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Can Scientists Write?

Quite a lot of people assume I’m studying English, or perhaps politics, as the news editor of the Express. If you care to get into student media, you find that most do arts. And it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that arts students tend to be more enthusiastic, better writers. Not that SEFS students are less literate (I hope), simply that the arts students are far better prepared to be able to research, express and justify their opinions and thoughts. Many would disagree with me, though. SEFS students view arts as a doss that goes on the #6 of your CAO list. (I study ecology and environmental biology, if you were wondering.)

Certainly the scientific community has no reverence of the arts. Cold, hard data with cold, hard value is what the sciences are all about; the softer, wishy-washier stuff is where spare taxpayer money goes, if there is any. And I get it. I study ecology. If you ask me what matters more, curing cancer or studying the undertones of social progression in a book from 1500 AD, I’d probably go for the former. If I wasn’t interested in cold hard data I’d be having a hard time in my field of study. (It’s hard enough as it is.)

What gets me, though, is the idea that the arts doesn’t matter. Where is the role of art, literature and thought in a world full of political turmoil, climate disaster and social inequality?

The answer is everywhere. It’s impossible to study anything in the world that matters without getting to the wishy-washy questions: Is this the right thing to do? Is this worth it? Why should anyone care?

There’s just one point I can remember from college where something like this has come up; in first year, in the middle of a physical chemistry lecture on the Haber-Bosch process, used for the synthesis of ammonia. The lecturer took five minutes out of his lecture to talk about Fritz Haber, known as the father of chemical warfare, the mind behind weaponised chlorine gas and a contributor to many poisons and explosives. Our lecturer made the point of telling us: “Your work doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Whatever you discover, make sure it’s for good.”

I wonder who in the room needed those five minutes. I wonder who needed more.

For those of us who study technology or get into business, it’s far too easy to forget that commerce affects the poor, that science needs to reach the ignorant, and that the way people think and feel is going to have effects on all of us. We can’t discount the power of the arts, the pure studies of thinking and feeling.

I try to minimise the amount my personal opinions affect this news section, but I’ll tell you here in my editorial: the budget, medical research, and even new food technology all have some complicated morals behind them. Don’t forget to think about them.