Thursday, 21 January 2010

Hatred is bad for you

There are some obvious truths that it's hard to live out in real life. For example, it's bad for you to hate. Every now and then I find myself disliking someone really really intensely and when I do I try to find a few redeeming characteristics in them, and then just stop thinking about them. People are only people on the whole, and not worth destroying your digestion over.

Recently though my feelings about Peter Mandelson have been really getting away from me. I can literally feel my bile rising every time I think about him or encounter anything he says or does. I'm not going to go into the humanities research debate; my personal situation at the moment is such that I feel simply too close to the whole question. I've always had a feeling that when I get to do research I am extremely lucky, but I'm not sure that that's inconsistent with a suspicion that humanities research is an essential part of civilisation, chiming with something intrinsic to the human condition, etc. With all the gloom of recent humanities pronouncements I am reminded of being at birthday parties when I was small -- there's a sense that the music is stopping and I don't have anywhere to sit. Back then my usual snap response was to feel disdain for the game; so it's really too complex for me to make judgements about the humanities at the moment.

But science! I feel like posting a Youtube video screaming "Leave science alone!". Seriously, leave science alone! The sciences represent pure intellectual curiousity to me, for various reasons. I can count among the scientists I know from my time as a research fellow some very very bright people many of whom share a particular trait which is hard to describe -- a sort of way of looking at the world freshly, of always wanting to know why something happens, which is often coupled with a particular sort of kindness and just a hint of innocence, though not naivety, in relations with people. I'm not describing what I mean well: but if I were to counterpose the engineers from my old college with the historians I might even suppose that these different disciplines produce different characters. I wish I could explain what I mean better; it's almost like the humanities are the Roman Empire in the second century AD, while the sciences are back in the days of the Republic, when Cincinnatus would take on supreme power to beat the state's enemies and then resign the dictatorship and go back happily to his farm.

It's quite possible of course that I am talking complete nonsense.

But I do often wish I were more of a scientist myself. I did double maths and physics at A level, and I often find myself missing the simple elegance of maths. If you make it so that research scientists have to work on questions closely related to immediate profit then you'll hobble them from understanding how the universe works, and understanding how the universe works is important, and can even eventually be extremely profitable. (See this Observer article about how arcane and useless any investigation into lasers appeared to be for a long time.) So why is Britain letting Peter Mandelson anywhere near our beautiful fragile sciences? He's not elected. He doesn't actually know anything. Hasn't he been repeatedly discredited and made to move on? Why's he back again, and how did he get to be even more Teflon than Tony? Why is any of this anything to do with him?

I'm no fan of David Cameron -- very very far from it, he's pretty content-free, and reminds me of that processed cheese that you peel off its plastic backing and put on burgers. But if there's a chance that we can at last shake off the inexplicable leech that is Peter Mandelson then bring on the election. I don't care if it would be like changing one set of wound-bothering flies for another, just get Peter Mandelson away from my consciousness now. I could almost bring myself to vote Tory on this one issue: get this terrible terrible man away from the things I love (universities and the digital world, on which I haven't even touched in this post).

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