What Hath STEM to Do With Classics?
By Jonah Starr
For students who are focusing on technology or the sciences, is it really worth the sacrifice of time and effort to study things like classics?
I’m a bit of a science nerd.
Okay, I say “a bit,” but by that I mean I spend hours of my free time reading books and articles and watching videos about all sorts of different scientific fields, particularly physics. I am fascinated by how the physical world works and love to discover how to predict its behaviors.
Yet (sometimes under duress, to be quite honest), I have studied Latin for more than five years now, and Attic Greek for two. There have even been times when I have quite enjoyed it. But given the seemingly insurmountable gap between classical languages and modern science, why have I put myself through the effort of learning Latin and Greek when my primary interests lie elsewhere?
This is a question faced by many classically educated students who are science-minded. The main objection offered by many of these disgruntled high schoolers is either that Latin and Greek are irrelevant to an increasingly tech-minded culture, or that even if they have some small value, the classical languages no longer predominate in normal scientific conversation, so time seems to be better spent learning a more practical language—or even none at all.
So, as a potential future physics professor or engineer, have I suffered in vain? Why have I bothered learning Latin and Greek when I could instead have spent more time on the theories of Faraday, Lenz, or Kirchhoff, or learned a modern language like Spanish so that I could overcome language barriers in a future job?
Thankfully, people far more intelligent than I have engaged with this question and have deemed the suffering worthwhile. One obvious, simple benefit is that many scientific terminologies are based on Latin words (a simple example being the element name for iron, Fe, which is from the Latin ferrum meaning “iron” or “sword”), thus making the terminology easier to understand and remember. But beyond this, Dr. Garret Fitzgerald, director for the Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics at the University of Pennsylvania, offers two compelling reasons why many STEM students are drawn to the seemingly opposing fields comprising scientific inquiry and classical language: because together, they offer both attention to order and an integrated historical-scientific narrative.
In a 2017 article for the Society for Classical Studies, Fitzgerald writes, “my efforts at translation of Greek and Latin have rooted in my thinking attention to detail, structure, logic, and the assembly of pieces of knowledge. Science and diagnostic medicine both rely on an innate feeling for the order of things, a stitching together of clues to frame a hypothesis or interpret results, care and rigor in either experimentation or clinical investigation, and the pursuit of internal consistency between separate lines of evidence.” This process of the scientific method described by Fitzgerald is remarkably similar to the process of translating Latin: one must first observe the words, then hypothesize what they mean together from context or past experience (as word order matters little in most Latin writing); repeated, and sometimes excruciating, experiments with translation finally bring clarity and understanding.
Fitzgerald further reveals the second gift of classical language: “the power of narrative. In science, we need to communicate our findings to our peers in talks and papers, to our funders through writing grants, and most importantly, to the public in a way that frames our discoveries honestly and in the context of the work of others.” Until the end of the seventeenth century, almost all scientific papers were written in Latin; acknowledging that tradition, being able to dive into past researchers’ thoughts in their own words, allows for a consistent and easily accessible conversation shared among scientists throughout scientific history. This language-based lifeline to the past likewise facilitates a more comprehensive discussion not only of science, but also history and politics, integrating them all in one great conversation. As Sir Isaac Newton once wrote in a letter to Robert Hooke in 1675, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
There will always be those who disagree. Many have not received such an education in ancient languages, and their careers have not observably suffered. Though this is true, the stories of accomplished scientists like Fitzgerald offer a different perspective. Formerly a Greek and Latin scholar himself, Fitzgerald found success in medical school, and has since risen to the top of his field; he credits his language studies not only for his ability to effectively communicate with colleagues and patients, but also for his historically-grounded, multidisciplinary perspective that he finds necessary in medicine.
There are after all not one but two primary purposes of education: first, to prepare the student for a career, and second, to ensure that the student gains a well-rounded knowledge of the world. The classical languages shine on both counts: they can set potential candidates for promotion apart by highlighting their skills, and also allow students in general to gain a more well-rounded notion of the history of science. As for me, I am thankful that my growing understanding of Latin and Greek already has allowed me to think more critically in a scientific setting, to access the knowledge of past scientific papers, and to understand the science of language itself. I have benefited greatly from the effort.
All in all, the benefits of learning classical languages are easily worth the work it takes to learn, even for us science nerds. So take heart: the long road of classical language fluency is a difficult but worthy journey. As the great Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, Non est ad astra mollis e terris via, “There is no easy way from the earth to the stars.”
Jonah Starr is a 17 year old, mostly-homeschooled high school junior who has called Eagle, ID home for the past several years. Hillsdale, Grove City, and Baylor Honors rank at the top of his list of potential colleges. In addition to physics and classics, his interests range widely: from playing the trumpet to reading Russian literature, from resin pouring and woodcarving to backpacking and calisthenics.
Every time we administer the CLT, the forty highest-scoring students on that test are offered the opportunity to contribute an essay or piece of creative writing to the Journal. Well done, Mr. Starr! If you’d like to see more from our top students, check out these essays on the civic value of empathy, the text of the national anthem, and the work of Edmund Spenser. You might also like our seminar series on the minds included on our Author Bank, and our podcast, Anchored.