(Written 13 May 2011 as a proposed address to science pupils)

Dear All,

 There is the notion – held mostly by older people but that has found a place in our social thinking – that “science people” are somehow different from normal people; that somehow science people have a special or a peculiar knack for understanding mathematics and technical things that makes it possible for them to succeed while normal people cannot do “that stuff”. There is the misguided idea that scientists have a certain kind of intellect by which they do some sort of “right brain” thinking that is not available to regular people.

Nonsense! People who have an interest in science, or who work in engineering or technological development are just like everyone else with perhaps this difference; they have a curiosity that drives them to find out “why”.
 
“If you prick a scientist, does he or she not bleed?” Why do we keep hanging onto the idea that there two broad categories of people, “scientific” people and “social” people? The idea that scientific thinking will turn us into one kind of person while artistic thinking turns us into another. There is absolutely to reason why a scientist cannot at the same time be a poet or a musician or a romantic; just as there is no reason why an author or a painter cannot know how to generate clean energy, or how a motorcar works, or how to configure a computer.
 
We have a marvellous description of a person who is well educated or who excels in a wide variety of subjects or fields… it is the idea of the “Renaissance man”. As I am sure you know, the word Renaissance actually means “rebirth” and it comes to us from the period of social change that started in Italy in the 15th century, but we have come to think of the Renaissance man or woman as one who is able to embrace different aspects of life and to develop their capacities as fully as possible in their knowledge of the Sciences and of the Humanities.
 
Incidentally, it is one of those strange quirks of history that we think of Leonardo Da Vinci as the great Renaissance man, but the truth is that while he was unquestionably a great scientist and painter, “he cared nothing about Latin and Greek. He had little to say about Philosophy and Theology. He took no interest in History… and he had no use for music which he said had two great faults: firstly he said, “Music was useless because it ceased to exist once the piece had been played’, and secondly he said, “its continual repetition made it contemptible'”. (Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, Harper Collins, 2000, pg 79.) Nevertheless, we admire him for the fact that he was a great thinker and a man of many parts.
 
We live in a new scientific age in which technology touches every part of our lives. We cannot escape the nature of science in our everyday existence, we have, all of us, to embrace science in order to survive. But at the same time we have also come to realise more clearly than ever before that as people we cannot live in a “push-button world”. It stifles our very humanity, it leaves us for a yearning for something mystical, something exciting to make it all worth while. We have come to recognise that each of us is part rational, part irrational, part scientific, part romantic… We are all these things at once.
 
So I would urge you to set yourself the goal not only to become a noted scientist, or great engineer, or a sought-after technologist… but at the same time that you embrace your humanity so that one day you can look in a mirror and can see a Renaissance man or woman. Someone who has learned to live as a scientist as well as an artist… at the same time.
 
Regards
Jeff
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