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Two cultures redux

A trip down memory lane this week led me to the topic of this post. In exchanging emails with a fellow alumnus, I mentioned the book A Canticle for Leibowitz1 which we read in a freshman English class. He remembered the professor’s name. That led to an exploration of my file cabinets and the class syllabus.2

It turns out that the professor (William Cozart) taught a seminar with Feynman in the 1970’s on C. P. Snow’s historic “The Two Cultures.” So, Snow’s 1959 lecture/essay may have influenced my undergrad curriculum in the late 1960’s.

That discussion of “Two cultures” might have been helpful in my interdisciplinary grad school studies in the early 1970’s; but I don’t recall any professors discussing Snow’s 1959 lecture (or follow-up 1959 and 1963 books).  However, it’s fitting that I stumbled onto this topic after recently reading Sagan’s book Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I think he’d agree that both art and science play a vital role in preserving democracy, in nurturing an educated, literate citizenry — avoiding, as he says, “a nation of suckers, a world of suckers, up for grabs by the next charlatan who saunters along.”

A Candle in the Dark is the title of a courageous, largely Biblically based, book by Thomas Ady, published in London in 1656, attacking the witch hunts then in progress as a scam “to delude the people.” … Ady also warned of the danger that “the Nations [will] perish for lack of knowledge.” Avoidable human misery is more often caused not so much by stupidity as by ignorance, particularly our ignorance about ourselves.  — Sagan, Carl. Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Wiki summarizes Snow’s theme this way:

Snow’s position can be summed up by an often-repeated part of the essay:

“A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice 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 the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.”

So, what contemporary relevance does the discussion of “Two cultures” have? This question was explored in 2009 on the 50th anniversary of Snow’s lecture. Here’re some examples.

1. Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Half a century ago the prominent novelist and speaker, who studied under Lord Rutherford, described a chasm between literary intellectuals and scientists, a gulf that impoverished both sides and impeded efforts to relieve suffering around the world. Science was not understood or respected by the dominant culture, to the detriment of all, he said. At some point scientists had ceased to be considered intellectuals, Snow noted, and though any educated person was required to know Shakespeare, almost none knew the second law of thermodynamics.

Snow’s words touched off decades of debate on both the existence of the “Two Cultures” and the possibility of a “Third Culture” — a group Snow envisioned as curious non-scientists who could bridge the gap between scientists and humanists.

2. An Update on C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” — an article by Lawrence M. Krauss, whose books I’m currently reading.

Snow argued that practitioners in both areas should build bridges, to further the progress of human knowledge and to benefit society.

Alas, Snow’s vision has gone unrealized. Instead literary agent John Brockman has posited a “third culture,” of scientists who communicate directly with the public about their work in media such as books without the intervening assistance of literary types. At the same time, many of those in the humanities, arts and politics remain content living within the walls of scientific illiteracy.

But Krauss quickly takes us into an arena of science vs. religion as context for the overarching divide between science and culture, scientific literacy and ignorance.

Well, does that divide still exist? I think so. How to bridge that divide? I think Sean Carroll’s framework of “poetic naturalism”3 is such an attempt. An assertive stance on modern physics’ knowledge of the natural world and an accommodation for emergent vocabulary to talk about that world: “a rich, nuanced picture that reconciles all the different aspects of our experience.”

Poetic naturalism strikes a middle ground, accepting that values are human constructs, but denying that they are therefore illusory or meaningless. — Carroll, Sean. The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (p. 6). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

But that “stable planet of belief” requires courage and humility “to construct meaning and values in a cosmos without transcendent purpose” and (as Sagan says) leave behind “habits of thought familiar from ages past.”

This brings us to the “poetic” part of poetic naturalism. While there is one world, there are many ways of talking about it. We refer to these ways as “models” or “theories” or “vocabularies” or “stories”; it doesn’t matter. … Science has discovered another set of stories, harder to perceive but of greater precision and wider applicability. It’s not good enough that the stories succeed individually; they have to fit together. — Carroll, Sean. The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (p. 94). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

And there’s the rub, eh — crafting a story, the best (while contingent) story of the universe using different models for different layers of reality. Vocabularies step on each other in trying to connect the world (unified, physical world) with everyday experience, with emotional realities. Convenient language trumps accuracy.

In a way, “Two cultures” has evolved into a “Two strata” divide —  the microscopic and macroscopic.

