Well, a proper good Germany/Italy game, and a pretty dismal France/Portugal one. I’m still hoping to see Zidane take the final by the scruff of the neck and win it gloriously for France, but at this point I’d be happy just to see an attacking game with a few goals.

Culture Nature

Intellectuals, science, and the English Channel

Something Todd Swift said pointed me to an article in the Guardian about the lack of public intellectuals in Britain, written by Agnès Poirier, a French journalist working in London. It’s worth reading just for the culture-clash exhibited in the comments.

I noticed that the unspoken assumption, from both sides of the argument, was inevitably that an intellectual is a philosopher, a cultural theorist, a littérateur and not, for example, someone like Richard Dawkins.* So I started digging around for this quote from C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures:

I remember G. H. Hardy once remarking to me in mild puzzlement, some time in the 1930s, “Have you noticed how the word “intellectual” is used nowadays? There seems to be a new definition which certainly doesn’t include Rutherford or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me? It does seem rather odd, don’t y’know.”

The point being, of course, that Hardy was a mathematician, Rutherford (no relation), Eddington and Dirac were physicists and Adrian was, Wikipedia informs me, a physiologist. Three of them won Nobel prizes. I remember being very struck by that quote when I first read it, and I still think Snow’s basic point about the wilful scientific ignorance of those in the humanities is a good one, even if some of the other things he says in the essay don’t stand up very well. Indeed Wikipedia led me to an essay by Roger Kimball titled “The two cultures” today, published in 1994 in the New Criterion. Kimball does an excellent and largely deserved demolition job on Snow’s essay, but in the process demonstrates exactly the depressing indifference to science that Snow was complaining about.

Snow’s argument operates by erasing or ignoring certain fundamental distinctions. He goes to a literary party, discovers that no one (except himself) can explain the second law of thermodynamics, and then concludes triumphantly: “yet I was asking something which is about the equivalent of Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?” But, as Leavis notes, “there is no scientific equivalent of that question; equations between orders so disparate are meaningless.” The second law of thermodynamics is a piece of specialized knowledge, useful or irrelevant depending on the job to be done; the works of Shakespeare provide a window into the soul of humanity: to read them is tantamount to acquiring self-knowledge. Snow seems blind to this distinction.

“A piece of specialized knowledge, useful or irrelevant depending on the job to be done”. It just makes me want to cry. An insight into the fundamental workings of the universe reduced to a tool, a mathematical spanner, something of no possible interest to anyone who doesn’t need it to do a job. An indirect and second-hand insight into ‘the soul of humanity’ meanwhile is of such obvious value that it apparently goes without saying.

Such arrogance. Not just the intellectual arrogance that is willing to dismiss physics as just a tool for getting jobs done, but the arrogance to assume that ‘self-knowledge’ is of more value than the attempt to understand everything that exists. This isn’t an argument, it’s just an assertion of self-importance.

And yes, I do know that scientists are sometimes just as arrogantly dismissive of the value of the humanities. For the sake of even-handedness, and because it amuses me, here’s a quote from Dirac: “In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it’s the exact opposite.”

* Just a note to say that when I wrote this, Dawkins hadn’t yet published The God Delusion; he did write articles about atheism but was primarily known as a writer about evolutionary theory.


Sir Shigeru

Shigeru Miyamoto has been made Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. Damn straight. If the man who invented Mario and Zelda doesn’t deserve a knighthood, who does?

That doesn’t make it any less annoying that the release date of The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess has now been pushed back by a year since its original projected release last November, but I don’t begrudge Miyamoto-san a bit of non-industry recognition.

via wmmna

Culture Me Nature Other

I’m back.

I’ve come back from Perigord to the grim news from New Orleans. I don’t really have anything to say about that, for the moment.

I did manage to listen to the cricket on Radio4 LW via a buzzy little radio. I ended up having to hold it out of an upstairs window and nearly had a heart attack when I thought the Aussies were going to win the thing. Fingers crossed for the Oval. I have a ticket for the fifth day, so my ideal result would be an England win on Monday. But I’d also accept five days of rain.

Not much on the bird front in France; a distant hoopoe was the best bird. The swallows and martins are gathering on the telephone wires and in the treetops. They take off in great twittering flocks and flutter around chasing insects before settling again somewhere else. It’s such an evocative sign of the changing seasons; one which I generally miss, living in London. One day soon they’ll take off and head for Africa.

Swallowtail, tiger swallowtail, lots of butterflies. My favourite insects though were the hummingbird hawkmoths, which I could happily watch for hours. Minutes, anyway.

Lots of booze, lots of food – duck carpaccio, duck paté, confit of duck gizzards, duck pizza. A morning of very hung-over canoeing, which made me feel like I was going to die. We visited a C12th church carved out of the face of a cliff, complete with a necropolis, a C9th font for total immersion baptism, and a reliquary modelled on the tomb Joseph of Aramathea had built for Christ in the Church of the Sepulchre in Jerusalem – as seen by one of the local nobles who’d been there on the Crusades. It even had a temple to the Roman god Mithras which they found under the main church. So that was pretty fab. We played the Lord of the Rings edition of Risk, as well. There may be something in life that makes you feel more geeky than saying “I’m going to invade Fangorn” and then pushing a little plastic orc onto your opponent’s square and rolling a dice to see who wins. But I don’t know what it is.

I finished The Victorians by A. N. Wilson, which is OK. One volume isn’t really enough to deal with a 70 year period, and his opinionated comments sometimes seem a bit dubious, but it’s readable enough. I was more impressed by The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, which was last year’s Booker winner. The central character is a gay PhD student writing about the style of Henry James while living in the house of an up-and-coming Tory MP in the 1980s; he (the student) becomes involved with a wealthy coke-snorting playboy who eventually dies of AIDS. It is in fact something of a satire of that period, but it’s handled with a much more sensitive and nuanced touch than that summary would suggest. Hollinghurst is an impressive prose stylist himself.