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Who Said Science and Art Were Two Cultures?

Revisiting C.P. Snow’s infamous thesis.

On a May evening in 1959, C.P. Snow, a popular novelist and former research scientist, gave a lecture before a gathering of dons and…By Kevin Berger

On a May evening in 1959, C.P. Snow, a popular novelist and former research scientist, gave a lecture before a gathering of dons and students at the University of Cambridge, his alma mater. He called his talk “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.” Snow declared that a gulf of mutual incomprehension divided literary intellectuals and scientists.

“The non-scientists have a rooted impression that the scientists are shallowly optimistic, unaware of man’s condition,” Snow said. “On the other hand, the scientists believe that the literary intellectuals are totally lacking in foresight, peculiarly unconcerned with their brother men, in a deep sense anti-intellectual, anxious to restrict both art and thought to the existential moment.”

Snow didn’t expect much of his talk. “I thought I might be listened to in some restricted circles,” he said. “Then the effect would soon die down.” It didn’t. Snow tapped a cultural fault line that continues to rumble to this day. In his 2018 book, Enlightenment Now, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker wrote that “Snow’s argument seems prescient.” The “disdain for reason, science, humanism and progress has a long pedigree in elite intellectual and artistic culture.”

“As a scientist, one of the worst things you could do is forget your humanity.”

Yes, in bygone cultures, the disdain for science snaked through the tenebrous salons of art. “We murder to dissect,” Wordsworth lamented in his poem, “The Tables Turned.” And it’s true: the image of the cold scalpel of science slicing through the heart of human dignity remains with us today. In some circles, where personal beliefs are whipped up by political winds, the benighted ask, “Who does Dr. Frankenstein think he is, creating vaccines that do who-knows-what in our bodies?”

But in the art scene today, science is a regular. Novels are written about geneticists. Operas composed about physicists. Paintings created by computer scientists. Artists may frame science in a critical light, but art and science, and the states of consciousness they represent, stream from one culture, not two.

Which was what Snow was driving at all along. In an essay about Snow’s life and culture, published on the 50th anniversary edition of “The Two Cultures,” Stefan Collini, a professor of Intellectual History and English Literature at the University of Cambridge, wrote that Snow exaggerated the gap through a personal lens. His great divide stemmed from his love of science and hatred of literary pretension.

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Growing up in industrial England in the 1930s, Snow “saw science as the great hope in a world driven into the economic depression and another world war by traditional elites,” Collini wrote. Snow loved H.G. Wells and was turned off by critics who disdained the author of The War of the Worlds. The “young Snow developed an antipathy to ‘literary intellectuals,’ especially to what he identified as their snobbish and nostalgic social attitudes, which was never to leave him,” Collini wrote.

Whatever psychological gremlin gave birth to Snow’s split vision of science and the humanities, the novelist and scientist saw them as equals. He went on to lecture that colleges could close the gap between the sciences and humanities. Curriculums should require classes in both. Educational culture shouldn’t prize one discipline over the other.

“With good fortune,” Snow wrote, “we can educate a large proportion of our better minds so that they are not ignorant of imaginative experience, both in the arts and in science ...” I guess we should be generous and ignore Snow’s phrase, “our better minds,” as if “our worst minds” are not worthy of being educated about the bridge between science and the humanities. The mindset of the 1950s Cambridge don has its limitations.

The “imaginative experience,” though, is an astute phrase. It represents the place in the human mind where science and art meet. In 1970, the painter Francoise Gilot, who lived with Picasso for 10 years, married Jonas Salk, pioneer of the polio vaccine. When the artist was asked what she had in common with the scientist, she responded, “We were compatible mainly because, even though we were in different fields, we had that same intrinsic drive, the drive to get into an equation with the unknown. The spirit of discovery allows one to get something known out of the unknown. That’s what he had. That’s what I loved best in him.”

