A Fair Question

Back on January 14, scientist Richard Dawkins tweeted an interesting rhetorical question:  why hasn’t any scientist ever won the Nobel Prize for Literature?

It’s not like there’s been a shortage of candidates:  mathematician Alfred North Whitehead wrote a beautifully-clear prose, especially in The Aims of Education and Science and the Modern World (1925).  The latter book still has much to say to us today about the purposes and methods of science and the value of the endeavor.

Carl Sagan was, I beg to remind you, despite his popularity on television, a working scientist not only in the field of astronomy but also in the rather far-away field of human biology.  Nevertheless, every book he wrote–Broca’s Brain, The Cosmic Connection, The Dragons of Eden, and Cosmos–has a profoundly humane touch, and Cosmos–every word of it–ought to stand as one of the finest testaments ever made to the strength, generosity, and longevity of the scientific spirit, which also happens to be the human spirit itself.

Wisest and best of Sagan’s teachers by proxy, however, was the mathematician Jacob Bronowski, a part of the British team that went in after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to survey and assess the damage.  So profoundly moved and changed by that experience was Bronowski that he stopped doing mathematics and switched to biology because that field, he felt, would bring him closer to an understanding of humanity itself–a humanity which had suddenly acquired the ability to extinguish itself.  This was no lighthearted change for Bronowski–he truly felt that unless the human race acquired a solid understanding of its origins, its capabilities, and its potential within fifty years, the race itself would not be here.  Into book after book–Science and Human Values, The Visionary Eye and especially into The Ascent of Man–Bronowski poured everything he knew about science, mathematics, literature, art, religion, and philosophy in order to show us that the creative arts and the scientific method are the same thing, and that the best of humanity is not represented by a retreat from science into mysticism and fear, but by brave advancements within that scientific endeavor.

I shall be frank with you.  The full name is The Nobel Peace Prize for Literature, or Economics, or what have you.  We often forget the “Peace” part, and think of the various Nobels as just some sort of lifetime achievement award.  But Nobel didn’t think of the awards that way.  The winners had to have made some significant contribution toward helping us achieve societal peace.  Winston Churchill was adjudged to have done it with his History of the Second World War (he was there, my friends) and his History of the English-Speaking Peoples and he won the prize for Literature.  Fair enough.  But by that criterion–a contribution to peace and powerful suggestions on how to achieve it sooner–my God, why haven’t we, the reading public, acknowledged what profoundly peaceful books the works of Sagan and Bronowski are?

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