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C.P. Snow: He lamented the “ocean” that he saw between the boffins and the literati (©JHU SHERIDAN LIBRARIES/GADO/GETTY IMAGES)


The last few years have given us three good British films about four exceptionally brilliant mathematicians: The Theory of Everything (Hawking), The Imitation Game (Turing at Bletchley) and The Man Who Knew Infinity (G.H. Hardy and the Indian genius Ramanujan in Cambridge). They taught us something about these men (so that the semi-numerate could talk about maths) while issuing a challenge to the ignorant to find out what they actually discovered, which the films barely attempted to explain.

The films function as middlebrow bio-pics, but by engaging with mathematical matters they also put some viewers in mind of the novelist C.P. Snow and his seminal “Two Cultures” lecture of 1959. Snow lamented the “ocean” that he felt lay between the literati and scientists, and accused the former of being “natural Luddites”. He himself could bridge this sea because he had been a physicist. He approved of the way the Soviets were training huge numbers of physicists and engineers (they had “judged the situation sensibly”), and worried that Britain would be left behind because of the “traditional culture”. He explained that at a literary party, not a single guest could repeat the Second Law of Thermodynamics (“the response was cold. And also negative”: it’s clear that he wasn’t the life and soul). He succeeded in making it celebrated among scientific laws.

His call to action in education and literature struck an international chord; F.R. Leavis was so enraged by its success that he weighed in with an almost comically unhinged attack on Snow, published in the Spectator. Leavis thought that he had no obligation to know about science and that Snow’s pontificating showed that he was “as intellectually undistinguished as it is possible to be”, exposing “a complete ignorance”. In America Lionel Trilling more subtly analysed flaws in Snow’s argument — for example that it almost disregarded international politics.

The debate was surely the last major branching of an ancient cultural tree: Leavis’s attack was the old hostility that the Romantics had felt for the Utilitarians. Some of our best creative writers from Arnold to Orwell had produced impressive critiques of contemporary culture; and we had valued our sages and visionaries such as Carlyle, Ruskin, Shaw and Russell. But by the 1960s, we seemed, as a society, to be losing touch with such elevated thinking, and Leavis’s fury was probably self-defeating.

In the 50 years since, further scientific and cultural revolutions have happened. In the literary world, now much more diverse, some well-known writers have taken on scientists, including Michael Frayn in Copenhagen, his play about Bohr and Heisenberg; John Banville in his Revolutions trilogy; Harry Thompson in This Thing of Darkness, on the voyage of the Beagle; and the wonderful Penelope Fitzgerald in The Gate of Angels, about Cambridge physicists. Most, though, have been content to ignore Snow’s strictures. I know an excellent writer who said that he would despise a scientist who didn’t know some great literature; yet he could not quote a single scientific law or theorem, and admitted that he stood self-accused of hypocrisy.
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Jan Sand
March 13th, 2017
6:03 PM
This is an apology. In my accepted comment I characterized nature and natural phenomena as immoral. That was a gross error. Morality is essentially a factor in the relations humans have with each other and with the living world at large. Nature itself, no matter how it deals with its fierce energies, is amoral not immoral since intent is the inherent factor in morality and I do not perceive any intent in nature. I am quite old and subject to typos as is evident here and there in my initial contribution and I am sorry for my errors.

Chuck Lanigan
March 13th, 2017
4:03 PM
Okay. This got me going. Why in h*ll don't we address these questions in school and society instead of rarified intellectual discussions? E.g., Neil Postman suggestion that we ask about any new technology: 'What problem (if any) does this solve. What problem(s) does it create? Couple of reading suggestions 1. Postman's 'Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology' and 'Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future. 2. S. Zuboff's 'In the Age of the Smart Machine: the Future of Work and Power'. I’m also a huge fan of Tom Standage (wonderful writer and 'splainer) and James Burke's 'Connections' and 'The Day the Universe Changed'. Populizers? Sure. And antidotes to scientific reductionism and data-driven idiocy we are falling heir to. Go back and read Thoreau: ‘All our inventions are but improved means to unimproved ends.’

Don Phillipson
March 13th, 2017
2:03 PM
Readers today usually forget Snow's 1959 lectures addressed a solely British audience about the current predicament of the British ruling class, weakened (as Snow saw it) by a defective education overvaluing "the classics," with little or no knowledge of science and technology. Snow' main contrast was between the narrowness of the British tradition, little changed since Victorian reformers, from Prince Albert to Thomas Huxley, argued that science and engineering offered just as good a "training for the mind" as Latin and Greek. By contrast, Snow approved the American and German traditions that required teaching both arts and science subjects up to college level, instead of specializing from age 15 or 16 (after GCE O level.) Britons did not know in 1959 much about American schools beyond what they had seen in Hollywood movies. and even less about the German and Russian traditions Snow also approved as bridging the Two Cultures that divided Britain. He suggested it was possible to train a ruling class generally wise in history and as adept in the Second Law of Thermodynamics as it was in tags from Shakespeare. His focus on Britain's predicament in 1959 (just before the huge expansion of British universities) was unperceived equally by F.R. Leavis and by Lionel Trilling (who was quite wrong that Snow "almost disregarded international politics." His theme was that governments that did not understand science were likely to be incompetent in economic or military competition.)

Jan Sand
March 13th, 2017
6:03 AM
As someone who had spent a good many years attempting to move into scientific areas and finally succumbing to an inherent inability to operate comfortably in the abstract atmospheres of mathematics I have been embroiled in this basic problem most of my life. I hugely admire all the attributes of science and its conquests of the unknown and the cascade of marvelous gadgets its technologies which has radically shaped modern society. But I am also appalled by the aspects of reducing human values to mathematical abstracts in the financial, economic, and political disciplines very much in the way nature itself is totally immoral out of the necessities of evolutionary survival and development. The casual destructions of individuals, societies, planets, stars and galaxies in the life of the universe which science accommodates with equanimity and which is the accepted necessary fare of the sciences, when applied to daily human relationships cannot be but somehow repulsive to someone whose whole world of values resides in a mind of flowers and sunsets and children and affection. I do not deny the realities clearly displayed out of the cascades of numerical abstractions but his is not where I exist as a living human. The merciless disciplines which are now directed by controlling world cultures frightens and depresses me and whatever it demands, it seems oddly aimed currently at the total and final demolition of the entire planet. Something is very wrong.

Mike Cope
March 13th, 2017
6:03 AM
"fantastic fake science of most science fiction" Indeed. But SF is not all fake science, (think Asimov) and I bet that if one had asked a roomful of SF writers in the early '60s to define the 2nd law of thermodynamics, they would all have been able to do so. They would also have been able to talk at length about science, especially astronomy.

Anonymous
March 4th, 2017
11:03 AM
A thought-provoking piece which made me, admittedly arty, reflect on my meagre knowledge of maths and science. Mathematicians and scientists have changed the world profoundly without most of us having any idea how. Like Robert O’Brien, I can think of few major cultural critics. I would think the novelists Martin Amis and Ian McEwan have made valuable contributions. Any other suggestions as to who has an overall grasp of how our culture is developing, and is at the same time a first-rate writer?

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