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Science: Two cultures: still natural enemies?: Stefan Collini examines how far C P Snow's idea of an intellectual world split by deep mutual suspicion is relevant today

Hands up those who have both read a work by Shakespeare and can explain the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Not perhaps a forest of hands waving over the breakfast toast and marmalade. But that was the question famously proposed by C P Snow as a test of basic literacy in each of what he dubbed 'the two cultures'. In his Rede lecture at Cambridge in 1959, Snow identified these two cultures as those of the natural scientists and the 'literary intellectuals', between whom he claimed to find a profound mutual suspicion and incomprehension which in turn had damaging consequences for the prospects of applying technology to the alleviation of the world's problems.

Snow's lecture had an enormous impact and it has remained the central reference point in all subsequent discussion of this theme. But does it still make sense to think of the intellectual world as divided between these two uncomprehending and antagonistic tribes? Thirty-four years on, we can better appreciate the limitations of Snow's analysis.

Snow's personal experience shaped his formulation of the 'two cultures' issue more than is usually recognised. From a modest social background, of which he always remained conscious, he won scholarships to pursue postgraduate research at Cambridge in 1928.

After initial success and election to a fellowship at Christ's College, his research career, working in the celebrated Cavendish laboratory on infra-red spectroscopy, suffered a setback. In 1934 a 'discovery' that he and a colleague had announced amid considerable publicity turned out to be based on faulty calculations. Thereafter, Snow practically abandoned scientific research, but he was fortunate in finding alternative outlets for his ambition.

Snow began writing fiction in the early Thirties, and it was in 1935 that he conceived the idea for a series of linked novels which were to become the 11 volumes of the Strangers and Brothers sequence upon which his fame now chiefly rests. During the war Snow was drafted into the temporary civil service with responsibility for the recruitment of physical scientists to support the war effort. These two activities provided sufficient satisfaction and income, enabling him not to return to Cambridge in 1945.

By this date many of the attitudes that shaped Snow's later thinking about the two cultures were already formed. He identified science as the means to individual and social progress. And at a personal level he idealised science as classless and meritocratic, a welcome antidote to snobbish pre-war Cambridge.

This also helps to explain his lifelong antagonism to those whom he dubbed 'literary intellectuals'. Here, he tended to have critics as much as writers in mind, and he condemned what he saw as their disdain for science and the improvements in living standards for ordinary people that it could bring. With some justification, he saw the dominant literary figures of the first part of the 20th century as backward- looking: 'natural Luddites' was the epithet he used in his Rede lecture.

Snow's great service remains that of encouraging us to see the divisions between disciplines as problems rather than as eternal verities. And some of his particular emphases still seem pertinent: the later years of school education remain more specialised in Britain than in any comparable system, and scientists still feel that they are viewed with a peculiarly British combination of ignorance and snobbery.

But the divide between the scientific and humanistic disciplines that Snow claimed to have identified was really part of a larger issue about specialisation. There is indeed incomprehension between those who practise different academic disciplines, but no single dividing line is more significant than any other. The theoretical economist and the critic of French poetry are now as far apart as representatives of the 'arts' and 'sciences' were alleged to be then.

It is fruitless to lament the process of specialisation: it is one of the preconditions of intellectual progress, and often represents an impressive refinement of concepts and techniques. Nor is it helpful to think of a common culture in terms of a shared body of information. The cultural effects of specialisation matter because they threaten to make it impossible to sustain the kind of debate or exchange of views upon which the effective conduct of a society's affairs depends.

What is wanted is not to force potential physicists to read a bit of Dickens and potential literary critics to mug up some basic theorems. Instead, we need to encourage the growth of the intellectual equivalent of bilingualism, a capacity to attend to, learn from and eventually contribute to wider cultural conversations. This involves not only understanding how one's own special area of study fits into a larger cultural whole, but also a recognition that tending to these larger questions is not some kind of off- duty voluntary work, but is an integral part of professional achievement in the given field.

Since Snow, the tendency has been to deplore the 'scientific illiteracy' of public figures and of scholars in the humanities, but at least as damaging is the historical and philosophical illiteracy of those scientists who contribute to public debate, including debate upon the social role of science.

But the history of the past three decades has not made it any more evident that an education in physics or chemistry is a better preparation for handling the world's problems than an education in history or philosophy. Moreover, the cast of Snow's thinking now looks curiously parochial in some ways. Instead of Snow's literary critic and research physicist encountering mutual incomprehension, the emblematic figures of 'the two cultures' at the end of the 20th century should perhaps be a Singapore-Chinese economic analyst E-mailing her American boyfriend, a software designer, about the latest Afro-Caribbean poet to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In recent months, anxieties about the place of science in British culture have shown Snow's theme to be as topical as ever. But some of the current champions of science threaten to misrepresent it more damagingly than ever Snow's 'natural Luddites' did. For it has become almost obligatory to recommend science on account of its role in 'wealth creation' and national success. This is a very poor way of achieving the professed aim of encouraging more schoolchildren (especially girls) to study scientific subjects. Science is inherently international and knows nothing of protectionist or mercantilist thinking, nor of today's competitive chauvinism. The theories of Newton or Darwin or Stephen Hawking are not chalked up on some medals table, nor are these men remembered for their role in wealth creation.

The excitement and achievement of science lies in imagining ever more powerful ways of understanding the natural world. The search for those deeper and often surprisingly simple laws that explain the complexity of empirical phenomena, the challenge of devising theoretically fruitful experiments, the elegance of scientific reasoning - these are the things we should try to communicate to society at large, including the next generation of schoolchildren. If we also keep in view the truth that science is only one among the many valuable forms of human understanding and imagination, then we shall go some way to diminishing the damaging consequences of the divide that Snow identified.

The author is a lecturer in English at Cambridge University. His edition of C P Snow's 'The Two Cultures' has just been published by CUP at pounds 5.95.