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Two Cultures: 50 years down the line

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.

For a more detailed look at Snow’s lecture and its impact over the past 50 years, take a look at Robert Crease’s article in the latest print edition of Physics World .

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  1. It amazes me that in discussions of the two cultures debate,few refer to the British secondary education system. Snow was talking about the UK, a country where students chose 3 main subjects only from age 16. I’m not surprised you have a dicotomy between science and literature – the split starts long before college!

  2. 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.


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