Horace Lamb’s hydrodynamics and Rupert Brooke’s poetry—Encouraging the “two cultures” to meet and talk

Members of the congregation settling down at Charlie Wade-Smith's table
Today’s address is occasioned by the unexpected, and certainly unplanned, juxtaposition of three things.

The first is the opportunity we’ll have at the bring and share lunch following the service to take a spin, quite literally, on Charlie Wade-Smith’s wonderful revolving table which formed part of this year’s Cambridge University’s “Festival of Ideas” in an event billed as “a table of random encounters”. About eight of us from the congregation took our turn at the table last Saturday and a grand time was had by all.

The second is a recent re-reading the very influential Rede Lecture of 1959 given by the British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow (1905-1980) (who, incidentally, spoke to our congregation back in the 1950s). The central claim of his lecture was that “the intellectual life of the whole of western society” was split into the two cultures of the lecture’s title — namely the sciences and the humanities — and that this division was seriously damaging our chances of solving the world’s complex problems.

The third is another recent re-reading, in this case of sections from the 1926/27 Gifford Lectures entitled “The Nature of the Physical World” by the British astronomer, physicist, mathematician and Quaker, Arthur Stanley Eddington (1882–1944). It was the book that first helped me — and many, many thousands of other non-scientists — make their first meaningful (if still baby-step) attempt to understand something of Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity.


From “The Nature of the Physical Universe”, the 1928 Gifford Lectures by Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, Chapter XV

One day I happened to be occupied with the subject of “Generation of Waves by Wind”. I took down the standard treatise on hydrodynamics, and under that heading I read [click on the equation below to enlarge]—

And so on for two pages. At the end it is made clear that a wind of less than half a mile an hour will leave the surface unruffled. At a mile an hour the surface is covered with minute corrugations due to capillary waves which decay immediately the disturbing cause ceases. At two miles an hour the gravity waves appear. As the author modestly concludes, “Our theoretical investigations give considerable insight into the incipient stages of wave-formation”.

On another occasion the same subject of “Generation of Waves by Wind” was in my mind; but this time another book was more appropriate, and I read —

There are waters blown by changing winds to laughter
And lit by the rich skies, all day. And after,
Frost, with a gesture, stays the waves that dance
And wandering loveliness. He leaves a white
Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,
A width, a shining peace, under the night.

The magic words bring back the scene. Again we feel Nature drawing close to us, uniting with us, till we are filled with the gladness of the waves dancing in the sunshine, with the awe of the moonlight on the frozen lake. These were not moments when we fell below ourselves. We do not look back on them and say, “It was disgraceful for a man with six sober senses and a scientific understanding to let himself be deluded in that way. I will take Lamb's Hydrodynamics with me next time”. It is good that there should be such moments for us. Life would be stunted and narrow if we could feel no significance in the world around us beyond that which can be weighed and measured with the tools of the physicist or described by the metrical symbols of the mathematician.

From “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (1959) by C. P. Snow

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: ‘Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?
          I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question – such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, 'Can you read?' – not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.


Horace Lamb’s hydrodynamics and Rupert Brooke’s poetry—Encouraging the “two cultures” to meet and talk

Let’s begin with Snow. I feel that Snow is still right and, broadly speaking, the two cultures — namely the sciences and the humanities — persist and still do not speak to each other at all appropriately or helpfully. Given that for a time he had a fellowship at Christ’s College just across the way, in his lecture Snow, perhaps not surprisingly, tells a number of stories concerning the failures of communication to be found at university high-tables. I’ll leave others to tell me whether this situation has improved but, from my own experience, I can tell you that it has not improved much in most church or generally religious settings. In such circles, for the most part, the humanities generally maintain their scientifically ignorant sway and it remains true that often the most active, committed members of churches have, as Snow said, “about as much insight into [modern physics] as their neolithic ancestors would have had.”