For example, some fundamentalists accept the theory of evolution as far as microscopic life but reject that evolution applies to homo sapiens. They accommodate microbiology and biochemistry which are the framework for modern biotechnology, but draw a line for macro evolution of primates.

Narratives are powerful. Narratives integrate an understanding of the world and our place in that world, our identity. Supported by social structures, loyalty to a narrative can be more important than truth.

Narratives only breakdown when they become dysfunctional, when they become counterproductive in our lives. Or when a more compelling narrative is available — a story whose telling is grand, which provides meaning and values, and which works across our diverse experiences. A story about freedom and responsibility.


[1] Originally published in 1960, the novel dramatizes a post-apocalyptic landscape, characterized by “a violent backlash against the culture of advanced knowledge.”

During this backlash, called the “Simplification,” anyone of learning, and eventually anyone who could even read, was likely to be killed by rampaging mobs, who proudly took on the name of “Simpletons.” Illiteracy became almost universal, and books were destroyed en masse.

Scientific remnants (glimmers in the dark, so to speak) are treated as holy relics by monks in an effort to rebuild civilization — “in the hope that they will help future generations reclaim forgotten science.”

One literary critic noted how “Miller’s narrative continually returns to the conflicts between the scientist’s search for truth and the state’s power.”

[2] Required texts for this class were:

  • Brecht, Bertholt. Parables for the Theater (Evergreen PB)
  • Barrett, William. Irrational Man (Anchor PB)
  • Camus, Albert. The Stranger (Meridian PB) and The Myth of Sisyphus (Meridian PB)
  • Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice (Vintage PB)
  • Mack,  Dean,  Frost,  eds. Modern Poetry (Prentice-Hall PB)
  • Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman (Compass PB)
  • Miller, Walter. A Canticle for Leibowitz (Bantam PB)
  • O’Neill,  Eugene. Long Day’s Journey into Night (Yale PB)

[3] As discussed in his book The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself.

4 thoughts on “Two cultures redux

  1. Evidence of a “third culture” in the last ~50 years is the increasing use of visualization by each culture. While doing process engineering and research at Hughes, I promoted visualization. I realized that communicating technical concepts and complex systems to customers (both internal and external) was just as challenging as coming up with a proper system design. Hence, the mantra “good ideas communicated poorly are indistinguishable from bad ideas.” Advances in desktop computing and multimedia made visualization more and more practical.

    Visualization has facilitated bridging the “two cultures,” improved communication between scientists and those in other disciplines, between modern physics and the humanities and social sciences, and even between various scientific domains. So, not only do we see amazing CG visualizations in films and TV series, but also at places like Caltech, JPL and NASA. NASA’s live broadcasts and video demonstrations onboard the ISS highlight such outreach.

    Careers as science communicator or visualization scientist are mainstream opportunities.

    The TV series The Expanse is an example of a classic detective story translated to a compelling space drama via technically accurate visualization. The Expanse Visits Caltech on 1-25-2017 “highlighted the intersection of art and science, and how one can inform the other.”

    The TV series The Big Bang portrays scientists and engineers interacting with non-technical friends using realistic techno-talk.

    The highest-rated scripted show on TV, The Big Bang Theory often features Sheldon, Howard, Leonard, and Raj wisecracking about scientific principles as if Penny and the rest of us should know exactly what they’re talking about.

    And the BBC and NOVA have continued to produce informative documentaries using visualization.


    All the media attention about the LHC and Higgs boson and the upcoming total solar eclipse also are good signs.

  2. Regarding literacy in science and the humanities, arts and politics, hopefully any ongoing debate (especially pertaining to public policy) between the “two cultures” will abide by reasoned arguments rather than fallacious ones. In other words, common use of a “baloney detection kit” and steering clear of these “fallacies of logic and rhetoric.” 1

    • ad hominem
    • argument from authority
    • argument from adverse consequences
    • appeal to ignorance (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence)
    • special pleading
    • begging the question (assuming the answer)
    • observational selection (cherry-picking)
    • statistics of small numbers
    • inconsistency
    • non sequitur
    • post hoc, ergo propter hoc
    • meaningless question
    • excluded middle (false dichotomy)
    • short-term vs. long-term (myopia)
    • slippery slope
    • confusion of correlation and causation
    • straw man
    • suppressed evidence, or half-truths
    • weasel words (equivocation, rhetorical spin, euphemisms)

    [1] “Like all tools, the baloney detection kit can be misused, applied out of context, or even employed as a rote alternative to thinking.” — Sagan, Carl. Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Chapter 12). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

  3. Sean Carroll Versus the ‘Science Silo’” — Caltech Magazine, Summer 2019

    While science is a powerful tool for understanding our universe, it is not the only one, insists Caltech theoretical physicist Sean Carroll. On Mindscape, his podcast, Carroll hosts conversations with interesting thinkers on topics across the academic spectrum: from superstring theory to the fall of Rome and everything in between. 

