Last Thursday was the fiftieth anniversary of C.P. Snow’s famous lecture, “The Two Cultures,” which described a divide between scientists and “literary intellectuals” such as novelists, poets, and philosophers.
The half-centennial provoked only a limited amount of media coverage.
Nature, New Scientist, the Financial Times, and the Telegraph all opined on the current relevance of Snow’s work. Each noted that “The Two Cultures” thesis was controversial from the outset and “has been turned over and pulled apart by commentators from all points on the academic and political compass for nearly half a century.” On the other hand, commentators seemed to agree that Snow’s central worries—the state of education and concern for the world’s poor—remain just as important today.
Most, however, argued that the divide between scientists and literary intellectuals is outdated (if it ever existed at all). One article in Nature suggested that “the real enemy of understanding is not these ‘Two Cultures’ but specialization in all disciplines.” Another said it is the division between “optimists and pessimists.” At any rate, scientists and writers are certainly more familiar with one another than they used to be.
One might point to the rise of researcher-run blogs at popular news outlets, for example. But, as much of the anniversary coverage pointed out, Snow was not as worried about scientists understanding literature as he was about literary figures understanding science. On that count, too, he would be pleased by current norms. The Financial Times, for instance, described the proliferation of science fiction since Snow’s day, as well as the emergence of “straight” literary writers who regularly “grapple with science.”
Much more interesting than these retrospective commentaries, however, was an was an event in Manhattan on Monday titled, “Artists & Science Writers – Finding Common Ground.” It was a fascinating exploration about how journalists, a playwright, a visual artist, and a dance choreographer are trying to better understand, communicate, and “humanize” science. Co-hosted by the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) and the Science & the Arts program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), it was billed as a performance in “three acts.”
In the first act, Mariette DiChristina, the NASW president and acting editor-in-chief of Scientific American, spoke with Arthur Giron, who has authored such scientifically relevant plays as Flight, about the Wright brothers; Emilie’s Voltaire, about the French philosopher and his mistress; and Moving Bodies, about physicist Richard Feynman.
DiChristina and Giron read and discussed scenes from each. Giron’s trick is to couch simple, scientific references in dramatic dialogue. “My job is to get information internalized emotionally so you remember it for the rest of your life,” he told the audience. But, in order to be true to both the science and his art, he must “bathe” himself in facts. He will, for instance, read a stack of books in order to include a single line such as one in the Feynman play that criticizes René Descartes for being a theoretical, rather than experimental, scientist.
For Giron, art is a vehicle to help understand science. For others, it is sometimes the other way around. In the second act of Tuesday’s event, for instance, Wall Street Journal science reporter Robert Lee Hotz talked with Justine Cooper, a visual artist who works with a number of different media. Cooper has used scanning electronic microscopes to “photograph” hair, skin, and other organic materials; MRI imaging to create video representations of the human body; and DNA to create sculptures. But her goal was not to illuminate science.
“I was trying to use the technologies in a way that scientists wouldn’t,” Cooper said. In fact, she thinks of her art as a foil for explanatory art projects such as the Visible Human Project (or perhaps the Bodies Exhibition, though she didn’t actually mention it).