Blurring the Lines
“I keep trying to commit, but I’m
—A reflection essay
PREFACE “It’s possible to have everything,” says Katie Pitts as she considers that, when combined, science and humanities can create the most sublime beauties of life.
aybe the lines are only in my head, but I’ve been caught up in byu’s battlefield of majors and minors with its clearly marked territories and loyalties ever since I came here. The artsy people are shuffled off to the north of campus; the science majors, to the south. As a freshman, I picked a side by declaring a major in humanities, thinking that such a broad discipline of history and art would allow me to study everything and tie me to nothing. But I found myself craving the manipulation of numbers: I missed listening to rock music while I tackled math problems with discrete solutions, so I enrolled in a calculus class and took a job writing and editing for the science departments in those buildings to the south. For two years, I’ve been crossing an uneasy border you could call the Kimball-Martin line: by night, I memorize the names of painters long since dead who glare at me from their canvases. By day, I learn the names and research interests of chemists, physicists, statisticians, and mathematicians who walk past my desk and smile the smiles of people who all know something I don’t know yet. I keep trying to commit, but I’m falling in love with the tension. More than anything, this is what makes an Honors education.
WHAT MAKES THE LIST Some people define their Honors education by the status of their Great Works log. Well, if we’re going to brag, I’ll confess that mine looks pretty impressive: I finally finished David Copperfield, and I walked the floors in Dickens’s house. I’ve now read Jane Austen, and I’ve stood over her grave. I read Shakespeare’s Hamlet, watched Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, and stood in the back of a London theatre to see Jude Law’s Hamlet. I stared into Van Gogh’s sunflowers and contemplated Degas’s straining ballerinas while only a few feet from the waves of paint on the canvas. Very exciting, I know, but in many ways, seeing these things was anti-climatic. Standing as a groundling in the Globe didn’t even compare to sitting on the front row of a play called Copenhagen. Copenhagen is about science—go figure. It’s about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which says that we can’t know both the speed and the position of a particle. The play depicts the confusion surrounding the creation of atomic warfare, holding the audience captive as ideas whirl around both them and the characters like electrons to a nucleus. Seeing this play made me collide with the truth that neither science nor art knows all the answers. It’s the search that human beings really care about.
falling in love with WHAT SEEMS LIKE TWO IS ACTUALLY ONE, AND NO, THIS ISN’T A MATH PROBLEM The other day, a student in my humanities class started saying scientists were so stupid because a study had just come out about how smoking was bad for you. She found it so gratifying to think that she’d always known smoking is harmful while the scientists had only just grasped the obvious. Her gloating was killing me. But I don’t comment in class much, so I refrained from screaming the thoughts in my head. Deep inside though, I wanted to tell her everything I learned in statistics and teach her about claiming causation. I wanted to tell her why it’s unethical to make people smoke just to see if it will kill them. I wanted her to understand why statisticians can’t prove that smoking kills you because of this ethical dilemma that goes way past observation of what seems obvious. I wanted to show her that science operates around the same logic and thoughtfulness that humanities majors love. I wanted her to know that scientists wrestle with deep questions just like humanities students do. But I didn’t. Instead I thought about blind spots. My classes on the north side and my classes on the south side are often tackling the same questions without realizing that the other side has a piece to offer. Is it possible that the key to global warming is a line in a novel no one remembers? Or that the greatest of stories is hidden in the autobiography of a mathematician? Do not all things work together for our good? In the search for light and truth, separating all the subjects is impossible; the division of disciplines and departments, arbitrary. Science follows a linear model of progression, building upon theory after theory. Occasionally, something gets knocked out and the process starts over. Humanities puts down an idea in the middle and circles around it until it turns it upside down and looks at it again. One orbits while the other unfolds like a time line of history, mirroring the ascending ladder of dna that twists back in to create new shapes within us. Arguably, science saves lives, and fancy art and writing won’t cure aids or even the common cold. But isn’t it the stories of children suffering told in paint and word that convince us to donate and give and care? Doesn’t chemistry determine the way paint lasts on a canvas so that I can praise Van Gogh long after the cells of his mortal body break down and stop creating? Science won’t stop death and art won’t stop pain. But both of them put up quite the fight for goodness, joy, and love in an endless reciprocation of give and take.
the tension. More
than anything, this is what makes an
CAN’T WE BOTH BE BEAUTIFUL? I sat down to write a paper about the sublime and literary theory once. That effort was thwarted by a late-October head cold. Feeling overwhelmed, I started wandering through the books in the library. Surprisingly, the physics section cleared my head. I do not understand them, but the book covers are beautiful. They’re graced by pictures of blue explosions and starry lights. I know these depict physical phenomena that I do not understand, but they are remarkable, artistic, and INSIGHT 2012
“In the search for light and truth, separating all the subjects is
impossible; the division of disciplines and
departments, arbitrary.” perfectly composed. The functionality of these atoms and cells falls outside my reasoning, but not their colors and forms. One book simply had the signature of Niels Bohr, a famous physicist also portrayed in Copenhagen, down the spine. It thrills me to think that this brilliant man knew how to make a little piece of handwriting into something gorgeous. It’s not about precision or usefulness. He could have scribbled it or thought about it as nothing, but his signature speaks of care and concern for the curves of the letters and the way they fit into the space that makes his name. Returning to my paper, I read about a despairing philosopher who was trying her best to define the sublime. She wondered if it’s even possible to have a definition of the sublime. If the sublime is supposed to be impossible to grasp, how do we talk about those aesthetic moments that defy description? For her, these moments are tied to art, but she needs a definition that covers more. She exclaims, “What of the cognitive failure I have occasionally experienced in the face of the New York Times crossword puzzle, or complex mathematical problems that truly humble me? . . . Why are these sorts of experiences not also sublime?”1 Her questions sadden me. She seems to think that these experiences can’t be sublime. But of course they are! It’s possible to have everything: science with its pesky equations and art with its ill-defined boundaries can get along. We must all be friends and learn from each other. Education comes from all angles, “that in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him” (Ephesians 1:10). The resurrection might be somewhat scientific, but all the physical changes will be to the tune of choirs. The earth can break forth into singing, which will be accompanied by geological upheavals. And all will be more marvelous for the combination of the two. ■ 1. Forsey, Jane. “Is a Theory of the Sublime Possible?” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65, no. 4 (Autumn, 2007): 381–389.
Published on May 18, 2012