C.P. Snow: The Culture Crosser

By Chris Mooney | April 18, 2009 12:05 pm

Okay, so, I guess there’s a supplemental reading assignment for those wanting to take part in the “Two Cultures” discussion next week. You see, our article about Snow’s life, and the contemporary meaning of his work, has just come out in the magazine of the New York Academy of Sciences, in anticipation of the big event in less than a month (which, I hear, is expected to sell out).

The piece provides C.P. Snow’s biography, some intellectual history, and then goes on to interpret the “Two Cultures” lecture not only in the context of Snow’s times, but alongside his other contemporary writings (which are often ignored when folks try to read Snow). An excerpt:

…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 ad visers, 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 be fore 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.

You can read the full essay here. Basically, think of it as an ambitious attempt to explain why C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” lecture is not dismissable as merely a Cold War document; but rather, is deeply relevant and resonant today. And post a comment here to let us know if you think we’ve succeeded in making that case.

Comments (4)

  1. Sheril, Chris,

    The Intersection is a very good read.

    Claire

  2. MadScientist

    The “euphoria of gadgets” is alive and well. With some economists the notion has been taken to the extreme in the frequent proclamation that science and industry will miraculously develop a solution to any problem. In more obvious examples we have evangelists proclaiming their own messianic solutions to end all the world’s problems.

    Within the scientific community circumstances have evolved over the years to encourage an unhelpful competition: you and I have to use every dirty trick to get that little bit of available funding. Sorting out the link with politics is one thing – but how do you maintain an honest interaction? One recent example of a peculiar bias comes to mind: in the case of NASA, Dubbyah Bush was somehow encouraged to support a push toward a manned exploration of Mars to the detriment of existing programs including earth observations.

    In my own case my small company is up against a giant competing for funding for what are really very small research projects. On many occasions just when I thought a deal was at hand the giant butts in and kicks me out of the picture. Over the years I have managed to discredit many of the giant’s claims as having no scientific basis but I have to conduct research with extremely limited funding while fighting a well-funded behemoth making false and misleading claims and frequently winning over projects which I had initiated (and which I do not believe said behemoth is capable of running competently). I imagine similar problems will occur in linking science findings and politics – there will always be the lying gorillas with their own agendas, even within the scientific community.

  3. Radar was admittedly more important to World War 2 than the bomb. It is also worth noting that the famous letter to FDR would probably never have been written by Einstein if it were not for Leo Szilard. In fact virtually all of the wording in the letter was his. He more than Einstein and anyone else foresaw the dangers of nuclear weapons.

    Your article is good, but you haven’t mentioned religion at all. To “not petty rivalries and egos, not scientific overlords and their pet theories and gadgets, and not disciplinary divides or cultural disconnects” I would add “and not the irrationality of fundamentalist and blind religious faith”. Snow could not have foreseen the dangers religion would pose to the dissemination and acceptance of scientific ideas.

  4. In fact Einstein expressed awe and shock when Szilard (and Eugene Wigner) told him about the possibility of atomic bombs. I was fortunate to visit the traffic light in London where Szilard was the first human being to think about a nuclear chain reaction in 1933.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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