downtrodden science

Journal entry, 18 Feb 2016

In 1982 I set off to study Chemistry at Leicester Poly, and soon discovered I was out of my depth. Organised study and note-taking were hard work. To console myself, I purchased a paperback copy of ‘Writers at Work’, a series of interviews conducted with prominent authors – T S Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell etc. And Ezra Pound, of whom I knew very little apart from the selected Cantos which appeared in the Faber Book of Modern Verse. During his interview, Pound says: “Only a musical form would take the material, and the Confucian universe as I see it is a universe of interacting strains and tensions.”
Is this a reference to the yet-to-be directly-observed Gravitational Waves which make the entire cosmos throb faintly in the aftermath of a black hole collision?

It is Thursday afternoon, and I am sitting alone at a table in a pub in Manchester; the same pub I sat in many years ago, when I was out of work. On that occasion I ate fish and chips with a glass of red wine before going to the Cornerhouse Cinema to watch a strange, dislocated movie called ‘Ka-Boom’.
But today I am eating chicken salad and drinking a limited edition stout flavoured with cherries and chocolate; a luxurious delight, coming in at a hefty 6 per cent alcohol. I will not be going to the Cornerhouse again; the cinema closed down a few years ago. What became of those seats with brass commemorative panels, I wonder? I recall sitting down and reading one in front of me, which said ‘From Tom who loves Helen, to Helen who loves films’.
No movies for me anymore; instead, I am reading a library book: the collected music criticism of Ezra Pound, edited by R M Schafer. An intriguing tome; imagine that the text of the book had been lost, but somebody had managed to rescue the index. Would a committee of intelligent readers be able to reconstruct the body of the text using just this catalogue of subject headings and page numbers? Rather like forensic pathologists, who – given fingerprints and a few scrapings of automotive paint – are expected to identify the persons and events involved in a murder or robbery.
And, if we had some isolated chunks of the essays written by Mr Pound, would we be able to guess which performers or pieces he was discussing? His writing style is so oblique at times that one would struggle to guess what he was discussing, even when given the name and composer of the piece. Here is an imaginary review, written by the ghost of Ezra Pound, describing a contemporary gem:

“Monsieur Bowie has, by his own admission, spend many years in the pursuit of pleasure, dedicated to the consumption and corruption of an entire galaxy of narcotic poisons. He has lived famously in both America and Germany, but these sojourns merely enhanced the distinctive Anglaiserie of his creative output. Keen to seduce at every turn a new audience of teenagers, he brings forth musical recordings each of which is as different from its fellows as is Oscar Chilesotti from Virgilio Mortari. But the latest opus from Bowie, a bleak song entitled ‘Blackstar’, is a brooding meditation filled with allusion, ambiguity and anxiety. The musical landscape of this work harks back to the instrumental pieces on side two of the album “Heroes”; a set of four short tone-poems which sound variously like Panufnik, Hindemith, or Webern, but where the music floats and shifts like pools of coloured oil on the surface of a lake. Especially evocative is the use of multitracked saxophones, noodling to generate an alien ambiance through which our protagonist makes his uncertain way towards the resolution of the final chord; for it was announced, just two days after the release of this record that David Bowie had died following a lengthy illness. The critics had all listened to the song and admired its bleak, cosmic undulations; but none of them had been prepared for the news that it was to be his last.”

And here is a section of work by the real Ezra Pound, taken from a 1924 article, ‘George Antheil, Retrospect’, and bashed into a sort of blank verse by myself:

‘The Vorticist manifestos of
1913-14 left a blank space for music; there was in
Contemporary music at that date, nothing
Corresponding to the works of Wyndham Lewis,
Pablo Picasso, or Gaudier-Brzeska. Stravinsky arrived
As a comfort; but one could not say definitely
That his composition was
the new music; he had a
Refreshing robustness; he was a
Relief from Debussy; but this might have
Been merely the heritage of Polish Folk music manifest

In the work of an instinctive genius.

New vorticist music would come
From a new computation of
The mathematics of harmony – not
From mimetic representation
Of dead cats in a fog horn. This was part of
The general vorticist stand against
The accelerated impressionism of our active
And meritorious friend Marinetti
To grasp the modus of Antheil’s procedure.

And then: Geeks-Should-Be-More-Like-Gays (New Statesman)

I spotted this article on the New Statesman website (alas, I was unable to track down the original item issued by the British Science Association) and thought I’d share it, since I fall into both camps. Aggressive, unrepentant sodomite with facial hair and an unhealthy interest in organic and polymer chemistry? Yes, siree!

Are scientists an oppressed minority? Not really, not in terms of being placed under house arrest like Galileo when he suggested that the earth went round the sun. But it is customary to dismiss science as being synthetic and inhuman. Evolution is just a theory which all right-thinking schoolchildren (Christian, Jewish and Muslim) are entitled (nay, obliged) to challenge whenever a teacher tries to discuss it in class. Anthropogenic climate change is another theory, which cannot be covered in a news bulletin without an equal amount of airtime being given to opponents of the idea. Contraception and IVF are wicked and sinful and try to thwart the will of God; but devout Catholics Kate and Gerry McCann were happy to use this evil corrupt man-made technique to bring their beloved daughter Madelaine into the world.

There is a growing trend to have UK kids educated using some hardcore Christian methods, where the entire syllabus is built around literal biblical doctrine. To do this, you need to carefully reject things like evolution and comparative religion – not merely dismiss them as incorrect, but pronounce them to be deliberate falsehood used by wicked, sinful unbelievers.

I actually like religion – the carefully-assembled doctrines and articles of faith, the rituals, the costumes, the incense, the elevated sense of belonging. The architecture in the Vatican is marvellous; the marble statues of Saint Michael Overcoming Satan are sublime; Rubens’ paintings of Saint Christopher are breathtaking; and my own record collection includes settings of the Mass by Bach, Mozart, Poulenc, Bruckner, and Haydn – as well as The Creation, and the Quincy Jones reworking of ‘Messiah’. The greatest musical work never written is probably a version of the Mass produced, arranged and performed by Prince.

But there may be another problem – do some scientists believe themselves to be members of a secret clan, keepers of the flame of wisdom, the Chosen Elite? And do they suspect that making science accessible to a wider audience will weaken their career premium, forcing them to compete for jobs and research funding, instead of being able to rely on a cosy network of supporters from the same cloistered realm?




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