By: Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum | posted April 7, 2009
Born in 1905 in Leicester, Charles Percy Snow grew up in a family that barely clung to the British middle class. His father taught piano lessons and clerked in a shoe factory. The family home didn't even have a real bathroom. But Snow would pull himself up through education: A prestigious science scholarship took him to Cambridge and gave him the opportunity to study physics at the famed Cavendish Laboratory alongside Ernest Ruth erford, who pioneered our understanding of the atomic nucleus.
Soon Snow launched what would become a highly successful career as a novelist, and then began to serve Her Majesty's government in a variety of science-related capacities. By 1959 he had already become Sir Charles and was en route to Lord Snow. Soon to leave government service, he began to punditize and pronounce in nonfiction format—to say what he really thought.
And so late in the day on May 7, 1959, Snow rose to a Cambridge lectern to deliver the yearly Rede lecture, a centuries-old affair, and an invitation to pontificate for someone deemed to have earned it. He was 53 years old and, as a contemporary put it, "a kindly looking, avuncular figure, who beams at the world out of a round face through round glasses in a way which inspires a belief in man's better nature and the benevolence of the universe." Snow had spent his life up to that point moving among two separate and atomized groups of very smart people: literary intellectuals on the one hand, and scientists on the other. Now he seized the occasion to address a problem that had been "on my mind for some time ... a problem I could not avoid just because of the circumstances of my life ... By training I was a scientist: by vocation I was a writer."
This pedigree gave Snow a natural credibility as he went on to describe a disturbing "gulf of mutual incomprehension" between these two intellectual groups. Soon he illustrated the point with a canonical example:
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?
This tends to be how we think of Snow today: A man at a cocktail party, trying to broker a peace between warring tribes of eggheads. It's also how we tend to think about the "two cultures": A divide between people who do equations, and people who do Shakespeare.
Such interpretations aren't wrong, they're merely simplistic. They don't help us understand why Snow would later express the wish that he had titled his lecture "The Rich and the Poor," and suggest many had missed its central point. Snow cared a great deal about breakdowns between scientists and writers, but the reasons he cared are what ought to most concern us, because they still resonate across the 50-year remove that separates us from Snow's immediate circumstances. Above all, Snow feared a world in which science could grow divorced from politics and culture. Science, he recognized, was becoming too powerful and too important; a society living disconnected from it couldn't be healthy. You had cause to worry about that society's future— about its handling of the future.
For this lament about two estranged cultures came from a man who had not only studied physics and written novels, but who had spent much of his life, including the terrifying period of World War II, working to ensure that the British government received the best scientific advice possible. That included the secret wartime recruitment of physicists and other scientists to work on weapons and defenses, activities which put Snow high up on the Gestapo's Black List. So, no: Snow's words weren't merely about communication breakdowns between humanists and scientists. They were considerably more ambitious than that—and considerably more urgent, and poignant, and pained.
It helps to think of Snow as an early theorist on a critical modern problem: How can we best translate highly complex information, stored in the minds of often eccentric (if well meaning) scientists, into the process of political decision making at all levels and in all aspects of government, from military to medical? At best that's a difficult quandary; there are many ways in which the translation can go wrong, and few in which it can go right. Yet World War II had demonstrated beyond question that the nations that best marshal their scientific resources have the best chance of survival and success, making sound science policy an essential component of modern, advanced democracies.
The oft-told story of the atomic bomb, in which a letter from none other than Albert Einstein helped alert President Roosevelt to the danger, makes this point most profoundly. But in a lecture delivered at Harvard little more than a year after his "Two Cultures" address and entitled "Science and Government," Snow illustrated the same dilemma through the example of radar. He argued that if a small group of British government science advisers, operating in conditions of high wartime secrecy, had not spearheaded the development and deployment of this technology in close conjunction with the Air Ministry, the pivotal 1940 Battle of Britain—fought in the skies over his nation—would have gone very differently. And Snow went further, identifying a bad guy in the story: Winston Churchill's science adviser and ally F.A. Lindemann, who Snow described as having succumbed to the "euphoria of gadgets." Rather than recognizing radar as the only hope to bolster British air defenses, Lindemann favored the fantastical idea of dropping parachute bombs and mines in front of enemy aircraft, and tried (unsuccessfully) to derail the other, pro-radar science advisers. Churchill's rise to power was an extremely good thing for Britain and the world, but as Snow noted, it's also fortunate that the radar decision came about before Churchill could empower Lindemann as his science czar.
