The Scholar and the World

We present below an extract from Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin's article The Scholar and the World, American Scientist 31 (4) (1943), 329-337:

The Scholar and the World
I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous,
And here is not a creature, but myself,
I cannot do it.
(King Richard II, Act V, Sc. v.)

This prison where I live. Perhaps those words sound strange in the mouth of a scientist. A chorus of voices will be ready to answer "We think not so." Let me counter with the words of Hamlet, of all literary figures the quintessence of the scholar:
"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison."
Happily for us, life is not all science. The special activities of mankind have been classified as those of "the artist, the social reformer, the saint, and the scientist," and this subdivision serves my purpose. There must be very few scientific men who are impervious to the contribution of the artist to human life. I do not know many scientific men who are not responsive to the beauty of music - fewer, perhaps, to that of poetry, not responsive to the beauty of music - fewer, perhaps, to that of poetry, painting, sculpture. The world is the subject matter of these artists, as it is our own, but the rules and technique how different! We should never dream of criticising a symphony or a poem because it had not been produced by a process of accurate measurement, or a discussion by the newest methods of mathematical physics. It is just the capacity to assimilate the fruits of other human activities than our own, to accept results obtained by other methods, that enriches our life. There will be fewer who admit the same bond with the experience of the saint - few who consciously enrich their lives from the fount of mysticism. But to those few, what volumes the mystic speaks!
I saw Eternity the other night
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright.
And round beneath it, Time, in hours, days, years
Driv'n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow moved, in which the world
And all her train were hurled.
Light, time, the spheres, the world, eternity - the vocabulary of the physicist, but with a difference. No astronomer would give a serious thought to these words, regarded as an observation. But I am sorry for the astronomer who is not enriched by reading them. He has missed something. Here is the entry into another of the mansions of life. It is true that the threshold is not one to be passed without pain - the pain that Emily Bronte expressed with such poignancy:
Oh dreadful is the check, intense the agony
When the ear begins to hear and the eye begins to see
When the pulse begins to throb, the brain to think again -
The soul to feel the flesh, and the flesh to feel the chain.
She, again, uses the metaphor of living in a prison. I do not wish to labour the gulf between the human activities. Such gulfs are not absolute, or we should not be able to span them. Search back into the early days of art, and you find her springs in religion. The drama, perhaps most secular of the modern art, arose as a religious rite in ancient Greece, and was reborn in the Mysteries and Miracles of the mediaeval church. Even between Science and Art there is no absolute boundary. The great advances of modern Physics - the Theory of Relativity, the Quantum Theory, the Theory of Wave Mechanics, seem to me to have the qualities of great art. And I fancy that the really original advances in every science are something in the nature of mystical revelation (though perhaps it is apostasy to say so). The point that I wish to make is a simple - even a trite - one. Science, art, religion, sociology and the other human activities are different in point of view, different in technique. But their votaries have everything to gain, as individuals, from a synthesis of their fruits. Blind adherence in all things to the principles and practices of one is a misplaced loyalty, a deliberate self-incarceration, an intellectual isolationism; there is only one thing to recommend it - it is less trouble. There is another aspect of the prison walls - rather a disquieting one - that merits a few words. We think perhaps of the limits and rules of our own science as the best possible for the advancement of the subject. But we flatter ourselves, I am afraid. I am thinking of the rather haphazard order in which the component parts of a science are thrown together and also of something deeper. Perhaps some of you have read J G Crowther's acute analysis of the lives of eight 19th century scientists.

The 19th century picture of the universe, in terms of billiard-ball particles, an incompressible, perfectly elastic ether with its materialistic stresses and strains, the conservation of energy, apotheosis of the doctrine that one has to pay for what one gets - all these appear as the reflection of the industrial and social system of the 19th century, born in the comparative peace and solidarity and respectability of western Europe during the Victorian era, and sharing rather comically the qualities that we associate with the word "Victorian." It can hardly be a coincidence that the 20th century has seen the dematerialization of the solidly built 19th century physical universe (in the modern theory of the structure of matter); the modification of the respectable, 4-square law of gravitation (in the Theory of Relativity); the reduction of many of the vaunted "laws of Nature" to the laws of chance (in the application of statistical mechanics to thermodynamics, for example); and the irruption of the Principle of Indeterminacy into physics.

These ideas all had their inception in the previous century, of course, but not until the 20th century did they become part and parcel of the world-picture - the century when a mood of scepticism, if not despair in human affairs, has swept across the western world, in the after math of one war and with the growing inevitability of another. The physical science of the present century has simply reflected the temper of the social structure that has produced it. That can be shown just as convincingly as it can be shown that the discovery of America was an inevitable consequence of the Renaissance. Perhaps the subtlest of influences that play on human thought is that of religion - and here I venture on debatable territory. For the mark set by philosophic and religious systems on the picture of the universe is as profound as it is little suspected. The same secular and religious developments that accompanied the acceptance of organic evolution must have opened the mind of the astronomer to the possibilities of cosmic evolution. Certainly the growth of rationalism and the decay of the conceptions of special creation and of heaven have made it easier for us to think about the lives of stars and the age and future of the universe. And it can hardly be a coincidence that the "doctrine of 137" originated with an astronomer who can best be described as a mystic, while the theory of the "primordial cosmic egg" is the offspring of a leading Catholic scientist.

The impact of these thoughts on the scholar is obvious. They do not suggest merely that a liberal education is desirable - they show that it is necessary to salvation; and by salvation I mean the fruition of civilization that is the true aim of education. If I were speaking of Education, this would be my excuse for embarking on a discussion of curricula - of expatiating on Humanism and pleading for Liberal Arts - discussing, in fact, exactly how the prison walls shall be furnished. For the narrow specialism and also the whole demesne of scholarship, may be thought of as no better than a prison. Call it the ivory tower if you will - even an ivory tower can constrain, leaving us inside looking out. I should like to look outward for a few moments more - bid farewell to the Scholar and glance at the World. ...

Last Updated November 2017