Towards breaking the silence between the two cultures: Engineering and the other humanities

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Over the years, I have attended numerous meetings like this one at the Center for the Study of Higher Education. I have noticed that most of the attendees, and certainly the speakers, tend to come from the social sciences or humanities. Only rarely do I see anyone here from Berkeley's College of Chemistry or College of Engineering. I come from the College of Chemistry that includes Berkeley's Department of Chemical Engineering. I mention this background to indicate that my remarks here are necessarily less abstract, less theoretical and less philosophical than those of most previous seminar speakers. My remarks are ... continued below

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11 pages

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Prausnitz, John M. January 1, 2003.

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Over the years, I have attended numerous meetings like this one at the Center for the Study of Higher Education. I have noticed that most of the attendees, and certainly the speakers, tend to come from the social sciences or humanities. Only rarely do I see anyone here from Berkeley's College of Chemistry or College of Engineering. I come from the College of Chemistry that includes Berkeley's Department of Chemical Engineering. I mention this background to indicate that my remarks here are necessarily less abstract, less theoretical and less philosophical than those of most previous seminar speakers. My remarks are probably somewhat simplistic because, as a result of my engineering background, I tend to focus less on generalities and principles, giving more attention to possible solutions of limited practical problems. About seven weeks ago, I was invited to attend a conference sponsored by the Berlin Academy of Sciences where ''Sciences'' is not confined to natural sciences but includes also humanities and social sciences. The topic of the Conference was ''Sprachlosigkeit'', a German word that roughly translated means inability to speak. The subtitle was ''Silence Between the Disciplines''. The German universities are worried about the increasing gulf between what is often called ''the two cultures''. This gulf is a problem everywhere, including Berkeley, but it is my impression that it is much worse in Europe than in America. The International Conference in Berlin was attended by some big names including the presidents of the Humboldt University in Berlin, the University of Uppsala in Sweden and the Central European University of Budapest, as well as some distinguished academics from a variety of institutions including Harvard and Stanford, and the presidents of three major funding organizations: The Volkswagen Foundation, The German National Science Foundation and the Max Planck Society. The speakers were primarily from the humanities and social sciences but there also were two physicists, two biologists and one mathematician. I was the only speaker from Engineering. Following Karl Pister's generous invitation to present a seminar here, I would like to tell you in a severely revised form some of what I tried to say at the Conference in Berlin. When talking to colleagues in the Humanities and Social Sciences, one of my most difficult tasks is to persuade them that those who practice science and engineering are not confined to cold logic and bloodless experiments but that instead, science and engineering is a human enterprise, subject to all the paradoxes, inconsistencies and aesthetic judgments that characterize the human condition. When scientists and engineers are at their best, they suffer the same frustrations, self-doubt, and delights common to artists or novelists or literary critics, or to anyone who creates to extend knowledge and awareness. Like all other members of a university, scientists and engineers strive to make a better world; in participating in this common activity, they necessarily operate within the borders set by our common human nature. I stress this common activity and this common purpose because ultimately, it is this commonality that provides the only sound basis for overcoming the alienation, this Sprachlosigkeit, that under another name, is known as the silence between the cultures. I can best illustrate what I have just tried to say with a quotation and a cartoon. The quotation is a famous one, from Theodor Adorno: ''The most successful artistic creations are those that are lucky at their most dubious places''. Adorno was referring to painting, sculpture, literature and especially to music. However, what he said also holds for science and engineering. All students of history know that without occasional miracles, there would be little progress. Along with all the other humanities, sciences and engineering could not succeed without them. I would like to discuss three topics and again, I want to apologize for my simplistic views. (1) Two structural reasons that contribute to poor communication between disciplines. (2) Is Sprachlosigkeit necessarily bad? Why should we worry about it? (3) Some modest proposals that may facilitate communication across disciplinary boundaries with emphasis on the Bronowski Project for engineering students.

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11 pages

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OSTI as DE00841547

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  • Other Information: PBD: 1 Jan 2003

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  • Report No.: LBNL--52180
  • Grant Number: AC03-76SF00098
  • DOI: 10.2172/841547 | External Link
  • Office of Scientific & Technical Information Report Number: 841547
  • Archival Resource Key: ark:/67531/metadc778613

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  • January 1, 2003

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  • Dec. 3, 2015, 9:30 a.m.

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  • Sept. 21, 2017, 6:03 p.m.

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Prausnitz, John M. Towards breaking the silence between the two cultures: Engineering and the other humanities, report, January 1, 2003; Berkeley, California. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc778613/: accessed December 11, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.