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Jun 18 / Peter Hoffmann

“The two cultures” –Part 1

Last weekend, on a trip to Maryland, we spent an hour in one of our favorite used book stores, “Courtyard Redux” (don’t ask about the name), in Havre de Grace, MD. If you’re in the market for books on history (especially Civil War), this is the place to go. Of course, I was headed instead for the smaller, but well stocked science section. And I made a few finds, among them a small, blue, clothbound 1st edition (I think) of C.P. Snow’s “The two cultures and the scientific  revolution”. I had heard so much about this book over the years, read little excerpts here and there, but never read the whole thing. I was intrigued. Is what he wrote in the late 1950s still relevant?

But first, who was C.P. Snow? And what are the “two cultures”?

Charles Percy Snow (yes, with these first names, he was clearly English) was a British writer and scientist. He studied chemistry and received a PhD in physics. He was one of a rare breed of “hard-nosed” scientists who also wrote novels and essays, and, as such, definitely a role model. On May 7, 1959, Snow gave his now famous lecture on the “Two cultures”, with which he meant the culture of scientists (and, especially, physical and applied scientists) and the culture of literary “intellectuals”. Why did he see these two cultures as distinct? How have his observations held up over time? Are we still divided into two (or more cultures)?

In C.P. Snow’s observation there was an “ocean” between the scientists and their literary colleagues:

I felt I was moving among two groups – comparable in intelligence, identical in race, not grossly different in social origin, earning about the same incomes, who had almost ceased to communicate at all, who in intellectual, moral and psychological climate had so little in common that instead of going from Burlington House or South Kensington to Chelsea, on might have crossed an ocean.” (There are a lot of modifiers in this small excerpt that I will skip over for now, but come back to later…)

Snow felt this to be a serious threat to the West in his days of a beginning cold war. “I believe the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups. … at one pole we have the literary intellectuals, who incidentally while no one was looking took to referring to themselves as ‘intellectuals’ as though there were no others. … at the other [pole], scientists, and as the most representative, physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension – sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding.

Is it still like this? First off, I believe that on the whole, the answer is no. Yes, there is still incomprehension and (some) hostility, but overall there is more goodwill. The reasons are many: More scientists want to be writers. And to be a good writer, one has to read and engage literature and language. There is no way around it. At the same time, there is much good science writing and information about science, so “literary intellectuals” are more likely to be exposed and, hopefully, intrigued by what they see and read. These days it is difficult to avoid the Higgs Boson or the Mars Rover, even if one tries very hard. They are part of our culture.

Another major reason that “hostilities” have eased is that we all face a common “enemy”: The public disinvestment in education, learning and research, and the anti-intellectualism of our ruling elites. It would be foolish of scientists to gloat at the disinvestment in the humanities, when they can clearly see that we will be next, or, rather, already are. It is tough not to paraphrase Niemöller:  : “First they came for the humanities…”

Having said that, there is still much work to be done to improve mutual understanding and trust. This has not gotten any easier, especially with the explosion of knowledge. Even among scientists, there are gulfs of incomprehension. Here is a personal anecdote: I collaborate with a cancer biologist at Wayne State Medical School. We work well together, but it took a while to bridge the vast gap between our fields, to understand our approaches, to come up with a plan of research we can both understand. I was proud of myself for beginning to understand “medical science”, as I was proud of my colleague for having so much patience with me.  I saw my collaborator’s work as very applied in the area of cancer medicine, while I thought of myself as a basic scientist (although my particle physics colleagues would see me as an applied physicist). Then, about one month ago, I was contacted by an MD from the Karmanos Cancer Institute about possible collaborations. In our conversation, she mentioned our mutual friend, the cancer biologist, and casually mentioned how “basic” and “fundamental” his work is, and how hard they have to work on understanding each other and moving towards applications! Apparently, from cancer biology to clinical cancer care is as big a gulf as from physics to cancer biology. Science is a vast ocean indeed. And now add the humanities… (in the next installment of this series).


  1. Peter Hoffmann / Jun 29 2014

    I agree completely! For engineers, the potential gain is a being better writers, better in understanding people and being better at understanding how the things they create will be used and influence people.

  2. John T Haworth / Jun 28 2014

    I have often wondered how so many of my colleagues in Engineering have been proud of the fact that they have little interest in the Humanities. How can one thrive without an appreciation of both!

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