Two cultures: Bridging the gap

At the intersection of science and mythology.

Photo of woman on the bed with old book and cup of coffee (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Photo of woman on the bed with old book and cup of coffee
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
“Evolutions: Fifteen Myths That Explain Our World” is a remarkable new book by Oren Harman, chair of the graduate program in Science, Technology and Society at Bar-Ilan University.
A prolific writer, Harman studied history and science at Hebrew University, Oxford and Harvard. In his most recent book, he defines myths as “about how we came to be, and why we can or cannot hope, and where we might be headed.
“Myths are humankind’s stories about what we all feel in our guts is fundamental to our humanity but know with our brains can never truly be plumbed,” he writes.
Harman explores 15 myths that encompass human existence – fate, hubris, motherhood, immortality, love, freedom, death, pride, jealousy, curiosity, solitude, sacrifice, memory, truth and hope – to explain the universe and the science underlying it in terms everyone can grasp.
The first chapter, Fate, is about the Big Bang – the tiny speck that concentrated all of the matter in the universe 13.8 billion years ago, in the mother of all explosions.
My personal favorite of the 15 myths is Solitude, a myth about arriving on the scene a bit too soon. The huge flying tail-less dinosaur known as quetzalcoatlus, with a 36-foot wingspan, evolved just a mite too early in the evolution of birds. So did genius aeronautical engineer Jack Northrop’s tail-less flying wing YB-49 bomber in 1947 – almost 35 years before the B-2 bomber, using Northrop’s early no-tail idea, became operational. Both dinosaur and bomber knew a “lonely destiny,” Harman writes. Northrop’s solitude was mitigated when he was shown a scale model of the B-2 in 1980, a few months before he passed away.
The Report met with Harman to discuss his most recent work.
Creative people are good at linking things that others find unconnected. You do this repeatedly in Evolution. How did you get the idea to link a flying dinosaur with a flying wing? How do you make these amazing connections?
“In my book, I wanted to juxtapose science and myth, to use the language of one to address the themes of the other in order to point out both the surprising similarities and important differences between the two enterprises. And so I began each myth with a certain scientific fact and used my imagination to build a story around that fact that would address a given human theme.
“For example, I had learned in a paper in [the journal] Science that the closest living genetic relative to human mitochondria (the part of the human cell that generates the cell’s energy) is a bacteria called rickettsia that is responsible for typhus. What this means is that there must have been a common ancestor a few billion years ago, and so for me they immediately became two ‘brothers,’ one of whom was swallowed by a larger creature, within which it eventually became mitochondria whose energy helped give birth to multicellular life, including us, and the other which got away, retaining its autonomy, but eventually morphing into one of the greatest killers of mankind.
“To me this evolutionary tale became an opportunity to look more closely at the meaning of ‘freedom,’ which we take to be a good thing, but which mitochondria and rickettsia challenge. Another example is the fact that scientists are unsure why whales breach (leap out of the water).  It may be to slough off skin to get rid of parasites, or to attract mates, or just for fun – no one knows. So I take this fact to recall the evolution of whales – how they were once hippo or coyote-like creatures on land, 60 million years ago, who slowly immersed themselves more and more into the waters, until the seas swallowed them, turning them over time into the majestic mammals of the oceans.
“To me this connected to the theme of ‘sacrifice,’ which we humans often see as a form of moral highness, but which the story of the whale teaches us might also simply be a form of blindness. Incipient whales didn't know that they would lose the ability to walk on land, after all, and that they would never again experience the pull of gravity. That, I suggest – their yearning to regain their sacrifice – is why they breach.
“Another example is the moon, which was created by the impact of a Mars-sized rock called Theia on the Earth about 4.5 billion years ago.  In the beginning, due to gravity and angular momentum, the moon was much closer to Earth and the days were only four hours long. All the Earth could see in the sky was the moon, its child of sorts. Gradually, the moon began moving away, at the pace of the growth of fingernails, and it continues to move away from us today. And so to me, this becomes a cosmological story about ‘motherhood,’ and it helps us look at this basic human relationship in new and surprising ways.
“The myth about ‘memory’  becomes an underwater conversation between an octopus and a human diver, based on our knowledge of each creature's very different nervous system – one employing a central brain, while the other experiencing life through ‘distributed intelligence.’
“As for pterosaurs, the ‘flying lizards,’ and John K. ‘Jack’ Northrop, who was the 20th-century pioneer of the B-49 ‘tailless wing’ stealth airplane which later inspired the B-2 bomber – both in some poetic and tragic sense came before their time. They're connected over eons by the similar flight principles they employed, but they both went extinct, in one case metaphorically and in the other, in a very real-life sense. By putting them together in a myth, I felt I could take a new look at ‘solitude.’
“How exactly these connections come to me, I couldn't say. I guess it's just about opening the mind and letting it fly. And, of course, disrespecting the regular boundaries.”
