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Excerpt from Inside Higher Ed Essay: "Humanities Strengthen Science" 


By Elizabeth H. Simmons, August 14, 2014


In serving as Acting Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, I am grateful for the opportunity to immerse myself in a community dedicated to the humanities.  As a theoretical physicist and the Dean of Lyman Briggs College, I have long been aware of how culture, arts, and humanistic studies impact the choices we scientists make throughout our careers and the pathways that science follows. 

The excerpt below from my essay in the 8-14-2014 edition of Inside Higher Ed captures my understanding of how the humanities strengthen the sciences.  It was inspired by a visit to the Cushing Center, an exceptional museum about the work of pioneering neurosurgeon (and noted artist and diarist) Harvey Cushing.

“Would you like to see the brain collection?” my guide asked, as we finished our tour of the Yale School of Medicine.  What scientist could resist? 

[W]hen we entered the Cushing Center in the sub-basement of the Medical Library, it was a dim, hushed space that led through a narrow opening into an expansive area for exploration and quiet reflection.  As my guide noted, it looked remarkably like a posh jewelry store, with lovely wooden counters, closed cabinets below and glass-enclosed displays above. 

And such displays!  Where I had envisioned an imposing, sterile wall of containers, with disembodied brains floating intact in preservative fluid, there was instead a long sinuous shelf of jars just above eye level, winding around the room.  Each brain lay in thick slices at the bottom of its square glass container, the original owner’s name and dates on a handwritten label.  Muted light glinting off the jars, and lending a slight glow to the sepia-toned fluid within, gave the impression of a vast collection of amber. 

In frames leaning from countertop to wall or resting in a glass-topped enclosure set within the counter, were collages of photos and drawings.  Surprised, I stepped closer, glimpsed human faces, and found extraordinary science therein.

As an educator, I find that the displays in the Cushing Center encapsulate why young scientists need to study their fields in historical and social context.  Isolated technical proficiency would not have enabled Cushing to become the originator of modern neurosurgery; his intense focus on the human condition was essential.  Indeed, Cushing mused in a letter to a fellow physician that he “would like to see the day when somebody would be appointed surgeon somewhere who had no hands, for the operative part is the least part of the work.”[i]  Similarly, to fully prepare for careers in science, it is essential that students grasp how the impetus for scientific work arises from the world in which the scientist lives, often responds to problems the scientist has personally encountered, and ultimately impacts that society and those problems in its turn. 

Some might argue that these considerations apply mainly to the life sciences, where the human connections are most tangible.  They might think, for instance, that my own work as a theoretical physicist is too abstract to be influenced by societal context.  After all, the field-theoretic equations I manipulate have no more race or gender or politics than the subatomic particles they describe.  Yet my choice of research questions has unquestionably been affected by the contingent historical details of my own professional life: the compelling lectures that enticed me to switch fields during graduate school, the inspiring discussions with my doctoral advisor that established symmetry as a guiding principle, the discovery of certain subatomic particles at the start of my career and the decades-delayed confirmations of others.   My sense of how science operates on both philosophical and practical levels has also unmistakably been influenced by my long-ago experiences as a graduate teaching assistant for History of Science courses and my ongoing conversations with scholars in Science Studies.

This is why programs that deliberately train scientists in the humanities are so essential to educating scientists effectively.  Every nascent scientist should read, think, and write about how science and society have impacted one another across cultural and temporal contexts.  Not all undergraduates will immediately appreciate the value of this approach.  The first-year students in my own [Lyman Briggs] college have been known to express confusion about why they must take that first course in the History, Philosophy, and Sociology of science. But decades later, our alumni cite the “HPS” curriculum as having a profound impact on their careers in science or medicine. They remember the faculty members who taught those courses vividly and by name.  They tell me the ethical concepts absorbed in those courses have helped them hew more closely to the scientific ideal of seeking the truth.

In the wake of C.P. Snow’s famous Rede Lecture on the Two Cultures of the sciences and humanities, academic programs were founded in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s (e.g. see Michigan State University’s Lyman Briggs College and Stanford University’s Science, Society, and Technology program) with the express aim of immersing students in the deep connections between science and society.  Decades later, those programs are thriving – and the impact of the ideas they espouse may be seen in changes that pre-professional programs in medicine and engineering have been embracing.

In the end, Cushing’s brain collection vividly reminds us why it is crucial to immerse natural science students in interdisciplinary science studies that incorporate the social sciences and humanities. It is not merely because hot new fields are said to lie at the unexplored intersections of fields whose borders were arbitrarily codified decades or centuries ago (though that is true).  It is not merely because the terms interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, and trans-disciplinary are presently in vogue (though that is also true).  It is because such cross training produces scientists who are both more capable of extraordinary breakthroughs and more mindful of their broader impacts. The humanities truly strengthen science.