Two cultures or one?

The traditional dichotomy between science and the arts is set to dissolve in an abundance of new projects, reports Hugh Aldersley-Williams
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If you are a scientist who believes that the arts are irrelevant to what you do, or an artist with no interest in science, now may be the time to start planning that sabbatical. The years up to the millennium are not for you. There is rapidly growing interest in projects where art and science meet, with a wave of events already planned for the next few years. This trend is given government blessing with the publication soon of the National Lottery White Paper announcing the establishment of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta). The Bill will go before Parliament in November. Not since Victorian times have sciences and arts been drawn together in such an explicit way at an official level.

Nesta will fund projects using lottery money, complementing the role of the science research councils and the Arts Council, which are funded from the Treasury. The White Paper has a "greenish tinge", according to John Newbigin, special adviser at the Department of National Heritage, meaning that there will be consultation on the detail of how the endowment should work and the type of projects it should assist.

One priority is to help hi-tech creative businesses. "We have always thought that where technology and art are converging in digital media, where inexperienced businesspeople are involved, there was a role for a body that could offer support," says Newbigin. But nobody yet appears to have given much thought to the further implication in Nesta's title. It could put the seal on a reconciliation between the sciences and the arts.

"The clashing point of two subjects, two disciplines, two cultures ought to produce creative chances," wrote CP Snow all those years ago, for his milestone 1959 Rede lecture.

Yet, ironically, by placing emphasis on the dividedness of the cultures, Snow ultimately stunted many of those chances. Nesta's great promise is that it may be able to heal the division once and for all.

Even before this, there has been some notable convergence between the two strands. In May, the Wellcome Trust announced "the country's first science and art prizes", making six awards totalling pounds 90,000 to teams of artists and scientists selected from 225 applications. For example, Dr John Kew and Dr Peter Halligan from hospitals in Telford and Oxford are working with the artist Alexa Wright, using digitally manipulated photographs to represent the phenomenon of phantom limbs felt by amputees. Other art and medicine collaborations will look at what constitutes departure from "normal" appearance in patients undergoing cleft palate surgery and in anorexia sufferers. The results of these and the three other projects will be shown at a conference entitled "Sci-art" in September, with the neuroscientist Dr Susan Greenfield, of Oxford University, and the novelist AS Byatt.

The Institute of Contemporary Arts - criticised at its foundation in 1947 by no less a figure than Bernard Shaw, for omitting science from its remit - hopes to bring the fields together with a series of talks and exhibitions for 1998. One topic of mutual interest may be "originality and replication - which brings in Dolly the sheep and Damien Hirst", says its new director, Philip Dodd.

In the year 2000, the British Association for the Advancement of Science's annual festival will be hosted by Imperial College in London. The special date provides an excuse to rope in the cultural institutions next door in South Kensington, including the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Royal Colleges of Art and Music.

Elsewhere, Jeanette Winterson's Gut Symmetries and Will Self's Great Apes are just the latest in a continuing line of novels drawing on recent scientific thinking for their inspiration. At the National Theatre, Tom Stoppard took particle physics and chaos theory as themes in Hapgood in 1988 and Arcadia in 1993. Tony Harrison's Square Rounds in 1992 focused on Fritz Haber, the German chemist who developed artificial fertiliser and chemical warfare. Last year, Stephen Poliakoff's Blinded by the Sun examined the contemporary pressures on scientists to pursue "relevant" research. The play's anti-hero was not some Frankensteinish experimentalist, but the new species of science administrator.

There is traffic in the opposite direction, too. Carl Djerassi, the chemist who developed the Orthonovum contraceptive pill, has written several novels and has just completed a play, which he is submitting to London theatres. It deals with the conflict between technology and ethics in assisted reproduction, raising the question of ownership of human sperm now that science has made fertilisation possible from a single sperm.

The architecture critic Charles Jencks once charted the rise of the Post- Modern classical style. But in The Architecture of the Jumping Universe, published earlier this summer, he now proposes science as the basis for future architectural styles.

On Radio 4's Start the Week, Melvyn Bragg gives sciences and arts an equal platform - and the few scientists who, by force of habit, talk down because they find themselves in the company of non-scientists are properly given short shrift. (Although elsewhere on radio and television, quizmasters still stumble over questions of science, as do those quizzed; so there is still work to do.)

All this is invigorating, and seems exceptional only because of CP Snow's description of the "two cultures". Snow's phrase struck an extraordinary chord. "Scientists took it as an explanation of what they felt was a lack of power, and arts people as an affirmation that science was something it was OK to feel ignorant about," says David Edgerton, reader in the history of technology at Imperial College.

Edgerton claims that the idea of the "two cultures" has always been a myth. "The usual allegation is that the British civil service is dominated by arts people. But it has a higher proportion of science graduates than Germany or Italy. The likes of Snow grossly exaggerated British people's hostility to science."

Scientists' fear is that creative types may misunderstand their work. Snow, too, objected to poets' literally incorrect use of scientific terms. But this misses the point. Gut Symmetries does not, despite the claims of its blurb, make accessible superstring and grand unified theories, but it does give Winterson new scope for entertaining wordplay and unexpected connections of images and ideas. And if Jencks wants to design furniture based on the equations of wave mechanics - as he has done - well, it does no harm, even if the conception is rendered scientifically meaningless by magnification up from the subatomic scale.

At best, such changes of scale or context may enable both scientists and artists to see their work in a new light, as well as to bring it to new audiences. "Opening up science to the artistic community would give them a whole different series of microcosmic and macrocosmic worlds to think about, from planets to cells," says Dr Nancy Lane, a cell biologist at Cambridge University who is involved in initiatives using arts to communicate science. "A play or a painting is a way to bring people in to the public understanding of science."

In the longer term, there is the prospect of changing the culture in which science is practised. "We may end up thinking differently about science if we expose scientists to a world where there is criticism," says Dr Ken Arnold, exhibitions manager at the Wellcome Trust.

Some scientists will certainly react with horror at this prospect, presuming that criticism will always be anti-science. But don't forget that - as Poliakoff's play shows - criticism can in fact be on the side of the scientistsn