The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution - C. P. Snow

Lots of people (like me) reference "C. P. Snow's Two Cultures" without having read it (like me). So, I decided to read it. It's actually the 1959 Rede lecture, published in book form, all of 54 smallish pages. Given how short it is I rather paid over the odds for what looks like a print-on-demand edition, but I like a nice book.

As per the title, it really does cover two topics - the "Two Cultures", and the scientific revolution. I guess we mostly refer to the Two Cultures side nowadsys, so let's start there. I'd say that modern understanding of this cultural split has somewhat drifted over the last sixty-plus years. Snow was in a world of Rutherford and Cockroft, what seemed a golden scientific age, but also the start of a golden scientific century. Even at this point in time, scientists are far more employable than English or History grads.

In this talk, the "other side" are specifically literary intellectuals. Scientists are optimists, and literary intellectuals are intellectual luddites. Ruskin and William Morris and co. looked on in horror at the industrialisation of the world, while the living standards and prospects for the poorest improved.

Things have changed a little. Literary intellectuals may still not understand science, but that's not the biggest threat. With liberalism and modernism in decline, the population have "had enough of experts", led by politicians who find expertise just throws up objections to their simple plans. The UK has been ruined by a generation of Oxford arts grads. Once again I'm reminded of how certain classicists and historians take refuge in the past, apparently unaware that most of those they studied were very much looking to their future.

A failure in our political class to cope with quantitative subjects was most obvious during the pandemic, but has bitten us in many ways, particularly on the economy. Perhaps the only thing worse than someone working in politics who doesn't understand science is someone who doesn't, and thinks they do, like Dominic Cummings.

The other side is just as bad. VCs in Silicon Valley discount an arts education, but then completely fail to understand the world of humans, ignore the law if it gets in the way of profit, and now we seem to have billionaires shuffling their way towards fascism. A background in arts doesn't seem so much to make people Luddites as cautious and thoughtful about the risks - and then the VCs promptly justify their worries.

So, The Two Cultures have evolved, but remain. What was Snow's prescription? He believed in a wider education, not specialising so early. I am unconvinced by this. Academically, I'm on the STEM side, through and through. If my grades remained dependent on arts subjects, I'd resent it. Furthermore, it's not clear that sixth-form and university level arts courses would have covered topics of interest to me, and I'm not convinced a few years crammed around my real study would cut it.

What has helped me is just a lifelong, gradual, incremental, learning about a bunch of arts subjects - some politics, some literature, some music, some history, even a bit of drawing. It's been slow, so I wouldn't say I was particularly balanced by my late '20s, but it feels to me like what we want is to have scientists to retain some curiousity and interest in the arts, and vice versa. Over time, it all works out.

The second half of the talk is about the Scientific Revolution, and... well, it really is a thing. The Industrial Revolution had a huge effect on life, but Snow saw this segueing into the Scientific Revolution, which by 1959 had already had a huge impact, and as he predicted has changed the world so much more since then.

He had two major concerns. The first of which was to have enough scientists available to make the revolution. He compared the UK, US and USSR. The USSR looked well-prepared, but I guess this just shows how important the wider political context is for things like scientific progress. I'm not quite sure how to judge his thoughts on scientific education - the Scientific Revolution has continued apace since then, at least.

Snow's second concern was more prescient: The gap between the rich and the poor, and the industrialisation of poor nations. He observed that with the acceleration of scientific progress, poor nations would be unwilling to wait centuries for industrialisation to arrive, as it had in the West, but would want a much accelerated scheme. And... what we've seen is, at least for many countries in the Far East, is exactly that. Africa's been much more bumpy, and I'm not qualified to say why some places have worked and not others.

Snow considered how to help this acceleration. He envisioned the initial approach to be to have Western scientists and engineers work in those countries to build up the industries, in less of a patronising role than in a hands-on working-among-equals kind of way, predicated on the idea that scientists and engineers, being somewhat meritocratic, weren't racists. 1959 optimism?

The way it actually seemed to work out was largely capitalism: Countries export to the West, working their way up the value chain, and learning off companies that use their country for cheap labour. At least that's how it looks from afar, I'm no expert.

In all, a fascinating, read largely from a historical perspective. The part about The Two Cultures remains far too relevant today, even if the details have changed.

Posted 2024-03-14.