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Snow time like the present

| Thursday, November 6, 2014

Over this fall break, I found myself with a quiet moment between hectic sessions of “doing nothing” that Christopher Robin would consider excessive. I decided to take the time to read a 1959 essay by British chemist and novelist C. P. Snow titled “The Two Cultures.” Professor Maginn had mentioned the text briefly in my sophomore thermodynamics course, and my curiosity had been piqued.

In his essay, Snow laments that “the intellectual life of the whole of Western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups … literary intellectuals at one pole, at the other scientists and at the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two, a gulf of mutual incomprehension.” Scholars of the humanities, he says, regard scientists as illiterate specialists, ignorant of the supposed higher concepts of philosophy or art. At the same time, these literati regard scientific knowledge with contempt — that is, when they regard it at all.

Snow reports on a few instances of conversation with literary intellectuals in which “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?” Of course, it cuts both ways. Snow tells stories of scientists he’s met who regarded Charles Dickens as an obscure author.

In reading the article, I began to think more critically about how I had personally contributed to this divide. While I haven’t seen the impassable gulf that Snow spoke of here at Notre Dame, I have noted a certain crevasse of passive aggression. I can recall laughing along with my engineer friends who scorned “the College of Arts and Crafts,” secure in the knowledge that we were taking “real” majors. To be sure, I had friends in the humanities, but as my course load veered towards the harder sciences, I saw them less and less. I wonder how many of them were conditioned to look down on us engineers for “measuring the marigolds.”

I certainly want to make amends for my own part in this senseless culture war. Throughout my mission of reconciliation I’ve found that one of the best sources of common ground is science–fiction. As if the name didn’t say enough, the genre provides a unique opportunity to fuse the two cultures. This is the realm of protagonists like Lazarus Long, who in Robert Heinlein’s “Time Enough for Love” proclaims: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Now, do I expect us all to become Renaissance men and women, experts on every subject from aerospace to Zoroastrianism? Of course not — although it would be nice. The cutting edge of both the arts and sciences has become so highly refined that it’s impossible to know everything about everything, but it certainly can’t hurt us to explore a little bit more of the life’s work of our fellow human beings.

One of the groups in particular need of this message is our nation’s politicians, both incumbents and newly elected alike. One of our primary foreign policy concerns — preventing the spread of the Ebola virus into the United States — is fundamentally a scientific problem, rooted in biology and germ theory with a lineage stretching back to Pasteur. Yet the men and women in Washington who are in charge of organizing this effort are far more likely to have studied Solzhenitsyn in school than they are van der Waals. Wouldn’t it be nice if our politicians had a little more grounding in the physical sciences?

Ultimately, I’m hopeful that science and the humanities will someday no longer suffer the communication breakdown that has hampered them in the past. It will take a concerted effort from both sides, and it certainly won’t happen overnight. But I’m sure that one day, the two cultures can exist in mutual respect and appreciation.

That is, of course, unless you expect me to read poetry.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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