The two cultures

As scientists we are a much maligned breed. Many people believe us to be slightly weird. This opinion is not undeserved from what I have observed in my short scientific career.

We often dress in corduroy trousers which are – to other people – quite obviously about 2 inches too short for us. This simple fact seems to elude us, although on the other hand, we might  know exactly what a neutron star is why how many times it rotates per day. When you spot one of us approaching you at a friend’s party (you know it’s one of us from the corduroys) looking as though we want to tell you about global warming, you immediately begin talking to the person closest on your left  in an effort to look busy (statistically speaking this is an accountant).

But would you go so far as to say scientists are actually a different class of person from others? One man who certainly believed so was Charles Snow. C. P. Snow tried hard to be a chemist during his early life. Indeed, he must have tried very hard as he eventually managed to publish a scientific paper detailing an impressive new way to make vitamin A in a laboratory. This was not only clever but a useful achievement too, given that little was known about vitamin A at the time and a way to make lots of it, quickly was much needed. Unfortunately  Snow’s paper in the prestigious journal Nature soon became what is politely called ‘widely discredited.’ In other words he had been wrong – he hadn’t really managed to make vitamin A at all.


Charles Percy Snow, contraversial (failed) scientist, author and politician

Charles Percy Snow, contraversial (failed) scientist, author and politician

Snow was unable to console himself with this embarrassment and for a time he became a shell of his former self. By all accounts he lived for science, relishing the scientific revolution of the mid 20th century and believing it was essential for all men to get involved in this new and exciting race to learn more about the natural world.

With such strong beliefs and a failed career in science behind him it was probably inevitable that Snow would go into politics. This he did, holding various powerful positions within government including an important stint as an advisor for education policy. He also wrote several books during his life. His most interesting work, and that which his later life revolved around, was his seminal lecture ‘The two cultures’ of 1959.

His lecture, which was subsequently published as a book , outlined his beliefs that there is a wide and difficult to breach gap between the two cultures of science and art. Snow accurately observed the beginnings of what is quite apparent today; that it was extremely difficult for the two cultures to communicate ideas from their two disciplines to each other effectively. He believed that those people in power were generally artists. Since it was the scientists – in his opinion – who had the best understanding of how to society problems and how to solve them, he saw the lack of communication between the two classes as one of the biggest hinderances to human progress.

Bringing Snow’s arguments up to date, we might say that without the non-scientific intellectuals in power listening to scientists, we may not be able to implement useful policy changes to prevent climate change. This might be equally impossible though if scientists don’t have understanding of how to make their advice economically and socially feasible. Two way communication is a really important goal then.

I for one think I agree with Snow. Whilst an increased knowledge of our equal and opposite discipline  might not create world peace instantaneously, but  it couldn’t hurt. Understanding seems to me to be the first step to acceptance, and that is surely what we need more of in our global society.

It seems to me that scientists have an unfair disadvantage when it comes to communication. Well, I suppose I would think that! But hear me out; the arts are surely all about communication by their very nature – writing, sculpture, dance – you name it – these are all communicating ideas or emotions. That means it’s easy for a scientist to engage with art – in an art gallery or by reading a novel – but how often do you see an artist at a particle accelerator? Since art is all about communication from day one, but it’s a skill scientists have to develop in addition to their main business of logic, perhaps we need some kind of training, enabling scientists to make their work approachable to the outside world?

Perhaps there is hope for us yet. It comes, rather fittingly, in the form of education reform which Snow was so passionate about. The situation for GCSE science students is changing to give students more choice as to how they study science.

The first option is a more traditional double or triple award in science. Here students will learn the equations and long words which are vital for those of us who want to be proper scientists. For those children who are left rolling their eyes at the thought of learning the atomic numbers of elements, there is a new ‘applied science’ course, teaching children the value of a scientific approach to decision making, and allowing them to investigate for themselves the impact which scientific issues like GM foods might have on the wider world. This might realise Snow’s vision (and what should surely be ours too) of a world in which the non-science specialist policy makers of the future understand some of the background to scientific debate without having to get caught up in the boring bits.

Last week I had the good fortune to spend an evening listening to a talk by Bill Bryson, author of the amazing science book ‘A short history of nearly everything.’ When asked about how poor his science teachers were at school, Bryson replied that they were indeed awful and that our school science lessons shouldn’t just be geared to churn out new scientists, but to give all the other students a chance to understand what science is all about at the same time. ‘Most people in the room won’t become scientists, but they should still be given the opportunity to experience the wonder of chemistry, the magic of physics…’

Well I’m chuffed that Bill and the government share Snow’s concerns about science. Not only that, but in fighting the problem with education I think we can be optimistic that by the time the next generation is in the driving seat they will have a good chance of blending science and the arts into a healthy mix of common sense. The ones that don’t have ASBOs, anyway. 


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One Response to The two cultures

  1. Anders Aufderhorst says:

    Just a quick message to express continued appreciation for a really good blog! We were clearing out some old filing cabinets in our group a few weeks back and actually found the original copy of C P Snow’s doctoral thesis – really bizarre!

    Interesting though that CP Snow gave his talk about 20 years before the big boom in science degrees arguably caused by the moon landings – the talk seems relevant now because we’re undergoing a bit of a lull in interest again. I think perhaps this is caused by a lack of perceived relevance in science. As long as science is only seen as being responsible for better drugs, faster computers and new shiny ipods people lose interest. Interesting though that the number of physics A-levels this year increased for the first time in ages – perhaps issues like climate change are increasing interest again. I’ve got to say I’m pretty skeptical of the Bill Bryson approach if it involves making science classes simpler – what we really need is relevance and more importantly better teachers.

    Anyway – my thoughts. Really wish I’d made it to the meeting! Keep up the good work, mate!

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