True enough, thankfully, there now exist in our culture hundreds of books which attempt to make accessible and popularize many important scientific ideas, theories and discoveries in a fashion almost unimaginable at the time Eddington published his own groundbreaking popular-science book in 1928. But one of the darkly ironic results of this improvement — an example of the law of unintended consequences if ever there was one — is that when these books get into to the hands of many religious folk — especially preachers — their contents are often misunderstood and quickly shoe-horned into supporting some extremely spurious theologies. I physically wince whenever a preacher begins a sentence with the words “Science says . . .” and who then proceeds to tell me how quantum this or quantum that proves that such and such a God exists and must be one kind of God and not another. It’s a poor and depressing show and reveals well the asymmetry noted by Snow which privileges knowledge of the humanities over that of the sciences.

But what to do about this problem? How might one appropriately bring together the two cultures in an explicitly — if unusually open-minded — religious setting such as our own?

Of course, I can only tell you something of my own thoughts about this as a single, ordinary member of community such as this which, thank goodness, contains a fair few scientists, engineers and mathematicians as well as poets, theologians, historians, educationalists, political and religious activists, theologians and philosophers. My thoughts, as always, are not offered to you as a dogmatic blueprint of how we must or should to proceed but simply as a footprint, a simple indication of how I’ve been trying to think trough how to deal with this stubborn cultural problem. Remember, once I’ve said my piece here it’s over to you to talk about it and to decide how to proceed.  

So, The first thing to say is that I am not a scientist even though I do my level best to remain as reasonably well-informed as possible about what’s going on in the almost unbelievably wide realms of scientific endeavour. But what as a non-scientist I cannot, must not, do — and here I turn to Eddington’s equations and words we heard earlier for my specific example today — is ever pretend to you that I am capable of arguing the toss over the relative merits or demerits of Horace Lamb’s (1849-18934) equations concerning hydrodynamics (Lamb was, by the way, one of Eddington’s teachers).

Now, I asked Amit Einav— a real mathematician and long-standing friend of this congregation — to read the equations because I am unable even to them into sounds. To be sure because I know my Greek alphabet, can read numbers and could also learn the names of the other symbols on the page I suppose I could have learnt to read it out loud to you — and perhaps superficially have impressed some of you along the way — however, in doing this I would still not have had a clue about what relationship these markings, these sounds, had to do with the generation of waves by wind. (My thanks to Amit for kindly walking me through what’s actually on the page and for pointing out a possible typo as well as the places where key bits of information to make proper sense of what is printed are missing).

But despite this, let me be absolutely clear here, I don’t really understand that section of the reading. However, as a fully paid-up member of the culture of the humanities what I do understand is something about the lines Eddington quotes from Rupert Brooke’s (1887-1915) poem called “The Dead.”

This poem was one of Brooke’s own favourites and is the fourth of a set of five poems he published in 1914 during the autumn after the outbreak of the First World War just after he had, himself, joined the Royal Naval Division. The passage Eddington quotes is the second of the poem’s two stanzas. Here’s the first:

These hearts were woven of human joys and cares,
Washed marvellously with sorrow, swift to mirth.
The years had given them kindness. Dawn was theirs,
And sunset, and the colours of the earth.
These had seen movement, and heard music; known
Slumber and waking; loved; gone proudly friended;
Felt the quick stir of wonder; sat alone;
Touched flowers and furs and cheeks. All this is ended.

The poem is, as you can see, in part an elegy to the already large number of dead young men whose hopes and promise had suddenly been ended in the violence of the battlefield.

