‘Reinvented classical mechanics? ... I’m afraid I can’t sell that in Peoria’
Alan Turing ... now remembered on film, but he has registered beyond the scientific community because of his “personal” battle, not his scientific achievement. Turing, mathematical genius and code breaker, was hounded for his homosexuality and took his own life.
It will have escaped the attention of most sensible civilians but, just six months before the awards are handed out, Oscar season has begun. At the Toronto and Venice film festivals many of the movies set to compete have just premiered before lucky audiences.
Reading the runes, the optimistic observer could be forgiven for detecting a welcome shift in priorities from guardians of popular culture. Two of the most highly praised pictures concern prominent British scientists. In The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch plays mathematician and computer pioneer Alan Turing (right). The Theory of Everything features Eddie Redmayne as theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking. Both films have been well reviewed. Both actors are already at short odds for the big prizes.
In western society we have been depressingly backwards in celebrating our scientists. Any half-educated person could name a few novels by Dickens or the odd painting by Leonardo. Ask about the specific achievements of physicists or astronomers and you are, however, likely to trigger blank stares from anybody not trained in the sciences.
CP Snow – admired Cantabrigian chemist and underappreciated novelist – famously addressed this issue in a 1959 lecture entitled “The Two Cultures”. To illustrate his thesis he imagined himself at a party with people who thought themselves decently educated. “Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the second law of thermodynamics,” he wrote. “The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: ‘Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?’”
Prof Snow went on to argue that if he had asked for definitions of mass or acceleration – “the scientific equivalent of saying, ‘Can you read?’ – he would expect no more than 10 per cent to deliver a satisfactory response.
It should, therefore, not surprise us that scientists remain less celebrated in popular culture than writers, artists and musicians. Think of all those pubs decorated with images of Beckett, Yeats, Shaw and Swift. There may be a bar somewhere that offers tribute to William Rowan Hamilton or Robert Boyle, but no scientific pub-crawl exists to compete with its literary equivalent.
It’s not just that the achievements of most theoretical scientists are hard to grasp. There is also a sense that the work itself is less “romantic” than designing cathedrals or composing rock operas. The fact that it requires rigour puts off people unable to respect any class of creativity that doesn’t spring from drunken conversations between men in berets and women with cigarette holders.
So, does the news about Turing and Hawking suggest something is changing? Are the scientists set to secure positions at pop culture’s top table? Not necessarily. Both men are worthy of respect.
Turing’s work at Bletchley Park during the second World War helped break the Nazi Enigma code and create the foundations of modern computing. Hawking’s work has expanded our understanding of gravity and black holes.
It is not, however, their scientific achievements that have secured them prominence in awards season. Hawking and Turing have registered beyond the scientific community because of the “personal” battles they fought. The cosmologist defied a pessimistic diagnosis of motor neurone disease to live to his current age of 72. Turing was hounded for his homosexuality and, after undergoing enforced hormonal treatment, took his life by ingesting poison.
Where’s the ailing puppy?
It is jolly nice that Turing and Hawking have made it into the movies. Let us hope it encourages a few impressed moviegoers to look beyond the biographies and soak up some theory.
By now you will know the result of the Scottish referendum. From the other side of a print deadline we offer congratulations to whomever won. As the dust settles, the leaders and their more aggressive digital supporters may like to ponder the depressing addiction to certainty that characterised so much of the campaign. Nobody on the stump seemed to be voting Yes with even a smidgeon of regret for what would inevitably be lost. Few of the more prosaic No campaigners acknowledged the possible passing of a great romantic opportunity. Who spoke for the voters who appreciated those undeniable nuances? Oh well. That’s how democracy works.