Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Scientists and Literary Intellectuals and C. P. Snow

In his “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” British physicist and novelist C. P. Snow bemoans the strict cultural divide between academics who study science and those in the humanities:

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?

Two polar groups: at one pole we have the literary intellectuals, at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension.

Snow saw this bifurcation of the academic landscape as a hindrance to progress within the intellectual community and the world as a whole.

As a physics major, it's reassuring to know that my parents' money was invested in skills that can be readily demonstrated. Having read a book on phase transitions, I can estimate and calculate the melting point of gold! The same cannot be said for my friends who majored in English Literature, for their set of acquired skills is far less “testable” and demonstrable than mine. Having read a piece of Shakespeare and subsequently discussed it in a classroom setting, it's hard to say what specific pieces of knowledge I gained in the process. The following xkcd comic, a parody of academic literary criticism, implies that there is no real academic knowledge about literature:

Snow's dichotomy suggests that physicists value knowledge that can be rigorously tested and immediately applied, whereas literary intellectuals give value to a form of knowledge that is more subjective, personal, subtle and (hopefully) transformative.

It is essential that educators and students work to bridge the gap between these two methodologies. I have two suggestions about how to do this:
  1. Figure out what stands to be learned from the literature you read.
  2. Do a literary reading of scientific thought (and everything else in the world too).

The physicist’s insight: it's important to know what you know.
After every book, page or paragraph of literature you read, try figuring out what you've gained from that experience:
  1. Can this reading alter the way you perceive the world?
  2. What does the narrative teach about human psychology, vulnerability, fallibility, corruption and courage?
  3. How can the characters in this book inform an understanding about real human beings in the real world?
  4. What insight, perspective and ideas must an author possess to compose this piece of art?
  5. Can this work bring your thoughts to new places or your ideas to new formulations?
(One day I hope to write about the concrete things that I've learned from literature I've read.)

The insight of literature: the untestable is often more important than the testable.
Following the study of a chapter of physics, I recommend asking the following questions (these questions happen to be far more important and far more interesting than the melting point of gold):
  1. What assumptions and intuitions about the world are challenged by this knowledge?
  2. What models and simplifying assumptions do physicists make to aid their understanding of nature?
  3. What alternative simplifying assumptions were available to them?
  4. How does this topic speak to the themes of complexity and simplicity within the natural world?
  5. How much of physics is definitional (tautology) and how much is relational (formulas)?
  6. What physics was constructed to match observation and what was derived from fundamental assumptions?
  7. How can physical formulas and models affect the way we imagine the world and our position in it?
  8. Through what channels do human beings perceive and affect their physical surroundings?
  9. What ambiguities, questions and contradictions still remain?
  10. How would the world be different if physics or the constants of nature were altered?
  11. How are the different laws of nature interconnected?
  12. What is the relationship between advances in science and the historical climate in which those discoveries emerged?
  13. Explain everything you've learned in simple terms to be understood by a layman without using a single mathematical formula.

By bringing together insights from the sciences and the humanities, we might hope to enrich both intellectual pursuits, academic culture and the world.


  1. I picked up a copy of that "Two Cultures" lecture a few years ago in a second hand book shop in Jerusalem for about a shekel.
    Though, I think your solution is missing your point, your suggestion is essentially to look at the sciences as an art and at the arts as a science. Whilst this may be an interesting approach to life for its own sake, I think it undermines both the arts and the sciences. What Snow is bemoaning is the lack of appreciation the two fields have for each other, a scientist can be a great scientist but he should also have an understanding of what Shakespeare, Kant and Picasso have brought the the world. Similarly a writer should have a basic understanding of what it is that science is all about and appreciate what it is that Galileo, Newton and Einstein achieved.
    The fact that reading a work of Shakespeare doesn't result in any testable achievable isn't a problem, because that isn't the aim of reading it.
    I find it somewhat ironic that you are writing this posting, because Snows original lecture was arguing for the American model of liberal arts education over the British model which favours specialisation from a young age.

  2. Thank you for your comment Yoni,
    “A writer should have a basic understanding of what it is that science is all about...” I agree with your point that Snow is bemoaning a basic level of illiteracy between “the two cultures.” However, the problem I'm interested in thinking about is less about illiteracy and more irrelevance. Even if a physics major knows literature because he or she went to an Americal Liberal Arts college, I'm still worried that the physics major doesn't can't understand why this knowledge is important. Even in educational contexts like my own where students are exposed to both educational tracks, some students are wholly unimpressed by science and others wholly unimpressed by the humanities. (Siman-sibah chiluk to follow:) I don't see polarization within the academic community as a problem in itself. I don't really care whether or not my physics teacher read Shakespeare and visa versa. I see polarization within the academic community as a symptom of a broken curriculum. Science will always be irrelevant to a large part of the population until we can figure out how to formulate it in a way that literature majors appreciate too.

  3. I think you are being a bit too idealistic. In principle it would be great if everyone understood the relevance of all subject fields. But for example how can you formulate density functional theory (DFT) in a way which is appealing to a literature major? (With DFT you need to understand the failings of classical physics, the difficulties of applying quantum mechanics and the various approximations available and their failings etc.) The problem with many scientific concepts is that once you get above the basics so much background knowledge information is needed that it is hard to simplify into such a way that someone without that background will appreciate.
    This discussion reminds me a bit about a paper I read by Seddon et al. on Ionic Liquids which was so infused with references to the New Testament, Greek mythology and cultural references as well as the obvious chemical and physical discussions that only few well read scientists could really understand what he was saying (see DOI: 10.1039/B006677J).

  4. Whether or not you can understand DFT is a function of how deep you go within the study of physics. Whether or not you can see beauty in the natural world and appreciate why a scientist would spend his or her life working on DFT is an entirely different question. I don't care about English majors accomplishing the former, but I care very much about the latter.