore and test the human value of science. And when you think about it, both science and literature are equally concerned with creating new ideas and new ways of seeing the world. Perhaps, despite all that’s said about the so-called ‘two cultures’, they are not so different after all.

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