Two Cultures? Stop Whining and Get Over It!

For anyone unaware of the fact, today is the 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow’s famous two cultures lecture, and has been marked by a continuation of the debate that he started. In a nutshell, Snow noticed that people either studied arts and literature, and then went off to do important things in the BBC or Government, or they studied science and spent the rest of their career complaining that no one at the BBC or the Government could understand a word that they they were saying.

In the last fifty years there have been various solutions proposed, but most of them involve forcing scientists to learn ancient Greek or forcing physics down the throats of art historians, and not surprisingly there has been little enthusiasm on either side.

The answer is twofold. When I pop down to Casa Paco in Madrid for a solomillo I want a big, barely cooked lump of meat, not a chopped and shaped blend of offal, lard and soy beans. Similarly, if I employ someone as a chemist I want someone whose mind has been crammed full of as much chemistry as will fit in there, and that’s all  I want. Anyone who wants to spend 50% of their time quoting Euripides would get pretty shirt shrift I’m afraid.

The second problem with this renaissance man idea is that science has expanded massively in the last fifty years. While polymaths like Jonathan Miller and Stephen Fry can probably handle this and the entire output of western culture over the last three thousand years with ease and grace, most people can’t. So harking back to the days when 18th century scientists would skip through the fields collecting butterflies and pressing flowers before spending the afternoon translating poetry from Sumerian to Latin and then popping out to procure a cadaver for a spot of dissection is simply a romantic notion, and something that is impossible in the 21st Century.

The acceptance of the two cultures idea seems to be part of the problem, because scientists seem too busy debating this to realise that they actually have the upper hand. It’s virtually impossible for anyone schooled in the arts to pick up much science, it’s simply too time consuming to get an in depth education once you have left full time education.  But there is nothing to stop a physicist dashing home from the lab home in the evening, wolfing down his faggots & peas and then popping on a bit of Stravinsky while he reads a bit of Homer.

Perhaps if scientists stopped being bitter about getting a poor deal in life and embraced a bit of culture (apart from World of Warcraft) then we would at least have a scientific community that could better communicate with the rest of the world. There’s no shortage of doctors, scientists and engineers that have switched over to successful careers in government, business, theatre or the BBC, but I can’t think of a single classicist heading a nanotechnology department!

Comments 5

  1. Andrew Maynard

    Eh by gum Tim, eruditely stepping over the cultural divide to tell it as it is – good on you 🙂

    I should add though that all this two cultures stuff is a bit of a red herring. Snow was really interested in how science can be used to benefit society – something that’s been lost in translation, but is as relevant now as it was 50 years ago.

  2. Post
    Author
    Tim

    Of course, it’s human nature to boil down any complex idea into an us vs them adversarial contest, or my nature to bang their heads together and tell them to get on with the important stuff 😉

  3. Dexter Johnson

    That’s funny because two friends of mine at college were dual majors. One in classics and mathematics and the other classics and physics. They didn’t seem too perturbed by this so-called divide. While I am not sure whatever happened to the classics/physics major, the classics/mathematics student became a mathematics teacher and published author. So, the potential exists that my physicist/classicist friend could very well have become exactly what you can’t cite a single instance of. I’ll see if I can find that information for you.

  4. psikeyhackr

    It has gotten to the point that now most people don’t know what questions to ask about a grade school physics problem.

    Gravitational Collapse

    How do you build a 1360 foot skyscraper without figuring out how much steel and concrete to put on every level? Why do people expect it to be possible to figure out whether or not a NORMAL airliner can destroy it in less than 2 hours without that information?

    And yet now we can make NETBOOK computers more powerful than the mainframes from the 1980s for less than $300. So how many people can figure out what to do with technology this powerful?

    40 years after the Moon landing and our so called scientists don’t talk about the Planned Obsolescence of automobiles and our economists don’t tell consumers how much they have lost on the depreciation of that garbage. John Kenneth Galbraith talked about PO in 1959 also.

    psik

  5. Pingback: I'm Jonathan Miller And I Want To Know Why! | TNTlog

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