Scientific Literature

Medicine, law, business, engineering are necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love are what we stay alive for.

–John Keating, Dead Poet’s Society

She said, “I didn’t take any literature courses in college. The only courses I took were in technical writing for the sciences. They were in the English Department, even though writing for the sciences isn’t literature.”

I grew sad thinking that scientific writing is no longer literature.

One of the first essays I published on Literature&Literacy was about this very topic. There was a time when the word “literature” was used to encompass all of the written word and the word “poetry” was used to encompass both prose fiction and verse. At that time, being literate included having a knowledge of the scientific writing of the day.

But I cannot fault what she said. I do not read Scientific American nor Nature. I do not read Popular Mechanic nor MAKE Magazine.

And that also makes me sad.

While I am not wholly ignorant of contemporary science, I am nearly so. I chalk this up to the sciences becoming increasingly specialized. Little seems to be written for the popular audience, though want of finding might be from want of looking.

I remember sitting with friends in college for dinner. They were all scientists of some sort — physicists, biologists, astronomers — and they each knew enough about the others’ work to understand the conversation. I believe they were talking about string theory. But what they were talking about was so beyond the physics I had studied in high school that I just felt stupid.

And perhaps that feeling of ineptitude, of stupidity, of a dumbness kept me from studying the sciences.

The sciences that interested me most were the brain sciences. Although I finished with degrees in the humanities and the history of art, I chose schools based on whether they offered undergraduate degrees on neuroscience. And I do occasionally read some on neuroscience. Some of the most useful ideas I’ve encountered about our minds and how they function came from reading Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama. And Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time left me with a sense of wonder.

My interest has always lain in how to live in this life, how others live in this life. Technology interests me only so far as it is part of my life and people engage it. In some ways, I dislike technology because it removes a human element from our life; yet, I do not want to see people’s bodies ache from back breaking labor like in Millet’s The Sower.

Science does not answer these questions.

For that reason both the sciences and the arts are necessary. They have different domains and do not work to answer the same questions.

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