It’s true that artists strive to create works that encourage subjective responses while scientists strive to create explanations that remove them. But their drives are powered by the same current. “Both science and art are creativity and imagination and execution,” Kirk Johnson, a paleontologist and illustrator, and director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, said. “You come up with new ideas and you test those ideas, and you execute them.”

Like a scientist, Beethoven formulated a hypothesis that a symphony could be written about the grand philosophical concept that life was a Promethean struggle against fate. The composer wanted “to convey something ferocious, inescapable: a force of nature, a relentless drumming of fate,” wrote Jan Swafford in his 2014 biography, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph. Beethoven experimented with musical passages, borrowing some from previous drafts, until the right design, based on four simple notes, began to take shape. It was rigorous work to create and sustain the right tension, wrote Swafford, “one of the hardest things to do in music that has to be worked out over months and sometimes years, penned one note at a time.”

The Beethoven Fifth Symphony of science was the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA, worked out over years, penned one atom at a time. It too had four building blocks: A, G, T, C, the da-da-da-dum of organic molecules, the nucleotides. The scientists had to figure out the structure of DNA to determine how it functioned, how it shaped an organism’s traits and passed them to future generations. The scientists were as obsessed as Beethoven in their pursuit. But they weren’t writing a symphony. They could leave no room for interpretations that weren’t supported by the laws of physics and biology. 

None of the DNA scientists was more scrupulous than Rosalind Franklin, the chemist who was a master of X-ray crystallography, a method of identifying the atoms that define a molecule. After she helped identify the double helix shape of DNA, Franklin analyzed viruses. In The Art of Fiction, Henry James advised writers, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” That was Franklin. In her 1975 biography, Rosalind Franklin and DNA, Anne Sayre quotes Aaron Klug, one of Franklin’s coworkers. “She noticed everything,” Klug said. “The fact that she produced the best specimens ... wasn’t due to chance, or simple mechanical skills. It’s an art, doing this, it’s a matter of the pains she took, the way she nursed it, the keeping track of things, the noticing. That’s how discoveries are made.” 

The duel that Snow proffered wasn’t entirely personal. History has passed on the sense that the twain didn’t meet between the cold reason of science and messy passions of art. Plato told us Socrates wanted to boot the poets and storytellers from the city because they dared to boast that wicked men could be happy. That was no way to mold the moral virtues of a serious republic. Wicked passions must be buried. The ancient Greek philosopher’s decree became gospel. A dualist nature was born. 

In the 17th century, Descartes informed the world, We think therefore we are. The bulwarks of knowledge crumble on humans’ changeable feelings. But as science marched on, it chiseled away the bedrock of dualism. By the 20th century, neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio, through biological experiments, showed Descartes was in error. Knowledge and reason can’t be separated from our feelings. Brain activity ineluctably mixes-and-matches knowledge and reason with inputs from our senses, always colored by our memories. And by the way, Mr. Descartes, that doesn’t make knowledge less solid. “The fact that feelings motivate knowledge and reason do not make the knowledge and reason any less truthful or valid,” Damasio said. “Feelings are simply a call to action.”

What sometimes gets elided in discussions of Snow’s thesis is that scientists and artists long heeded the same call. In his 2017 biography, Leonardo da Vinci, Walter Isaacson wrote that the Renaissance man’s science, his explorations of engineering, anatomy, geology, and botany, were not separate endeavors from his art, his painting, and sculpture. “Together they served his driving passion, which was nothing less than knowing everything there was to know about the world, including how we fit into it,” Isaacson wrote. 

The same could be said, though seldom is, about the Romantic poets. British writer Richard Holmes, a biographer of Coleridge, is also the author of The Age of Wonder, about science in the Romantic era, and Falling Upwards, about the history and science of ballooning. One of the reasons Holmes wrote those two books, he told me, was to step back in history to correct the “modern notion of two cultures, that arts and humanities can’t speak to scientists, and vice versa.” 