Sixty years ago, a British novelist and scientist named C.P. Snow gave a famous lecture defining what became known as the “two cultures problem” – the culture of science and the culture of humanities. These two “nations” simply do not communicate, Snow said. He stated, ‘If I asked [the highly educated] what is mass or what is acceleration, not more than one in 10... would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the Western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.’
In the Trump era, science is being discredited and debunked by a large number of people, many of whom are in power. For instance, global warming. Your books and writing powerfully and creatively link the two cultures, and you yourself have strong knowledge and background in both. What can be done to better link science and humanities? It is said that science without humanities is value-less (economics tried that, we nearly destroyed the world as a result in 2008); humanities without science is groundless.
 “I would be happy to see many more humanists with a higher degree of scientific literacy, don't get me wrong. But the ‘facts’ of science change, as the ether and the epicycles and Aristotle's scoring of the number of teeth in women have taught us, to name just a few examples.
“More important, really, is for non-scientists to understand what a scientific claim is, the difference between a conjecture and an observation, the notion of probability, and the meaning of refutation.   Humanists need to understand the process of science as apart from its results necessarily since understanding that means understanding what a scientific worldview is.
“Science offers solutions to questions that have answers. The preoccupations of the humanities and social sciences, on the other hand, are with problems that don't always have a solution at all, or at least not a good one. It is important to understand that difference, so that we can define the playing field within which the use of the scientific method can be extremely helpful, and outside of which the tools of science become blunt. More than 50 years after the two culture debates, as our world becomes increasingly technological and we develop more tools to measure, measure, measure, it seems to me that our most important charge is to teach ourselves which kinds of knowledge are relevant to which kinds of problems.
“Undoubtedly,  we need to counter the current political climate in which ‘facts’ and ‘truth’ are put to shame and doubted, claimed to be the creations of elites, and, therefore, ridiculed and shunned. ‘Every person has his or her own truth’ is an important lesson we've taught ourselves as a culture over time, but it also has its limit. On the other hand, if we believe that the only worthy mysteries are the ones that will be solved by science one day, we are deluding ourselves.
“There are plenty of important problems that are on no path to solution – what is the meaning of life? why are we here? – and that's okay, it's part of our human predicament. And so, the short answer to your question ‘what can be done?’ is also the hardest one: education.
“Yes, scientists need to think about the moral implications of their work. And they need literature and art and music to help them connect more strongly to their feelings. And yes, non-scientists need to understand the scientific method and world view. Both groups need to acknowledge that science is done by humans, with all their foibles and hidden and apparent ideologies and in institutions that operate within a given political context; that science will forever employ metaphor to express itself, and that metaphor is sensitive to culture, and therefore changes with the times. All of this is crucial, and the only way to earn these understandings is to teach them, in smart ways, from middle school through high school through university. We need to change the culture of education, which is a hard thing to do.
“Here in Israel, especially, where we've adopted a German system of higher education where physicists study physics and historians history and economists economics, almost to the exclusion of anything else, the problem is exacerbated, and cries out for change. When we begin to realize that the problems of the 21st century will necessitate a much broader, interdisciplinary approach, marrying big data and history, environmental studies and moral thinking, systems biology and philosophy, probability and the insights of psychology, economics and social theory, perhaps we'll begin to move.
“As Orwell said: Progress is slow and inevitably disappointing. But we have to fight the good fight, and that begins in the schools.”
After reading Evolution, I checked to see if my university, Haifa's Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, is producing scientists and engineers who know at least something about philosophy, literature and values.  According to the Technion’s humanities department and its head, Prof. Efraim Lev, some 2,878 students are enrolled in 40 spring semester enrichment courses, or an average of about 70 students per course. The courses range from the political history of modern Korea through Crusader archaeology to Israeli labor law. Each student is required to take 10 elective points, including at least three two-point “enrichment” courses.  These are merely tiny samplings of a rich buffet, but at least they expose students to the world of liberal arts.
Lev reports that the students love these courses and are engaged, motivated and curious to learn something other than differential calculus and thermodynamics. In contrast, most US engineering schools do not offer required humanities courses.
But there is a very dark side to the two cultures gap in Israel.   Approximately 41% of Jerusalem schoolchildren are haredi. A large majority of them do not study the core curriculum subjects such as math and English.
In May, the Times of Israel reported that when a group of ultra-Orthodox schoolchildren was brought to Jerusalem’s Natural History Museum, the permanent dinosaur exhibit on “the beginning of human evolution and culture” was covered with a pink sheet.  A visitor who asked why was told that haredim do not like to see such things.  The museum’s education director explained that the resource-starved museum needed the money that the haredi visits provide – without that pink sheet they would not come.
The question is, how will Israel maintain its excellence in hi-tech when so many of its children are not even permitted to see dinosaur bones?
The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at