- Arts & Literature
- Science & Technology
By Madi Maxwell-Libby
For an English student, it’s a familiar taunt. ‘All you do is sit around making stuff up about stuff that’s made-up. I bet I could do your degree’. So we decided to test it, with one over-confident Engineering student and one bashful English enthusiast attempting each other’s work. The results were unexpected, as the arts student managed to follow a logical train of thought and the science boffin managed a depth of analysis beyond that of a robot.
Subject 1, English girl, attempts the following question set by the Engineering student, Subject 2.
“The foot of a uniform ladder rests on rough horizontal ground while the top rests against a smooth vertical wall. The mass of the ladder is 40 kg. A person of mass 80 kg stands on the ladder one quarter of its length from the bottom. If the inclination of the ladder is 60° to the horizontal, calculate:
a) the reactions at the wall and the ground,
b) the minimum value of the coefficient of friction between the ground and the ladder to prevent the ladder slipping.”
13:00hrs. Silence. Brows furrow. “So presumably…you need numbers as well as directions?”
13:10hrs. Subject 1 begins a diagram. There are lots of scribbles that look like little people. Is she anthropomorphising angles? Subject 2 looks incredulous. “Are you drawing stick men??” She is.
13:15hrs. First anomaly: Subject 1 demonstrates understanding of Ɵ symbol. “It’s called theta”. Subject 2 is impressed.
13:26hrs. Second anomaly: Subject 1 demonstrates basic understanding of physics. “On a smooth wall, there’s no friction”. Subject 2 looks on in wonder. Could it be that an arts student will triumph in the face of logic and reason?
13:30hrs. Evidently not, as Subject 1 abandons the realm of science to seek comfort in the more familiar realm of sensitive analysis of language and form, known to Subject 2 as ‘bullshit’. Her response:
“I think the multiplicity of meanings in this question shows that engineers don’t have a clue what they mean. The use of the word of the word ‘values’ invites questions of judgement that undermine the scientific validity of the calculation, as how does one define ‘value’? You’re also making vast assumptions about the inclination of the ladder, how do you know the way the ladder is really inclined? There is a theme of homogeny running throughout the piece, the word ‘uniform’ and numerical imagery betrays the inherent repression in the scientific world. The uncertainty conveyed in the last word, “slipping”, echoes the insecurities that lie beneath the veneer of practicality and reason.”
Next, Subject 2 faces two essay questions and a poetry analysis:
1)“Organised violence committed on ordinary speech” (Roman Jakobson) Is this an adequate definition of literary language?’ OR
“A good metaphor is something even the police should keep an eye on” (G C Litchenberg) Discuss the relationship between the aesthetic and ethical/political uses of figurative language.’
2) Analyse TS Eliot’s The Wasteland
13:50hrs. Subject 2 raises eyebrows. “Fucking hell”
13:51hrs. “I’m gonna go for the second question, seems like there’s more banter in there”
13:52hrs. Subject 2 conforms to predictions of a logical working method with a structured response.
“Definition: The use of figurative language distinguishes fluency from non-fluency, thereby separating ethnic minorities from the native English folk. Politicians use this to such an extent to disguise their true intentions because they know that ethnic minorities are at a slight disadvantage when it comes to the English language.
Method: they put phrases containing alliteration and similes to make their speeches sound more enticing to gain ethnic minorities’ votes. It also makes them sound a lot cleverer, as you do not understand what they are saying.
Conclusion: As with reference to the quote, that police should keep an eye on a good metaphor, completely emphasises the point that flowery language has destroyed society because police should be more ideals such as social security and tax evasion. A metaphor would do a lot less damage than these things. Although I can see the impact a good metaphor disguised as a political lie could have on society.”
14:00hrs. Subject 1 explains that “metaphor is an act of violence on language and separates the signifier from the signified.” Subject 2: “That sounds deep. But this is class-A bull.’
14:02hrs. Subject 2 attempts analysis of well-known Modernist poem The Wasteland. Begins reading. “What’s with the Greek stuff?”
14:03hrs. “Whaaaaaaaaaaaaat?” Expression on face a mixture between incredulity and disgust.
14:04hrs. “Bloody hell.”
14:05hrs. “Why can’t people just write direct messages?!”
14:20hrs. Subject 2 offers the following analysis of Eliot’s masterpiece (Part I, ‘The Burial of the Dead’)
“Something bad happened in April. It is clearly about a burial of some sort. The narrator is a woman. She is German and she likes flowers. She’s mixing languages together to show a mixture of society. At first I thought this poem was about a girl planting something on a farm where the worst of her problems were tubers not growing. And then she moves into the city where she doesn’t have to farm anymore. But, reading deeper, I think it is about war. She’s planted peace and worried that the dogs, England, will come and dig it up again.”
So, while Subject 1 confounded predictions of total ineptitude, the theory that an arts students’ core strength lies in bullshitting was proved correct. It was, however, “bloody hard”, according to Subject 2, whose confidence in the superiority of his discipline has taken a knocking since the experiment. Could you do better, or spectacularly worse? Tweet your scientific solutions to the arts questions at @OxStuFeatures