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!