Why these are great times we’re living in - Macleans.ca

Why these are great times we’re living in

Today, science and technology reign supreme; humanities were for the good old days.

Why these are great times we’re living in

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

At some point, usually when humans turn 60, we lament the decline of our culture. No one speaks or thinks with the same clarity as 30 or 40 years ago. Is the pinnacle of mankind’s creative spirit to be reality television and accidental billionaires in dot-com ventures? The conversation is utterly predictable, incredibly tedious, but, be honest, haven’t you had it? Even Steven Spielberg lamented the decline of his milieu—filmmaking—in a recent interview.

Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris was a play on this. Allen’s present-day hero longs for the golden Paris of the ’20s and its “lost generation” of writers and artists like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso. Having stumbled back into the period via a time machine in the form of an antique car, he falls for a girlfriend of Picasso’s who in turn longs for the Paris of the belle époque, the 1890s world of Toulouse-Lautrec. The handy time machine takes them there, only to find that M. Lautrec and friends long for the golden world of the Renaissance.

But no matter how clever this film nostalgique, it doesn’t quite reassure us about our own times that seem so threadbare, culturally speaking. I mean, rap music versus Lerner and Loewe or chick lit versus Edith Wharton. We played chess and bridge, not Sniper Elite on a PlayStation. Downhill all the way.

More helpful is a line in the extraordinary film The Social Network based (with liberties) on the life of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Early on, Zuckerberg in his Harvard nerd days gets dumped by his girlfriend. Fictional or not, this sort of moment comes to all men (and women), and there are a number of ways of coping with it, including getting drunk (which in the movie Zuckerberg does) or eating lots of chocs—my solution. Zuckerberg goes back to his dorm and after a particularly nasty blog post about the size of his ex-girlfriend’s bosom, confronts his roommate with the excited demand to “give me the algorithm.” This is said with the same force that Shakespeare’s Richard III famously invoked with his line, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.”

The line opened a window for me. I have no earthly idea what an algorithm is apart from it being some sort of process that calculates steps toward a function—and that definition pretty much comes from Wikipedia. Something about Euclid rings a bell from high school but not in any way that has actual utility. I put English subtitles on for the remainder of the film because the vocabulary at times eluded me—it’s a new language.

Different ages have different strengths. Historians write about the Age of Science or the Age of Reason or, as in Will Durant’s analysis, religion versus science. Human culture has, minimally, two dimensions (probably dozens more) of science and the humanities and there will be periods when each predominates. The best brains simply follow the times. I cannot possibly comprehend what sterile neutrino oscillations are, but a particle physicist would, and as it happens Dr. Georgia Karagiorgi of Columbia University does and she just won a major award in experimental particle physics.

This goes to another point—I’m on a slight tangent here—namely that women have always been among the “best brains” in the scientific world. Madame Curie usually surfaces now, but my favourite early female scientist is Mary the Jewess, who lived sometime around the first and third centuries AD and invented many chemical apparatus including the double-boiler (thus leading to the modern phenomenon of Shabbos brisket).

Science and mathematics are as fertile a field for creativity as philology and philosophy and it would be hard to dispute the genius creativity of Mark Zuckerberg who, having got his algorithm, writes the script to express the comparative “hotness” of girls in the college residences. For any maths person who has stumbled accidentally into this column: having given each girl a base rating of 1,400 plus some other value, the comparisons can be expressed by

Ea = 1 and Eb = 1

1 + 10 (Rb – Ra) / 400 1 + 10 (Ra – Rb) / 400.


Ideally we’d all be literate in science and humanities. Thus C.P. Snow’s famous “Two Cultures” lecture. Arthur Koestler was culturally bilingual, compulsively readable—though he lost me in his comparison of psychokinesis and quantum physics in The Roots of Coincidence. All very well for Koestler to say that it was incongruous for those of us illiterate in science and technology to complain about those who were literate, but few people bridge the two cultures. High literacy in either field is rare by definition—in both, almost unheard of.

Turner Classic Movies held its annual film fest last week—bear with me, this is not a complete tangent. I watched Liza Minnelli and Robert Wagner walk the red carpet. (Cruel world—some icons are best kept in cold storage.) I tuned out of the interviews, dreading repetitions of “how wonderful TCM is” from faded stars talking to TCM host Robert Osborne. Then I heard Peter O’Toole. Asked what he would tell actors today, he simply said, quoting the Bible, “the word . . . and in the beginning was the word and the word was made flesh.” In his (better) time, he said, actors didn’t need special effects, only words.

O’Toole is a highly literate artist. Faced with a movie based on an “algorithm,” he might have acted superbly. Unlikely that he would have understood that particular “word” any better than I did. We are from a period when humanities were more the vogue. Now is a time for technology and science. It would be superhuman not to prefer the time that coincides with my own peculiar sense, but algorithms notwithstanding, a magical time it is.


Why these are great times we’re living in

  1. What a great article Barbara, I too belong to the past vocabulary, and the humanities.

  2. Ah, so true, my Lady Barbara (with a true apology for addressing you with the Canadian offense of employing your rightful but anachronistic title). This from a man born precisely in
    the middle of the 20th century. Might I recommend you look up the poem by Thomas Hardy entitled: “The Darkling Thrush”? Here, Hardy’s words leave testament to the perennial question which inevitably arises in the hearts and minds of those who must finally admit membership in “The Then Generation”. Or, as one, old friend of mine recently remarked, “Had I known that the edifice I have spent a lifetime erecting would end up looking like this, I would have jumped from the scaffolding years ago.” <> Wilde regretted youth was wasted on the young. Peggy Lee asked: Is that all there is? And George W. Bush (suitably attired) claimed it “Mission Accomplished.”.

    • Even in the UK, you omit titles when doing professional journalistic or artistic work.

  3. FOOTNOTE: What a hash this new “Disco whateveritis” made of my comment. The indecipherable should read And they’re all made of of ticky-taking. And they all look just the same. Sorry folks. Blame if on the wonders of the the Disqus app. Well Disquus this!

    • FOOTNOTE 2 I’ll try again: For garbled statement it should read :And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky. And they all just look the same. (Let us pray Disqus doesn’t eat this correction again. Sorry.

  4. What a tragic bore you are Lady Barbara!

    • But still you take the time to look up her column and read her work.

  5. If this was in the movie,
    “Ea = 1 and Eb = 1

    1 + 10 (Rb – Ra) / 400 1 + 10 (Ra – Rb) / 400”
    then I think the movie was not checked by a real scientist of any kind junk. They just put in a junk equation, and it being junk makes incomprehensible, not just to liberal arts grads, but anyone.

    Is there supposed to be something here where I’ve put two question marks?
    1 + 10 (Rb – Ra) / 400 ?? 1 + 10 (Ra – Rb) / 400

    Whatever, 1 + 10 (Rb-Ra)/400 can be simplified as 1 + (Rb-Ra) / 40, so why would you ever pass the equation around in its unsimplified form?

    How much better girl A is than girl B is derived from

    (Ra – Rb) / (Ra + Rb)
    multiply that by 100 to express it in percent.

  6. These are great time’s we live in Barbara. Especially when a woman like you can make such distasteful, ignorant comments on a rape case and still have a career as a journalist and still manage to be published. Great time’s indeed.
    Do I even need to mention your husbands deeds to society?