CP Snow, RC Cookson and the two cultures

CP Snow’s famous Rede Lecture on the “Two Cultures” has generated much talk during its 50th anniversary year – some in praise of the novelist for drawing attention to the gap between the arts and sciences, some attacking him.

Lord Mandelson, the UK business secretary, made CP Snow’s thesis the centrepiece of his Hinton Lecture at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London this week. “Fifty years on, we are still trying to bridge the gaps between pure and applied science, and between the worlds of science and technology and our wider society – at the level of understanding, and at the level of engagement,” he said.

The opposite reaction comes from my friend Ted Nield, editor of Geoscientist, in his magazine’s October issue. He expresses shock at ” the fondness in which this malign piece of twaddle [the Two Cultures lecture] is still held by otherwise intelligent people. Those who read the original lecture… will find it a curious experience. It is unbelievably dated, insular, parochial, badly argued, intellectually threadbare, and peppered with emotional leakage”

Nield adds: “I believe that what saves the Rede Lecture as a cultural icon is that nobody has read it.”

Well I read it so long ago that I am not going to express an opinion.

What I have been reading is another lecture delivered in 1959 – one of more personal interest to me. During the sad task of clearing the house of my late father Richard Cookson we came across his inaugural lecture as Professor of Chemistry at Southampton University, in a 22-page booklet priced at two shillings and sixpence.

My father’s elegantly argued lecture, entitled “The Study of Chemistry”, demonstrates how preoccupied people were 50 years ago about what he called the “supposed antithesis between science and the arts”. He quoted the views of several contemporaries, such as Raymond Mortimer and GM Trevelyan, but not CP Snow.

The Cookson lecture drew caricatures of the Uncivilised Scientist and the Ignorant Artist. “Both monstrosities are, to the extent that they really exist, a reproach both to their own intelligence and to the society that allowed them to develop (or, should I say, fail to develop?),” he said.

My father blamed the excessively early specialisation of the English educational system. His favoured solution was to add a year to many university courses, so that students could receive a wider education throughout their time at school and then have enough time at university to reach the reach the standard required for graduation.

That did not happen. All funds available to expand higher education in the 1960s were (understandably) devoted to opening new universities and increasing access, rather to enriching the education of the small minority who made it to university in the 1950s.

And the problem of scientific illiteracy among much of the graduate population remains as prevalent as ever.

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Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.

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