Arts and sciences deathmatch

I’m tired of this. The next time some musician someplace proudly and blithely states, wearing a gigantic grin, “I can’t do math!” I’m going to remind them of how outraged they get when someone says, “You play piano? I only play the ipod hyuk hyuk hyuk!”

Stinking at math or science, much like being incapable of playing an instrument is not something to grin and claim with pride. If you can’t understand the universe or even give a damn that it’s so much as penetrable to understanding, how the hell can you possibly say anything of moment about it?

I also don’t want to hear about how the sciences aren’t personally expressive. Contrast my lessons on the piano as a kid, paint-by-numbers with the occasional yardstick hitting the side of the piano to keep time, with the physics classes I took where I could say to the professor — as happened multiple times — “I have another way to do that.” Instead of getting the response, “Well, Isaac Newton wanted you to do it this way, so I don’t care how you want to do it, you do it like he says,” I got back:

“Okay, show me.”

And I got it back every single time.

How many times do you think I got that response from my piano teacher, compared to, “Well, Chopin says to play it this way, so that’s how you play it.”

If you think math and the sciences aren’t vehicles for individual expression, I might submit that you just can’t do them very well. You’re not stating anything fundamentally true about these disciplines, you’re just excusing your own limitations. You just can’t do it, so you’re saying it isn’t worth doing and have no idea how. You can’t imagine the opportunity for creativity and individual expression in answering questions and more importantly, even figuring out what questions to ask which is the true purpose of the sciences, so you imagine that no one else can.

Oh but the sciences make bombs, I forget about this one. Not for long though, since most “artists” never fail to bring it up within about seven seconds of starting in on this useless topic. I’ve got two words for you all:

Leni Riefenstahl.

Musicians and visual and performing artists include Joseph Goebbels, too. You people have aided some of the worst and most murderous human beings alive through the earth-shattering power of propaganda, so don’t act innocent with me. Tyrants coopt artists, but they murder scientists. The blood of biologists ran like rivers in Stalinist Russia, Einstein got run out of Germany because they found him threatening, and Andrei Sakharov spent almost his entire life under house arrest. Scientists are so completely and utterly committed to the free exchange of information across all possible ideological and political boundaries that we’re usually the first people disobeying the edicts of tyrants and the first put up against the wall for having done so. An entire one thousand years of European history saw a flowering of musical creativity at exactly the same time as the church was choking the life out of anything approaching individual expression, fattening its coffers with the money of the gullible, and starting continent-wide wars while lighting up scientists like matchsticks left and right.

For every musician I’ve heard proudly and stupidly proclaim that they can’t add 2 and 2, I’ve known five high-achieving scientists who play musical instruments, often at a very high level. Look through the profession listing of the people who win the Cliburn amateur competition. Look through that list for the past several years, and maybe you’ll stop being all condescendingly fascinated at how “wow, and he’s a surgeon!” “Oh look, how quaint, a mechanical engineer.” “Wow, an astronomer? Who would have guessed?”

I’m trained as a hard scientist, which should not come as a shock given my indignance over this topic. In graduate school, we had high-level pianists and violinists, one fellow who played violin, viola, and classical guitar, enough popular instruments for one entire rock band with every incoming crop of 20-odd graduate students, and a sitarist who was a fixture on Indian TV and globally renowned.

Take a stroll through the music department of any similar institution and tell me how many amateur astronomers you can find. *crickets*

Scientists and mathematicians can do what you do, sometimes better than most of you can do it, and the leeway for personal expression and creativity not merely permitted but celebrated in the sciences is leaps and bounds greater than that grudgingly tolerated in the overwhelming majority of classical music instruction. And yet the idiotic, grinning pronouncement most commonly heard by career musicians when this topic comes up is, “I can’t do math hyuk hyuk!” right before they start in on how narrow and limited the sciences are.

Looks to me like the narrowness and limitation are not located on the sciences side of the fence.

One comment on “Arts and sciences deathmatch

  1. […] … and how many people are always shocked at how scientists are so well-rounded. This musing is of course occasioned by the Mars landing but has been ruminated upon by me before. […]

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