The battle began when I was sixteen and told my teachers I wanted to be a doctor. I was moved into the science stream, never having had a science lesson in my life. We’re talking about a good girls’ school in the 1940s. The chemistry teacher had reached her 90th birthday and had been let go the previous week. Her bright young replacement looked with horror at the strange unmarked jars of viscous yellow and green liquids that lined the shelves of the lab and asked the pupils to just empty them out. So I emptied a jar into a sink in the dining hall where it exploded and the whole school had to be evacuated because of the fumes. It was nitric acid. Beware science, I thought, and fled back to the humanities.
But by the time I got to University I was so bored with the normal female choice of subjects, English, French and History, I opted for two new ‘soft’ sciences, Psychology and Economics, and here I flourished. But I still caroused with the Eng. Lit. and Humanities students – the would-be artist and poets, the ones with dysfunctional families, right-brain dominant, not the left-brainer science students, who tend to have orderly lives. Like calls to like.
Then when in 1959 the scientist novelist C.P. Snow pointed out the world’s problems were the result of the ‘Two Cultures’ – how the scientists and the humanities behaved as though they lived in two different worlds, didn’t understand each other and never got together, even socially, I took it to heart. I read the New Scientist in its rather duller days, I wrote a novel about cloning and another about warfare (The Cloning of Joanna May & The Shrapnel Academy). I tried to warm to scientists and was always genuinely interested in what they did for a living. Then the neurologists, bless them, came to the conclusion that the two-world division is more intractable even than supposed; we’re all of us either left-brain dominated – rational, orderly systematic thinkers, or right-brain – fuzzy thinkers, intuitive and creative and very annoying to left-brainers. People don’t divide as sharply of course, there is lots of crossover and left-brainers can have right-brain sparks of inspiration – Watts with his kettle, Newton with his apple, Einstein with his relativity: and right-brainers sparks of rationality. Like calls to like. You still don’t find geologists sitting next to the Eng. Lit. students in the college dining hall, any more than you did in C.P. Snow’s day.
And then the war hotted up. A newspaper asked me to write an article about ‘why people didn’t like scientists’, so I asked around. Answers ranged from ‘because they invented the atom bomb’, to ‘they never shared their home-work answers at school’, ‘they’re all needy geeks’ to ‘they all wear anoraks’. My frivolity raised a dreadful storm. It was the anoraks that really got them going. Mr Dawkins was particularly annoyed. ‘This silly schoolgirl!’ he raged in print, ‘What can she possibly know about science?’
And then I was asked to a Times debate in London, seconding Brian Appleyard – he had just written a book titled Understanding the Present – Science and the Soul of Modern Man and I rashly said okay, though I was warned by an anonymous phone call there would be a hostile audience. Indeed there was – we lost the vote by 896 to 4: it was what you might call a packed hall. I had a fit of tachycardia and was ferried off to casualty at UCH down the road, and as the doctor raised the life-saving syringe – adenosine, if you’re interested: it stops the heart before starting it off again – he said ‘I hear you don’t believe in science?’ ‘Oh but I do, I do!’ I cried, being in no position to elaborate, and he relented and I lived. This is a true story.
I asked around again, lately, and the replies were much the same as they had been twenty years back. But now people tended to worry about what the scientists had failed to do rather than what they’d done; they liked the technology bits – mobile phones, social networks, Facebook, high-speed trains and robots on Mars – while complaining that scientists y hadn’t eradicated malaria, still couldn’t predict earthquakes, that the Hadron Collider was a waste of money and so forth.
But then Professor Dawkins – during a truce in which I was in favour once again, having described his book The Blind Watchmaker as a work of genius, and he as a brilliant poet – it’s true; he is the most wonderful writer – opened a new offensive. He became a proselytising atheist. Now I don’t mind at all if a left-brainer declares there is no God, he can hardly help it: I do mind when a left-brainer, such as he, condemns me, a right-brainer and a fuzzy thinker, as stupid and primitive. He can’t prove there isn’t a God, I can’t prove there is, but since the capacity to doubt is a sign of intelligence, I reckon I’m more likely to be right than he is.
I am doubly moved by the fact that once the great scientist Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, having given me a run down on the latest on the Big Bang, said ‘It’s all a creation myth, you know.’ Which seemed a gratifying kind of own goal.