Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Life and Death of a Satellite & the Two Cultures

Recently been skimming through The Life and Death of a Satellite, a 1966 non-fiction work by Alfred Bester trying to popularize our space program. Bester's best known, of course, for being one of the giants of science fiction, but he dipped his oar into quite a few different waters. This particular book is really a "biography" of the OSO (Orbiting Solar Observatory) satellite, a project which was running concurrently in NASA with the manned spaceflight program. Two things lept out at me:

  1. Bester respects the Manned Spaceflight program, but in terms of science he considers it relatively useless -- it's where the public imagination is, but it's not very productive of genuine scientific knowledge.
  2. He takes his own swipes at the "Two Cultures" debate, C. P. Snow's famous notion that the sciences and the humanities lack any meaningful interaction between them. Bester has a "foot in each camp," as he says, and he reports that "it's the members of the humanities alone who are creating the hostility with fossil attitudes" (219).
Coming in the mid-1960s, I found his interest in defending the sciences pretty interesting. As late as the early 1900s, the humanities carried an much higher prestige than the sciences -- for example, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, very nearly didn't become a scientist at all (and throughout his life he felt comfortable quoting Dante and the Bhagavad Gita). By mid-century, people like Bester felt compelled to make a case for the sciences. 

Nowadays, of course, it's the humanities that are on the defensive. All the funding and the nifty new buildings go to scientists, and the public wonders what the heck we do. I remember a few years back when the Dean of Graduate Studies gave a short introductory speech to one of our English graduate research symposiums, and he -- a nuclear physicist, mind you -- admitted that he got into his field for the money and that, furthermore, he "had no idea what you guys actually do." He stayed for a few of our papers, which was extremely nice of him, but it didn't bestow a great deal of confidence about the university's general esteem for literary studies.

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