Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Two Cultures?

Both P.G. Wodehouse, comic novelist supreme, and C.P. Snow, chemist, public man and anything-but-comic novelist, were born on this date - PG in 1881, CP in 1905 (not to mention 1844's birthday boy Friedrich Nietzsche - 'fundamentally unsound' according to Jeeves).
  It hardly needs pointing out that the works of the 'performing flea' of English literature have lasted rather better than those of the 'serious and important' Snow, 'chronicler of our times', etc. But CP originated the useful phrase 'corridors of power' - and he is still remembered for having ignited the Two Cultures debate. Snow deplored the undervaluing of technical/scientific education (which is fair enough) and what he discerned as a breakdown of communication between the 'two cultures' of the sciences and arts. He writes:

'A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: 'Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?'
I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question – such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, 'Can you read?' – not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.'

  Hmmm. This argument is fine, I suppose, in terms of 'general knowledge' and the 'well furnished mind' - but is it really fair to equate two such different forms of knowledge? Science (except at a very exalted level) is a matter of facts, information and techniques, whereas knowledge of the arts equates with experience of them - the arts are lived rather than merely known, and are at bottom open to all; they do not in themselves have to be 'learnt', whereas science does. They are enjoyed for their own sake, whereas science is essentially a means to an end.
  The application of scientific knowledge has certainly been dazzlingly effective in the world - it works - but do we all really need to know it, any more than we need to know motor mechanics to enjoy a drive, or TV engineering to watch television? Scientific knowledge is by its very nature contingent and provisional. Homer and Aeschylus still speak to us, but the scientific ideas of their times are of purely historic interest - indeed 'science' as presently understood didn't even exist until long after; it is of historically very recent growth.
  Are we really supposed to believe that the person who can't recite the Second Law of Thermodynamics or define Mass is as deprived or deficient as the person who has never experienced the impact of Shakespeare, Bach or Rembrandt?  Of course, knowing a bit of science can come in handy in a pub quiz - but I don't think that's quite what Snow had in mind...

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