Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Uniting Literary and Scientific Cultures - a personal application

My knowledge and understanding of physics and to some extent, chemistry, has been minimal. If my children needed help in these areas they went to Dad, not me. I revel in English, art, music and poetry. The only area of science I've felt comfortable with is human anatomy and physiology.
I've been addressing this lack in my own life as I think I now understand what has hindered me, in part, from acquiring scientific knowledge and understanding in the past.

As I've been reading...slowly...through Charlotte Mason's Home Education series over the past few years, her emphasis on the power of a literary presentation has made so much sense. Applying her principles has made a huge difference especially to one of my boys who struggled with anything presented in factual form. In many ways I've had the same struggle, but with my understanding of the need for 'literary padding,' I now have a way to correct my deficiencies. Charlotte Mason's ideas are not just for children, it seems.

What we have perhaps failed to discover hitherto is the immense hunger for knowledge (curiosity) existing in everyone and the immeasurable power of attention with which everyone is endowed; that everyone likes knowledge best in literary form...
Volume 6, pg 290 seems to be necessary to present ideas with a great deal of padding, as they reach us in a novel or poem or history book.
Volume 6, pg109

Knowledge should be communicated in well-chosen language, because his attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form.
Volume 6, pg xxx

With these thoughts in mind, I've chosen a couple of books related to physics and chemistry for my own personal reading:

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks

Speaking of the great scientist, Humphry Davy, Sacks writes:

Davy loved to conduct experiments in public, and his famous lectures, or lecture-demonstrations, were exciting, eloquent, and often literally explosive.
His lectures...(were) delivered in a style and with a richness of language that nobody else could match...
Even Coleridge, the greatest talker of his age, came to Davy's lectures, not only to fill his chemical notebooks, but to "renew my stock of metaphors."

I've read elsewhere that Coleridge, the poet, said of Humphry Davy:

Every subject in Davy's mind has the principle of vitality. Living thoughts spring up like turf under his feet.

One of the reasons I've used Madame How and Lady Why, an old book on geology by a 19th Century author, is because it is a literary presentation of science.
It was interesting to read the following in Sacks's book:

There still existed, in the early nineteenth century, a union of literary and scientific cultures - there was not the dissociation of sensibility that was soon to come - and Davy's period at Bristol saw the start of a close friendship with Coleridge and the Romantic poets. Davy himself was writing (and sometimes publishing) a good deal of poetry at the time; his notebooks mix details of chemical experiments, poems, and philosophical reflections all together; and these did not seem to exist in separate compartments in his mind.

In 1922, Charlotte Mason wrote in the final book of her Home Education series:

..the teaching of science in our schools as list much of its educative value through a fatal and quite unnecessary divorce between science and the 'humanities.'
Vol 6, Pg 223

Madame Curie by Eve Curie

I'll write more about this book at a later date, but this is a biography of Marie Curie (1867-1934) written by her daughter, Eve in 1937. It has been republished but it is available free online.

How could anyone find science dry? Was there anything more enthralling than the unchangeable rules which governed the universe, or more marvellous than the human intelligence which could discover them?

Yes, Madame Curie was a scientific genius so of course she never found science dry, but the scientific education she received at school was incomplete and she wrote later in life that:

"Literature interested me as much as sociology and science."

Every Saturday evening for many years, Marie (Manya) and her siblings gathered to hear their widowed father (a man of science who taught Physics and Mathematics) recite poetry or read aloud:

Manya was never to forget those evenings. Thanks to her father she lived in an intellectual atmosphere of rare quality known to few girls of her age.

So my love of poetry can be united with the language of chemistry. My interest in music and art does not need to be divorced from science. They are not separate compartments.
I don't learn about physics or chemistry in isolation but in unity with literature and like Coleridge I  "renew my stock of metaphors."


  1. I too have been learning to unite the sciences with literature - and the Classicalness of that idea.

    The CM quotes interspersed are great. I sorrow for the specializationism that has so deprived our great thinkers in the past years. This post just emphasizes the need for scientists to be poets a L'Engle theme often enough.

  2. Science is a weak area for me, so these ideas are encouraging! I have the
    Uncle Tungsten book - bought it for my chemist husband, but I should read it, too.

    1. Haven't to admit I originally bought it thinking it would be good for my son next year! I've really enjoyed reading it.

  3. I'm reading Norms and Nobilities...have you read it? He talks a lot about the role of science in Classical times and how different it is from our modern concept. Ideas that have a wide-ranging effects.

    1. I haven't read it yet, Kortney but would like to as I've heard so much about it.

  4. Thanks for sharing these quotes and your own endeavors, both are encouraging.