So no wonder Snow opposed any force that might blunt the beneficial influence of science upon high-level decision-making. That force might be a "solitary scientific overlord"—Snow's term for Lindemann—or it might be something more nebulous and diffuse, such as an overarching culture that disregards science on anything but the most superficial of levels, and so fails to comprehend how the advancement of knowledge and the progress of technology simultaneously threaten us and yet also offer great hope.
Such a culture is what Snow detected in Great Britain in 1959; such a culture is also, to a great extent, what we find in the United States today—albeit for very different reasons.
With this background in place, we can begin to understand and translate one of the more seemingly antiquated parts of Snow's lecture: His particular beef with literary intellectuals, who come in for by far the greatest thrashing in the speech. Nowadays, when the profession of academic literary criticism is "losing its will to live" (as one Yale English prof recently put it), it's hard to imagine a period when literary intellects virtually ran things. Yet that is what Snow claimed to observe around him, and what he was reacting to.
It's not that bookworms were directly controlling the British government. But Snow felt that his country's "traditional culture" strongly privileged training in literature and the classics, rather than in the sciences; the assumptions of this traditional culture then greatly influenced society and its institutions. As a consequence, much of the British intelligentsia failed to comprehend science and seemed to abhor its extension in the form of industrialization, technological advancement, and economic growth. For Snow, such an attitude was wrong-headed: Technological advancement held great hope for improving the health and welfare of the poor people of the world.
In a nod toward even-handedness, Snow delineated the faults of both intellectual groups treated in his lecture. But any one could see he did not regard those faults as entirely equal. His scientists come off as can-do men of great sympathy and optimism, albeit "self-impoverished" because of their inability to see the relevance of literature to their lives. But as for the other camp, the literati who fail to comprehend science, but enjoy sneering at it? "They are impoverished too—perhaps more seriously, be cause they are vainer about it." Snow even observed that while scientists have "the future in their bones," literary types respond "by wishing the future did not exist." They were, in Snow's words, "natural Luddites." Such a quality did not recommend itself at a time when science had begun to transform the world far more rapidly than ever before.
To the "two cultures" problem, Snow saw just one solution. England had the most specialized educational system in the world—one that separated students with scientific talent from those with humanistic leanings at an early age, and then funneled them in different directions—and for Snow it simply had to change. Otherwise, his country would remain ill-equipped to tackle the leading political problems of the day, especially the gap between the industrialized and developing world—an issue Snow thought the scientists understood best, and could best address by working to spread the benefits of technology abroad. Or as he put it:
For the sake of the intellectual life, for the sake of this country's special danger, for the sake of the western society living precariously rich among the poor, for the sake of the poor who needn't be poor if there is intelligence in the world, it is obligatory for us and the Americans and the whole West to look at our education with fresh eyes.
Seen through an adequate lens, then, Snow's "Two Cultures" lecture, his "Science and Government" speech, and in fact all of his other major addresses reduce to the same point: Let's align our intellectual resources so science can achieve its full world changing potential. Let's not let anything get in the way of the translation of scientific knowledge into social relevance and action—not petty rivalries and egos, not scientific overlords and their pet theories and gadgets, and not disciplinary divides or cultural disconnects. Because it's simply too important.
Today, Snow's point is more poignant than ever. Innovative scientific and technological solutions are the key to meet the 21st century's economic, environmental, public health, and security challenges that transcend political borders. Just 50 years ago, Snow probably could not have foreseen global threats such as climate change, bird flu, or bioterrorism. But his vision of the need to unify the disparate intellectual camps in order to achieve the world-changing potential of science was prescient.
Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist and the author of The Republican War on Science. Sheril Kirshenbaum is a marine biologist and author at Duke University. Mooney and Kirshenbaum's forthcoming book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, will be published in the summer of 2009.