Without right, nothing is left

By James Inverne, December 16, 2011
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They say that opposites attract, in physics as in our emotional life. So when I, who had always been a gentleman of the arts (no, that isn't any kind of euphemism), married a lady of the sciences (my wife is a hospital pharmacist) it seemed to be the perfect match. Which is to say, as some people did, we had little in common and so would have plenty to learn from each other. Except that she loves Dvorak and dance, and I - much to my surprise - have found in myself a quiet passion for understanding the physical principles by which our world works.

The Chief Rabbi, while promoting his recent book The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning has been touting around an interesting piece of linguistic history which may or may not help explain this seeming anomaly. He points out that alphabets that don't contain vowels are written from right to left, while those that do contain vowels are written from left to right.

And that those that start from the right, like Hebrew and Arabic and their antecedents, are right-brained languages - the right side of the brain is credited with the creative stuff - in that they require a knowledge of context to make sense of the words.

Languages that have vowels and start from the left, meanwhile, are left-brained in that they lay out everything into precise elements.

You have to know rules to reinvent them

The creation of the left-brain languages, Lord Sacks explains, coincided in history with the development of the philosophy and science - we're talking the ancient Greeks - that also sought to break things down into truths that were measurable and exact.

Now I love the idea that the people of the book used a language that had built into its very fabric a search for context - that, without consideration of the surrounding circumstances, words on a page cannot make sense. It's the spiritual quest in a nutshell. And you also have the exploration of the arts, which is its own kind of spiritual quest. Then there are the right-brainers, the scientists who rely on experiments and provable theories. And never the twain shall meet?

Lord Sacks isn't saying that. He says that an awareness of both approaches is beneficial to society. Which is true, of course. But it's also true, as my opening gambit suggests, that most of us still think in terms of being either a "science person" or an "arts person".

Which are you? Don't answer that, because we're all both. Because they are both the same thing. Now, please lower that quizzical eyebrow while I, in my absurdly non-scientific way, try to explain.

Back to my wife. Her love of the arts came from a school which specialised in music and science. Students majoring in one were required to study the other. My interest in science came from literature, from biographies of scientists.

Many of the leading scientists I have read about had a love of the arts, from Einstein the violinist (a painful one, according to a late friend who knew him) to Lord Winston, the chairman of the Royal College of Music. And I have lost count of the number of musicians I've interviewed who enthused about the mathematics in Bach's scores.

So one side of the brain leads naturally to the other. When you think about how the arts and science progress, that makes stark sense. How do, say, physicists make the next great discovery? Einstein worked in great leaps of faith - he found a theory he liked, then worked to prove it. He couldn't have done that without two crucial qualities: a knowledge of existing opinions and the imagination to make his intuitive jumps. The same goes for composers - unless they understand how harmony and counterpoint work they cannot push the form forward. Put simply, you have to know what the rules are to reinvent them.

It's all a matter of peering into the soul, just as it is at the same time all about testable structures and laws. Artists, scientists and, I daresay, the clergy, are all in the same field. For all the talk of right and left sides, no one is walking around with half a brain.

The good news is that apparently my wife and I have a good deal in common.

And my favourite quote on the subject comes from Einstein (him again). When asked whether he ever wondered in his darkest moments whether all of his rules might be wrong, whether the universe in fact just runs on a random series of events, he shook his head. "God," said the shock-haired genius, "would not be that unmusical."

    Last updated: 11:06am, December 16 2011