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A scientific approach to art: Ian McEwan’s Solar

May 25, 2010

Your blogger is not the first person at SolarUK you should turn to if you want to know how an expansion vessel works, or how by the marvels of physics a solar collector transfers heat to your hot water tank.  Every piece of technical information coming his way has to be read at least twice before it sinks in.

At school, he was definitely an ‘arts’ rather than a ‘science’ person, reflected in his choice of A-levels.  While he was sitting analysing Jane Austen with mainly female classmates, wearing floral dresses (the girls, that is, not your blogger) and almost keeling over in their passionate engagement with the text, most of his mates were anorak-clad, beer mat collecting inhabitants of ammonia-reeking laboratories.

We are stereotyping here, of course.  But Ian McEwan, whose new novel Solar is about a physicist who has the chance to save the world from environmental catastrophe (and we hear on Radio 4 this morning that it has won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize) explained in a recent Daily Telegraph interview that the arts and science aren’t really so distinct.  Artists can refine what has gone before and make discoveries: in a sense, make improvements in their field, and get closer to the ‘truth’, just as science seeks to do.

If we look at the history of science, it is hard to disagree with Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn and other philosophers of science that it’s peppered with revolutions in thought, abrupt transformations opening up new lines of reasoning which would not have been given any credence under previous assumptions.  Perhaps there are echoes here in the revolutions in fiction, such as the stream-of-consciousness style of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf which seems to come from a different planet from that of Thomas Hardy.

Through science, we learn about the state of the world as it’s currently known.  Aristotle’s error-packed theories about motion and other physics stuff belong to the history class, not the GCSE science syllabus.  This is what makes the discipline different to the arts.  If the arts really can be constantly getting ‘better’, as McEwan’s musings hint at, then the awkward implication would be that Austen, Dickens or Woolf should be relegated to the second tier in the English curriculum – behind a bang-on contemporary figure such as Ian McEwan.

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