The Corner

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The Two Cultures


John, your article about C. P. Snow and The Two Cultures made me think of the character of Illidge in Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point (1928). He’s a scientist from a humble background who first appears in the novel making an extremely awkward entrance into an upper-class party, which leaves him with a chip on his shoulder for the rest of the book.  You can read it here; the scene I have in mind comes at the end of Chapter III, pages 30-34.

I have to suspect that the poor-but-brilliant scientist is much less common in Britain today than he was in Snow and Huxley’s era, as wealth has become more closely correlated with intelligence due to punitive taxation of the idle rich and an economy that’s at least somewhat more hospitable to entrepreneurs.

And on the subject of chemistry vs. physics vs. life science, I think the changing perception of which one is considered the “hot” science is reflected in our clichés. Many decades ago, people commonly spoke of litmus tests, catalysts, etc.; more recently it was all quantum jumps and light years; and nowadays every widely used popularized technicality seems to involve DNA and genomes. A few years ago I discussed this matter here.

When I used to go to meetings of the Society for the History of Technology, many of the members were on the faculty at engineering schools, and there was much anguished discussion about how to cram some knowledge of the humanities into their science-focused students. The usual answer was to have more required humanities classes, which is no surprise, since the people making this assertion were humanities teachers. I always wanted to ask them:

(1) Why do you assume that scientists and engineers will never read a novel, or open a book about history or art or music, unless they are made to do so in college? And:

(2) Why do you assume that forcing them to read these books when they have severe demands on their time, and would rather be learning about data structures and heat transfer, will make them love the humanities instead of hating them?

Yet the input-output model endures. As with all required-reading schemes, the idea depends on the assumption that the books on the list are just SO WONDERFUL that everyone who reads them, however unwillingly, will be fascinated. They never learn.