Rational Thought And Imagination: Two Perspectives

by V.S. Ravi - Aug 28, 2022 11:43 PM +05:30 IST
Rational Thought And Imagination: Two Perspectives(Pixabay)
  • In a healthy civilisation, scientific materialism must be accompanied by eternal values to make human life worth living.

When the great French mathematician Laplace lay dying, he was surrounded by all his children, and grandchildren. They tried to console him saying that he had achieved more than millions of others, obviously referring to his mathematical papers. The mathematician had one last glance, with tear-stained eyes at all his family members, and brushed aside those papers, saying that they were not the ‘important’ things in life.

‘What then?’ they asked in amazement. Fighting for one last breath , Laplace answered ‘love’.

Noble as the declaration was, the point is that Laplace for all his mathematical genius could realise this only just before he died—an emotion all poets know intuitively from an early age.

Poets do write about other themes also--a poem to a sweetheart; a graphic description of a battle; the exploits of a great warrior like Ulysses; the ephemeral nature of human existence; and a eulogy to a dear friend- but even in such poetry there are flashes of insight into various human emotions.

There is something about the way a poet says about such things, that makes us wish that we had written those lines.

Scientists would rightly argue that their discoveries and inventions have improved the quality of man’s life on this planet, and that we would have still been in the dark ages but for science.

I also agree with Nobel Laureate Peter Medawar that in terms of fulfillment of declared objectives, science is the most successful enterprise human beings have ever engaged upon.

Hence I would request the reader to banish any thought he might entertain (while reading this essay) that my intention is to belittle the triumphs of science. All that I have said is only that rational thought (science) and imagination (poetry) are just two different perspectives of human achievement on Earth.

Richard Lovelace, even from prison could say about liberty.

"Stone walls do not a prison make.

Nor iron bars a cage

Minds innocent and quiet take

That for a hermitage:

If I have freedom in my love

And in my soul am free

Angels alone that soar above,

Enjoy such liberty".

Mozart was quite happy without an electric guitar or a electronic sound system. The basic ingredients required to constitute happiness are few and free, available everywhere. Milton did not have to go Disney Land to get excitement. But his Paradise Lost is greater than all the theme parks put together.

The combined ages of Byron, Shelley and Keats before they died was just about 90 years but within that period they produced poetry that will last till the end of time.

Scientists constantly improve upon the discoveries made earlier. Newton himself admitted that he had been able to see ‘further’ than most others, because he stood on the shoulders of giants. But then poets are not interested in seeing further than most others! They deal with human emotions, and values.

If a scientific truth is not discovered by X, Y will discover it sooner or later. In fact, at any given point of time hundreds of people might be working on a problem.

There is a hypothesis in science known as "multiple discovery" or "simultaneous invention". It is a concept that most scientific discoveries and inventions are made independently, and more or less simultaneously or about the same time, by multiple scientists and inventors.

Thus, scientists discover laws already present in nature, laws which are waiting to be discovered by any one of them. It’s just that conventionally the first to discover a law is given the credit.

Thus, the scientist or the inventor suffers from an inherent handicap of someone else also independently discovering the same law or inventing the same gadget.

Some examples are the discovery of calculus by Newton and Leibniz, the discovery of analytical geometry by Descartes and Fermat, the invention of the telephone by Graham Bell, and Elisha Gray and the invention of the incandescent bulb by the British physicist-chemist Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison.

If Einstein had not discovered relativity, perhaps Lorentz or Michelson or Minkowski would have.

Several scientists, apart from Crick, and Watson (e.g Chargoff and Pauling) had been independently carrying out research on the DNA. However Crick and Watson were the first to elucidate the structure of the DNA. It was felt in some scientific circles that Crick and Watson had deliberately suppressed the contribution of Rosalind Franklyn who had provided the diffraction photographs.

Crick and Watson are believed to have proclaimed loudly in the Eagle pub, that they had discovered the secret of life, just as Archimedes had run out of his bathtub into a street in the ancient city of Syracuse in Sicily, shouting that he had discovered an important law in physics, fundamental to fluid mechanics.

I cannot imagine Shakespeare running in a street in London, shouting that he had finished writing the greatest soliloquy in literature "To be or not to be" in Hamlet.

Raman won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1930 for his discovery of the Raman effect.

The Raman effect was first reported by Raman and his student collaborator K.S. Krishnan and independently by Grigory Landsberg and Leonid Mandelstam in Moscow on 21 February 1928 (one week earlier than Raman and Krishnan. They however published their results later). In the former Soviet Union, Raman's contribution was always disputed; thus in Russian scientific literature the effect is usually referred to as "combination scattering" or "combinatory scattering".

The Nobel committee recognised only the work of Raman. It was felt in some scientific circles that Raman had deliberately suppressed the role played by K.S. Krishnan, which was the reason why the Nobel Committee did not recognise his contribution.

I myself once attended a lecture delivered by Sir C.V.Raman at Chennai. During the lecture Raman gave an account of his discovery of the Raman Effect, gloating over the fact that he had beaten the Russian scientists Mandelstam and Landsberg to the finishing line.

During the lecture Raman was also extremely critical of the inferior work of Nobel Laureate Max Born. It may be mentioned that this kind of public derision, slander and criticism of other scientists are unheard of in the case of poets.

On the contrary, a poet creates a great poem, which no one else has or can in the future. No two poems are obviously the same. If Shakespeare had not written Macbeth, no one else would have. If Gray had not written the Elegy, no one else would have. So the question of one poet publishing his poem earlier does not obviously arise

It is ‘ambition’ that motivates most scientists. Idealism motivates a poet.

Why has such a situation arisen ? After all, scientists being extraordinarily gifted persons, one would expect them to go about their work for the sheer thrill of discovery not to mention the celebrity status conferred on them by virtue of the prizes won and media propaganda. Probably, the nature and rules of the game themselves promote competition that degenerates into unhealthy rivalry and clash of egos.

This kind of rivalry, and petty jealousies do not cause undesirable friction between poets who go about their task of writing poetry silently and spontaneously for their own satisfaction.

Gray wandered alone inside a country churchyard and composed the Elegy, arguably the best poem in the English language, without expecting any reward or prize. So also Wordsworth wrote one of his best poems a few miles above Tintern Abbey.

Great as the achievements of science are, Shakespeare and Milton, Valmiki and Kalidasa can never lose their perennial hold on man and the world is compelled to take notice of their work which protects the moral fabric of civilisation. That being so, a civilisation based entirely on scientific materialism does not make human life worth living, unless it is accompanied by eternal values, enshrined in great poetical works.

V.S.Ravi is a distinguished and highly decorated IPS officer having served both the Government of AP and the Government of India, for 35 years. He retired in 1998. He is a scion of the Alladi family, being a grandson of the Late Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, one of the Chief architects of the Constitution . Sri Ravi is one of the foremost authorities on Shakespeare in the country. He has contributed articles on Shakespeare to the Hindu and News Time Now. He passed Physics (Hons) with distinction and he has kept himself in touch with the latest developments in science and technology.
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