Changes at the heart of culture

10th May 1996 at 01:00
Michael Rowan-Robinson trawls a new collection of essays which explore the importance of science and technology to the arts. Cultural Babbage is a book about culture and society by a group of writers and thinkers for whom it is self-evident that scientific ideas and technological innovations have to be at the centre of any such discussion.

Grand philosophical issues are avoided and the Snow-Leavis debate, mentioned only once in the book, is bypassed. Instead, the contributors focus on specific ways in which technology and the machine have become central to our society and culture. These brilliant vignettes make the point far more powerfully than any number of grandiose generalisations.

The stars of these essays are eccentrics and self-publicists like Babbage and Edison. On the fringes hover resonant figures like Edgar Allan Poe, poet and scientific visionary, and Ada Lovelace, Byron's mathematician daughter who wrote the most coherent account of Babbage's proto-computers.

But this is a work-in-progress, a scaffolding, a genuine series of essays and the grand themes of the unity of science and arts remain for the future. It is as if we are afraid to contemplate that unity of nature, embracing both artistic and scientific visions, which was the hallmark of Goethe, a figure notable by his absence from this book.

Charles Babbage is the central hook for the threads of this collection because of his prophetic attempt to build computers, the famous Differential Engine which he never quite managed to complete and the even more futuristic Analytical Engine. The story of how Babbage's designs for the differential Engine were finally realised in our own day at the Science Museum is described by Doron Swade in "It will not slice a pineapple" - a reference to the kind of jibe Babbage had to put up with in his day. As he complained in 1852: "Propose to an Englishman any principle, or any instrument, however admirable, and you will observe that the whole effort of the English mind is directed to find a difficulty, a defect, or an impossibility in it. If you speak to him of a machine for peeling a potato, he will pronounce it impossible: if you peel a potato with it before his eyes, he will declare it useless, because it will not slice a pineapple."

Simon Schaffer places Babbage's machines in the context of the magical automata of his day, which were exhibited at fairs and soirees, including the famous chess-playing Turk, one of the most elaborate hoaxes ever perpetrated.

The theme of scientist as showman and entertainer is carried forward in Portia Dadley's interesting account of the career of Thomas Edison, with his 1, 093 patents, of which the phonograph was the one to propel him to fame and fortune.

Alex Pang analyses the rise of another scientist-showman, Buckminster Fuller, and his pervasive geodesic domes, a symbol both of Sixties counterculture and of the military-industrial complex. Dillian Beer explores the impact of "wireless" on the Twenties and shows how it entered the consciousness of modernists like Virginia Woolf and made household names of scientist-writers like Jeans and Eddington.

Tom Paulin and Neil Belton finger the source of the British contempt for science, in the polemics of the reactionary Edmund Burke, who set out to destroy the radical Unitarians of the late 18th century and managed to drive the great Joseph Priestley from the country altogether. Burke's conservatism infected even Wordsworth, who in The Prelude warned against Sages who in their prescience would control All accidents, and to the very road Which they have fasion'd would confine us down Like engines.

Lavina Greenlaw dissects the relationships and differences between science and poetry: "poetry and science are part of the same map but . . . they are different countries. What they share is an economy based on perception and articulation, whether in the form of conceit or hypothesis, metaphor or proof. The borders are clear but the current excitement and interest in common territory comes in part from affinities of motive, process and preoccupation that seem, at the moment, to be particularly keenly felt."

Cultural Babbage is not a brave manifesto for a new synthesis of arts and science. But it is quietly and splendidly subversive in its underlying assumption of what is anathema to most of our cultural leadership, namely the importance of science and technology to culture. As Doron Swade symbolically concludes her essay: "The engine complete at the Science Museum is a sumptuous piece of engineering sculpture. One of its many striking features is a set of steel arms arranged in series of vertical helices which rotate like whirling scythes. Babbage should take comfort. There is little doubt that while the engine is calculating with unerring accuracy, a pineapple, held up to the mechanism, would be well and truly sliced."

The defensive tone of the book is a testament to the official victory of Leavis in the Two Cultures debate, in which he was an unwitting carrier of Burke's high Tory torch. But the groundswell of science-arts fraternisation to which the book attests is a measure of the basic correctness of Snow's position, that nobody can consider themselves educated who is ignorant of science.

'Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time and Invention', edited by Francis Spufford and Jenny Uglow, is published by Faber and Faber, Pounds 14.99 Michael Rowan-Robinson is professor of astro-physics at Imperial College, University of London

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