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Can Greek mythology inform modern science?

Edward A. Larkin | Wednesday, September 1, 2010

At the lab I was working at this summer, I got a chance to talk to a visiting professor of neuroscience from MIT, and her husband, a mathematician also from MIT. I talked to them about the major directions of science in the next 50 years.

They eventually asked what I was studying at Notre Dame, and I mentioned that my second major was Classics. Usually, among scientists, this declaration is met with a bit of confusion. First, they wonder what “Classics” actually entails, and second, they ask why exactly I am studying it. Thus, it was surprising that both of them immediately commented that a liberal arts background was the right way to approach science.

While I didn’t get a chance to follow up on this comment, I found myself thinking about it frequently over the next months. With science today becoming increasingly specialized, with all sorts of abstrusely named fields popping up (systems neruoscience, biologically inspired engineering, and synthetic biology are only a few), it is natural to question whether an education rooted in the liberal arts has anything to offer or contribute to science these days, or vice versa.

To be sure, I find both endeavors to be incredibly important in their own right. Scientific and technological revolutions are both for advancing humanity and increasing quality of life. The liberal arts are essential for cultural richness and a reflection upon the timeless elements of the human condition. As an example of the need for both in the modern world, Atul Gawande (a doctor) argues in his novel, “Better,” that medicine could be vastly improved not by increased basic scientific research, but more effective public health policy and hospital protocols.

However, can the liberal arts actually enrich basic science, and vice versa? Can a thorough education in ancient culture or Roman myth lead to a more effective career in science? Similarly, can understanding biochemistry lead to a successful career in non science-oriented jobs? My answer is yes.

The reason is both science and the liberal arts have a general tendency to correct the faults of the other. The liberal arts instill creativity, critical reading capabilities, and an ability to ask nuanced questions. These are necessary skills for a scientist, and such skills are not always successfully instilled by a scientific education.

Creativity in science often translates to the ability to ask the right questions, or frame issues in a new light. Science today, unlike 30 years ago, is not technique-limited. The sheer quantity of sophisticated tests and manipulations available make it such that oftentimes, the asking of the question is the most important part of the process. The answers can usually be obtained.

A background in the liberal arts is beneficial first in that it avoids inculcation with the scientific models of the time. Great discoveries often come about because current models are radically misguided. Indoctrination in such models, as Einstein observed, does not foster free thinking. In many great scientific advances, the initial creativity to approach a problem from an entirely different direction is integral to the solution. Such creativity is readily apparent in the theories of Einstein and Darwin, as well as a recent (although highly controversial) theory of physics, string theory. Edward Witten, the most prominent string theorist (and some argue, the greatest physicist) alive, majored in history at Brandeis University as an undergraduate and briefly went to graduate school for Economics.

Another important trend in modern science, given the explosion of biomedical knowledge, is the ability to read selectively and critically. A liberal arts background (as any PLS major can certainly explain) cultivates such an ability. Furthermore, in our world of massive data generation, deducing the ramifications and asking new questions based on the results of previous experimentation is of paramount importance.

The situation is not a one-way street. Science, with its insistence on rigor and inherent distrust of unproven, untestable assertions, can offer structure to many fields in the liberal arts. One of the newest members of the Classics faculty at Notre Dame, David Hernandez, graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in nuclear physics.

Both modern science and the liberal arts have their strengths and weaknesses. Most often, true revolutions in any field come from a complete restructuring of thought, an open defiance of previously accepted models. A background in another field hardwires in one’s brain a completely different method of thought, a consideration of aspects that easily may be ignored by those continuously immersed in the same environment The application of new perspectives to old problems can open up new worlds of thought — this is the fundamental reason why spending four years of studying Homer and Virgil could quite possibly provide a solid framework for a scientific career.


Edward A. Larkin is a senior with a double major in Biological Science and Classical Civilization. He can be reached at elarkin1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.