Two Cultures…I Wish!

For years, I’ve been hearing about the famous essay by C.P. Snow on the “two cultures,” the one of the sciences, and the other the humanities. This essay, written in the late 50s, I think, made quite a splash and continues to burble to the surface of cultural discourse now and then. As one who never understood the sense of the idea, and who has always believed that the search for truth, knowledge, and wisdom is one culture, whether it is carried out in the realm of science or the realm of poetry, I decided to go back and read the essay and see what he actually said. I’m happy to say that I can now expunge it from my “must read” list, and if you have been thinking of spending time on it, I suggest you not bother.

Snow was, I’ve heard, trained as a scientist, and I believe he dabbled in literature as well, but the essay doesn’t convey a very deep grasp of either. In fact, it seems to me to be a piece of pedantic puffery by a man who thought nobody was quite as clever or broadminded as he.  He bemoans the fact that when he was at a literary get together, not one of the guests could explain to him what was the Second Law of Thermodynamics!  (Can you imagine what a charming guest he must have been, prowling about, pouncing on slightly inebriated literary ingenues and declaiming, “Are you now, or have you ever been able to describe the nature of the Second Law…?”) At the same time, he clucks his tongue over the lack of cultural sophistication of the scientists he meets.  Moreover, he discusses science as though it is some sort of technical enterprise, divorced from the flow of ideas and he seems to think that non-scientific culture exists in an ivory (or ivied) tower. Again, perhaps it did where he hung out, but that’s not the end of the story. His point of view seems quaint when it’s not irritating.

Well, perhaps Mr. Snow just chose his friends badly. Perhaps he was a boring windbag whom intelligent, vivacious, and intellectually curious people avoided.  Maybe those litsy-critsy folks would have been able to say something intelligible about entropy, but they didn’t know it was called the 2nd Law.  Could it be that some of his dullard scientist friends might not recognize a line from Troilus and Cressida, but knew Hamlet quite well, even if they’d never read it? (They might have actually seen it in the theatre, heavens!)  As Richard Feynman remarked in a lecture in 1965, referring to the supposed disdain felt by the denizens of each culture for the other:  “They don’t actually [feel that way], but people say they do.

Yup, I wish we had those two cultures, yes indeedy! I wish we were having hare-brained arguments over whether it’s more important to be able to draw free body diagrams and solve problems in Newtonian dynamics than to be able to elucidate the meaning of John Donne’s poetry. I’d rather be doing that than arguing why religious zealots should not be allowed to insert the Book of Genesis into biology textbooks. I’d prefer to be ranting and raving about why engineering students should have to read Shakespeare to graduate instead of fighting to keep evangelical sects from removing Huck Finn from school libraries. Two cultures – that would be a dream right now.

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