CP Snow saw a dangerous void in culture
By James Dacey
Fifty years ago this month, academics filed into a packed lecture theatre at Cambridge University to hear the English physicist and novelist CP Snow deliver his now famous talk about “The Two Cultures”, which was later published as a book.
Snow’s central argument was that there exists a dangerous gulf in the modern world between top level “scientists” and the “literary intellectuals” of the humanities.
In the main, Snow blamed this on the snobbery of literary intellectuals who unfairly characterized scientists as uncouth and lacking in culture.
As an anecdote Snow described his experience of dinner parties where literary intellectuals were quick to scoff at a scientist who could not recall Shakespeare but bristled at the suggestion that they should be acquainted with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.
Snow warned that this lack of cohesion between science and the humanities was leaving society ill-equipped to tackle some of the complex problems the world was facing, including the widening gulf between the rich north and the poor south, driven by industrialization.
Over the past fifty years, Snow’s lecture has received as much criticism as praise, mainly for its informality, stereotyping and vague definition of culture. However, the fact that the Two Cultures debate still resonates in 21st Century academia, is probably testament to Snow’s great insight.
Tonight, in London, the Royal Society is hosting a public debate to revisit the Two Cultures argument and to discuss how it applies to our situation today.
The event will be hosted by the nation’s favourite polymath Melvyn Bragg, and panellists will include John Denham, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, and Marcus du Sautoy, the Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science.