Time To Revisit The Two Cultures

The divide between the arts and sciences will never be fully resolved. But the gap may be narrowing

Robert O'Brien

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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