Now, Eddington was thirty-two at the start of the First World War and not surprisingly he was keenly aware and alert to the horrors of the unfolding conflict. As a Quaker Eddington was intending to apply for an exemption as a conscientious objector but throughout he made it abundantly clear he was willing to serve in either the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, the Red Cross, or as a harvest labourer. However, on his behalf Cambridge University requested and were granted an exemption on the grounds that Eddington’s scientific work was vital to the national interest. After the war, as he continued to do groundbreaking work in physics at Cambridge, it is inevitable that at times the ghosts of those young soldiers should have entered into his thoughts. As Eddington lived on and saw movement, heard music, knew slumber and waking, loved, went proudly friended, felt the quick stir of wonder, sat alone, touched flowers and furs and cheeks, he would have known intimately that for his tomorrow the young men about whom Brooke wrote had given their today. It is almost without doubt that it in this wider context that Eddington offers us Brooke’s second stanza:

There are waters blown by changing winds to laughter
And lit by the rich skies, all day. And after,
Frost, with a gesture, stays the waves that dance
And wandering loveliness. He leaves a white
Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,
A width, a shining peace, under the night.

Recall what he says about them:

The magic words bring back the scene. Again we feel Nature drawing close to us, uniting with us, till we are filled with the gladness of the waves dancing in the sunshine, with the awe of the moonlight on the frozen lake.

We can easily imagine Eddington sitting one day by some unnamed waters contemplating their movement in terms of Lamb’s equations when the ghost of dead soldier suddenly enters into his thoughts and brings Brooke’s lines to the forefront of his imagination. In the twinkling of an eye the moving waves in the sunlight begin to speak to him not in the language of scientific equations but in the language of the dancing, wandering loveliness that is his own present life and laughter and these words and this scene allows him to feel Nature draw close to him. But as the poem moves on in his imagination he is taken away from the warm, sunlit scene to a winter one in which the water has become (we might colloquially say) increasingly viscous and finally, frozen. However, the sight of the frozen water does not crush him with sadness and regret rather, in the moonlight, they fill him with a sense of awe and present a somehow solid, wide memorial of unbroken glory, gathered radiance and a shining peace. And all the while this unfolding vision is being grasped by Eddington’s heart and mind the waves on the waters continue to move in ways he hopes to grasp through Lamb’s unfolding equations.

Now, at this point — despite my status as a non-scientist — I feel I can appropriately reach out across the divide of the two cultures and suggest one possible meaningful relationship between Lamb’s equations and Brooke’s poem. The science concerned with the generation and maintenance of waves against viscosity, by suitable forces applied to the surface prompts in me — as it does in Eddington — the questions intimated by Brooke’s poem. The first question is “What suitable forces are at play in our own daily lives that keeps the waves of life and laughter moving against the viscosity of our own, inevitable, decay and death?” The second question it calls me to ask across the divide between the two cultures is, “What is it about our lives that, when stilled and cold, we might hope will continue also to speak to others of unbroken glory, gathered radiance and a shining peace?”

Lamb’s hydrodynamics is, of course, not asking those questions just as Brooke’s poem is not asking questions about how wind forms waves. But juxtaposing both together, in convivial, intelligent conversation — where we are not forced to privilege the answers proffered by Lamb's Hydrodynamics over Brooke’s poetry or vice versa — our six sober senses are not disgraced, nor are we deluded, instead we are, potentially anyway, taken up in a collective, ongoing multilayered exploration and meditation  about this remarkable world as we seek together to discover both how it is physically structured and how it is — or might be — structured from the point of view of lived experience.  

And here, finally, we can come back to Charlie’s table of random encounters that can unexpectedly place scientists in front of poets and poets in front of scientists. May I suggest that those of you game enough to give it a spin whilst eating lunch consider engaging in just such a conversation across the cultural divide? Perhaps you could bring to the table your own insights — poetic and scientific — that reveal how you have kept the waves of your own life and laughter moving against the viscosity of your own, inevitable immortality and also what it is in your lived-life that might after your death still speak to others of unbroken glory, gathered radiance and a shining peace?

These encounters probably won’t make scientists out of poets, or poets out of scientists (though they might every now and then — and we certainly have a few people here who are both — I think particularly of Jerry and Robin), but I continue to have real hope that such encounters will serve in modest ways to bring science and the humanities into an appropriately creative dialogue and, perhaps, just perhaps, reveal to us all some creative, non-confrontational ways we might proceed together in learning how to dwell both poetically and scientifically in this extraordinary world that is our common home.