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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.

In education, ministers have been Snowites (“white-hot” Harold Wilson put him in government for a while), new universities and institutes have appeared, and schools have largely abandoned the classics; A levels now include economics and psychology, and it has become easier to mix arts and sciences at A level than it was, while university courses have diversified enormously.

The public appetite for science has grown hugely, and shelves in bookshops are full of titles such as John Gribbin’s In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat, and James Gleick’s Chaos. Pitched at various levels — from those of TV science star Brian Cox to Sir Roger Penrose’s daunting and stupendous thousand-page The Road to Reality, they provide further evidence that it is scientists more than writers who enjoy a caste-like status as gifted initiates. Their realm of almost hieratic symbols and equations remains tantalisingly out of the reach of most. Now that God is discovered to be the One True Mathematician, they are His prophets, and the popularisers their disciples. Writers must deal in mere words; they are preoccupied in finding their niche in a land of a hundred sub-cultures; they have lost confidence in the “traditional culture” — isn’t everybody else’s culture interesting too?

Our culture has become so fragmented, sprawling, relativistic, pluralist, populist and hyperactive that it is more difficult than ever to understand great achievements in fields not our own. We can only attempt it by making a real effort not to be specialised to the blinkers. Those who can should try at least to appreciate some of the elements of maths rather as the Greeks admired those of Euclid. On the other hand, that does not mean (as Snow thought) that we all have to sign up to a repellent conformist technocracy. Why shouldn’t creative writers, if they are intelligent and thoughtful, be pessimistic, nostalgic, radical, angry, or otherwise dissatisfied with the failings of contemporary civilisation? They are entitled to be subjective, and should, in the proper sense of the term, be aesthetes (which Snow, despite being a novelist, wasn’t).

The two-cultures question can never be fully resolved, but it might be better understood. In trying to make sense of ourselves and our civilisation, we do need powerful cultural critics, both in creative and analytical writing, to help us. We have plenty of good academics and incisive commentators, but perhaps none to fill the shoes of seers and sages of the past, from Coleridge and Mill to Orwell and Russell, or of the “public intellectuals” now apparently more valued in France and the US.

On the other hand, imaginative writers should make more frequent ventures into the bounds of science (I don’t mean the fantastic fake science of most science fiction): it would enrich their work. I love the way Milton mentions Galileo (whom he visited in Florence in 1638) in Paradise Lost (“Through optic glass the Tuscan artist views /At evening from the top of Fesole”) and I wonder whether if he’d been more interested in what was going on in the England of Newton and Hooke, and less in seraphic historiography, his epic might have been more consistently engaging. Writers should aim, if not to “justify the ways” of the cosmos to man, at least to help us understand what it is, who we are, and how we should react to what we have learned. Too many are just not very interested.

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March 22nd, 2017
5:03 PM
I read this article with interest. I'm just about to take my GCSEs and they are overloaded with science. Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Maths are compulsory, yet History, which is surely essential for any understanding of the political and social world we live in, is an option. I agree that it is helpful to have a knowledge of the scientific developments which shape our lives but I feel strongly that they should be seen within the context of the arts and humanities.

Robert O'Brien
March 21st, 2017
6:03 PM
Some very interesting comments, especially from Chuck Lanigan, Don Phillipson, Erin Macdonald and Jan Sand: it would be good to write another article responding to them, but in any case I will try and post comments on them. To take Don Phillipson's for the moment, he is quite right, except perhaps on the point about international politics: I think Trilling meant that Snow wrote about the international scientific communities almost as though they were all part of one rather friendly community in which were rivals of the others, rather than locked in an appallingly dangerous contest of military and technological might, with all the existential implications that had. I think he was right, but Don P is also right that Snow was extremely concerned about the competitive side of the whole matter, so it is a question of what is considered most important - that competition, or the more individual human and artistic response to massive threat.

Bill Gruber
March 21st, 2017
5:03 PM
Love Chuck Lanigan's quote from Thoreau: the thing we have go to remember about a lot of science, especially cosmic physics, is that is basically suprahuman. It's not about us. Didn't someone say that the proper study of mankind is man? And that will always be the case whatever science does. I think that is what Leavis may have been getting at.

John Lobell
March 15th, 2017
4:03 PM
Let's be sure to read Snow. He points out that those in the literary culture are often ignorant of much of science and proud of it. A point even more valid today.

Jim McCaffery
March 14th, 2017
3:03 PM
What makes the argument between Literature and Science seem particularly outdated is the fact that in most social and educational circles both cultures have been largely replaced by Marketing and Technology, respectively.

Chuck Lanigan
March 14th, 2017
1:03 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'. 3. David Noble’s ‘The Religion of Technology; The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention’. 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 as well: ‘All our inventions are but improved means to unimproved ends.’

Eric MacDonald
March 13th, 2017
11:03 PM
I think you give too little credit to FR Leavis, and I do not think that Snow's success was the reason for his outraged Richmond Lecture, which is – I think Leavis was right in this – a classic text and should be read more carefully. It was indeed outraged, for Snow was in a position of influence, and pretending to have a foot in each of the two cultures was in a position to do great damage, which I think he in fact succeeded in doing. Leavis, on the other hand, was a Jeremiah, scathingly reviewing a stuffed shirt, who had no claim to be really a novelist, and with his claim to having been a physicist, and thinking the Second Law of Thermodyanmics more important than a reasonable foundation in a humane culture, the result of which has been a gap that is now more than an ocean, but a number of light years in distance. The idea that science really provides adequately for beauty in the sense in which Snow himself put it that "the scientific edifice of the physical world," he argued, is "in its intellectual depth, complexity and articulation, the most beautiful and wonderful collective work of the mind of man." Upon which Leavis comments: "it is pleasant to think of Snow contemplating, daily perhaps, the intellectual depth, complexity and articulation in all their beauty. But there is a prior human achievement of collaborative creation, a more basis work of the mind of man (and more than the mind), one without which the triumphant erection of the scientific edifice would not have been possible: that is, the human world, including language. It is one we cannot rest on as something done in the past. It lives in the living creative response to change in the present." And it is in this, which is collaborative, because the poem, as Leavis points out, is "out there" and only becomes real in its appropriation by the minds which read and understand it in the light of their experience. This is a foundation very different from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which, while informative about the structure of the physical world, is not informative about the human world in which we must learn to live. When Leavis' lecture was published, I thought it one of the most wonderful statements of the problem with thinking of two cultures that there has ever been. While science is indeed essential to much of our understanding of the world, it will not obviously help us to become more attuned to the human world, and may, as Leavis warned us, in fact interfere with our ability to respond to the human world, and those who creatively speak about it, in sensitive and humane ways. If we do need to revisit the two cultures, it is pricipally to consider a bit more deeply what Leavis had to say, because his classic has been sadly neglected these many years. Leavis' words are for the ages, and are perhaps especially needed now. Snows "Two Cultures" is distinctly of the past, and showed very little understand of what constitutes culture. Scientists appreciate this, and are very often well versed in the classical literary, musical and artistic works of their culture.

March 13th, 2017
9:03 PM
Digital Art starting in the 1990's is often collaboration between artists and scientists. This collaboration has branched out into bio art. In a few cases there are scientists who are also artists. There is a scientist who studies frogs who has been inspired by his method of studies to create art. Gelernter comes to mind in the field of software for his love of art.

March 13th, 2017
8:03 PM
I think it would help if mathematicians would quit using numbers and were to use letters in normal ways

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.

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