Holmes explained that Romantic poets and writers, including Keats, Byron, and the Shelleys—Percy Blythe and Mary—read deeply in science, incorporating the latest theories in astronomy, evolution, and physics into their poems and novels. Likewise, 19th-century astronomer William Herschel, chemist Humphry Davy, and Michael Faraday, whose discoveries in electromagnetism revolutionized physics and modern society—he created the first electric motor—knew the poets and musicians of the time, “and were fascinated and inspired by them,” Holmes said.

Davy, who first isolated sodium and potassium, and was a pioneer in electrochemistry, learned a great deal from his friend Coleridge, the dark heart of Romanticism, and author of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” “They had a very interesting exchange on the idea of pain,” Holmes said. “What is the function of pain, particularly in animal life? What is it doing? Why was it put there? They would frame it in terms of why did God put pain into this system? It was a kind of metaphysical discussion, but it bears on Davy’s actual experiments. One of the things Davy found is that nitrous oxide suspended pain. He writes a paper suggesting its use as anesthesia, and tragically it’s not taken up for 40 years. So this is the scientist talking to the artist, and the artist saying back to him, ‘Think of this in larger terms, direct your science this way.’ ”

The Beethoven Fifth Symphony of science was the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA.

Walter Murch is a modern-day Renaissance man. The film editor and sound designer of the Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now, and The English Patient, has read deeply in the history of science. He told me about a theory by 20th-century Hungarian physicist Karoly Simonyi. It went like this. “Breakthroughs in art break up the hard-pan of the soil and fertilize it, add compost to the mix, and then the fruit of science, the plant of science, can find its roots,” Murch said. “The turn of the 20th century brought the development of motion pictures, which is basically the quantization of movement, breaking movement down into discrete frame movements. About 10 years later, along comes Max Planck and gives us the theory of the quantum. That’s around the same time that films began to be edited and put together to tell a coherent story out of parts that are not shot in sequence. So those two things, quantum mechanics and the development of motion pictures, work together.”

Is Simonyi’s theory accurate? Did cultural movements in art fertilize scientific breakthroughs? It’s an intriguing correlation, perhaps not much more. But it underscores the point that one culture, not two, inspires scientists and artists in their times.

In interviews, scientists invariably say the arts, especially movies, were and remain an inspiration to them. Being transported out of your critical mind is important, said Caleb Scharf, director of the Columbia Astrobiology Center at Columbia University, and author, most recently, of The Ascent of Information. “As a scientist, one of the worst things you could do is to forget your humanity, forget the elements of being human that have nothing to do with being analytic or able to invent things,” Scharf said. “There’s an element of humanity that’s uncontrolled but incredibly creative. I like to taste that creativity.”

Scharf got that taste at an early age. He was raised in a rural English village. Both of his parents were art historians. “They instilled in me the notion there are many different ways to explore the universe around you,” Scharf says. “There are the ways they used—studying human interaction with the arts—but they also taught me science was a way to explore the universe. So I got a lot of my fascination for science from these humanities parents.”

To be human is to be biased, Scharf said. Recognizing that was the first step to overcoming bias. “If scientists don’t retain a sense of humanity, a sense of connection to being human, it’s detrimental to their work,” he said. “We’re all blinkered. We’re all inevitably biased by so many things in our culture and our own personal makeup. Even the most hard-nosed, analytic scientist is not immune to that. It will skew the way they look at nature, it will skew the way they explore problems. My principle in science is an open mind. Always question and never shut off any avenue.” 

It’s great advice for artists, too. When artists venture down the avenues of science, they discover interconnections they may have never imagined—among people and the environment, among organisms, among elementary particles. But the final point about the harmony between science and the arts may be the most obvious one. The fallout of science without humanity is Hiroshima. When scientists are engaged with the humanities in a shared culture, the benefits to all of us are clear.

Kevin Berger is the editor of Nautilus.

This article is adapted from the author’s “Why Do So Many Scientists Want to Be Filmmakers?” which appeared in Nautilus in 2018.

Lead image: AGSAndrew / Shutterstock; Illustrations: Roseed Abbas / Shutterstock

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