Text © Robert
Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2023
Images from the Internet
This is a paper I presented for my Master’s in Media Ecology at New York University, for the class Communications Revolution and Culture in America II, led by Neil Postman and assisted by Janet Sternberg. The footnotes will be in brackets where applicable. Information about CP Snow and his treatise can be found HERE, thanks to Wikipedia.
An Open Letter to C.P. Snow About The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution
“Closing the gap between our cultures is necessary in the most abstract intellectual sense, as well as in the most practical.” – C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures
Having read your 1959 Rede lecture, I would like to share some of my thoughts on your theory of the existence of two distinct cultures among scholars and examine how that theory relates to the present time [1990s].
I acknowledge the fact that your lecture presented a viewpoint regarding the intellectual community of England at the time. I will explore your ideas in relation to the contemporary American intelligentsia.
You state that you believe the “intellectual life of … Western society … is split into two polar groups” [C.P. Snow (1959). The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press; p. 3], with one pole representing scientists (i.e., physical) and those in literary studies at the other [Ibid., p. 4]. You add that not only are these groups polarized, but “the separation between scientists and non-scientists is much less bridgeable among the young than even thirty years ago” [Ibid., p. 17]. Although that may have ben the situation in the United Kingdom up to the late 1950s, it appears to have become less true over the years in the United States.
You posit that the separation between science and literary studies, which arises in part through education, is less severe in the States [Ibid., pp. 16-17], and that the American system in “hoping to take the problems in hand within 10 years” [Ibid., p. 18]. This trend in American education in the late 1950s may explain the reduced polarity of these two intellectual changes within the American scientific and literary cultures, as I will discuss below.
Your belief that the “industrial society of electronics, atomic energy, automation … will change the world much more” [Ibid., p. 18], appears to have been prophetic. Due in part to an occurrence that seems to be a by-product of the atomic age, one outgrowth that I believe has helped fade the self-imposed line of segregation between science and literature is a genre of publication known as science fiction.
As the power, possibilities, and potential harm of the atomic age have become known over the decades following the end of World War II, the imagination of both scientists and non-scientists alike have been captured by the phenomenon of fission. Writers such as Arthur Clarke and Theodore Sturgeon turn to science for their source of inspiration and use technical scientific information and phraseology to help spread this technological information to both poles. Despite the definite “pop culture” of the genre, scientists were intrigued by the information and the forum in which it was presented, and the literary community learned the metaphors and processes of the scientific rationale. The scientist was also exposed to a form of writing that was fictional, yet presented a literary world with which they could make some association.
One of the leaders of the field of science fiction, for example, was Isaac Asimov. As you point out yourself [Ibid., p. 1], Asimov was trained in both the scientific and literary realms, capable of moving freely between the two. He wrote fiction and nonfiction, and analyses of both science (i.e., physical and social) and classic fiction (e.g., Shakespeare) – as well as writing original fiction. With credibility in both cultures, he could be a bridge that was needed to reach both shores.
As this fiction began to be accepted by both cultures, the influence became as a pebble in a pond, rippling outward and affecting society as a whole, thereby connecting the cultures on some levels.
In the early 1960s, the space program captured the imagination of both poles in America. This science fiction-made-real had both non-scientists and scientists alike observing the technological advancement, helping to further disseminate technological language to the lay scientist and literary audience.
Through the late 1960s, collegiate curriculum underwent a drastic change. Previously, educational systems in the United Kingdom had “set ourselves the task of producing a tiny elite … educated in one academic skill” [Ibid, p. 19]. This was also true for the United States. As riots over the Vietnam War and the narrow choice of subjects allowed in core programs exploded on campus after campus in America, the narrow views presented to the students were broken down, and the choice of topics available became more flexible. This situation helped open a door to educational elasticity.
With this opening up within some of the divisions of culture, each of these previously polarized groups began taking ventures into the other’s area of expertise.
Social scientists were among the first to venture out by publishing mostly nonfictional works that were read by both cultures, including Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1970) and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985). The physical scientists tended to write more fiction, such as physician Robin Cook’s Coma (1977) and scientist Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain (1969). All these excursions were being accepted and read by both sides of the intelligentsia.
It does appear that even at present, literary-based thinkers still use science fiction as an outlet for technological meanderings. A reason for this occurrence may be referenced to the comment in which you suggest that you believe writers must learn and develop their craft, whereas scientific learning is more innate, coming naturally [Ibid., pp. 10-11].
A further step along the path of joining the two intellectual cultures you posit in Western society has been the spread of the global-village mentality. As non-Western cultures influence the West, they bring other philosophies and ways of study with them, sometimes subtly changing the overall method a society uses to view itself and others, thus generating new ideologies. Innovative ideas have merged into the Western mindset, helping to further melt the barriers that were once a solid element in the West.
Therefore, I believe that in the United States, whereas there may be some separation between the cultures of the intellectual communities, the black and white borders you fear becoming further stratified have changed and continue to gray under the very Second Law of Thermodynamics, with which you referred [Ibid., p. 15].
C.P. Snow's full lecture in PDF form can be found HERE