    [Carroll] I want science to be a part of the conversation when we talk about what it means to be an educated, curious human being. There’s an aspect of doing something like economics or law or philosophy that allows people to spread their thoughts a little bit more widely than someone who is a scientist and has a very narrow lane that they can go down. I want to establish that science should be part of this interconnected ecosystem rather than just a separate silo.

    I have been really impressed by how important and real philosophy can be, and how things that might seem relatively narrow like, say, bioethics, end up reflecting more broadly on what a democracy is and how we reconcile different values. What happens when certain people feel strongly that something should be forbidden while other people think it is good? Whether that comes from biology or anywhere else, we have this problem in society of reconciling competing values. I actually do think all of the various conversations I have with guests build up to something and interact with each other.  

  4. This article reminded me about an occasional complacent tone in contemporary physics – akin to the creed of Victorian scientific naturalism [1] – that I’ve encountered in some physics books and articles. By some major physicists and science communicators (as noted in this blog). The attitude that we understand how the everyday “low-energy” universe works to the degree that just the details remain elusive – “fine-tuning” the details at extreme scales and elucidating complex emergent phenomena. Like we have all the essential equations despite being able to solve them only for simple systems. [2]

    I appreciate some of this overreach as a counter to still all too prevalent magical thinking. Such as fantastical incantations (often dramatized in popular entertainment) which sidestep well-established physical laws (and forces).

    As Siegel phrases this attitude:

    With just a few ingredients, like the laws of physics, the contents of the Universe, and a set of initial conditions, we can make sense of almost all of the entire Universe.

    Succesful models (and simulations) explain our everyday reality. What could go wrong, eh?

    • Big Think > “5 consensus ideas in astronomy that might soon be overturned” by Ethan Siegel (August 29, 2022)

    The article includes lots of diagrams. Here’s his list of “potentially incorrect preliminary conclusions:”

    1. Dark energy is a cosmological constant.
    2. Stars predate black holes.
    3. Jovian planets protect terrestrial ones.
    4. Most of the galaxy is uninhabitable.
    5. Globular clusters are planet-free.

    Inflation to gravitational waves
    Credit: Inflation to gravitational waves derived from ESA/Planck and the DOE NASA NSF interagency task force on CMB research, Bock et al. (2006, astro-ph/0604101); modifications by E. Siegel (2016).


    [1] For example, the topic of this scholarly book:

    • Routledge > “The ‘Creed of Science’ in Victorian England” by Roy M. MacLeod (2000)

    The ’march’ of invention, the discoveries of chemistry, and the wonders of steam and electricity culminated in a crusade against ignorance and unbelief.

    [2] The effective theory of the everyday world for which Sean Carroll claims in his book The Big Picture (Penguin Publishing Group 2017): “The laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely known.” Not all physical laws, but those which “describe what happens at the level underlying everyday life.” Nor “that we know how everything works at the level of the everyday.”

    And which he discusses in the chapter “How Much We Know.”

    … the trash heap of history is populated by scientists claiming to know more than they really do, or predicting that they will know almost everything any day now …

    My claim is different. … I’m not claiming that we know everything, or anywhere close to it. I’m claiming that we know some things, and that those things are enough to rule out some other things – including bending spoons with the power of your mind. The reason we can say that with confidence relies heavily on the specific form that the laws of physics take. Modern physics not only tells us that certain things are true; it comes with a built-in way of delineating the limits of that knowledge – where our theories cease to be reliable.

    [Regarding psychic phenomena,] we know that there aren’t new particles or forces out there yet to be discovered that would support them. Not simply because we haven’t found them yet, but because we definitely would have found them if they had the right characteristics to give us the requisite powers.

    The Core Theory equations are presented by Carroll in the Appendix “The Equation Underlying You and Me.”

    Related posts

    Defining a universe — how many constants? – in which another article by Ethan Siegel (2018) is cited:

    If you give a physicist the laws of physics, the initial conditions of the Universe, and these 26 [dimensionless] constants, they can successfully simulate any aspect of the entire Universe.

    Physical constants word cloud
    Credit: E. Tiesinga/NIST

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