Tuesday, May 19, 2009

CP Snow and such

What a to do recently in the science mags about the 50th anniversary of CP Snow's lecture on the "Two Cultures" in 1957 at the University of Cambridge in the UK. With the the advantage of hindsight we can critique his brave stance while agreeing or not with his contention that the failure of art and science to communicate was disastrous for society. I like to think his lecture pointed more to a lack of appreciation of the connection between the two, rather than the explicit lack of shared understanding of the complexities of each. In Nature (vol 459, 7th May 09) there are a couple of essays celebrating the anniversary and offering up the equivalent challenges of the current day. Martin Kemp believes specialization in all disciplines to be the primary hinderance to undestanding between the humanities and science (I happen to agree with him-strongly), while Georgina Ferry asserts it is the push and pull between the optimists and the pessimists that stands in the way of some common ground. My view is that true pessimism is relatively rare where either science or literature is concerned, and that science and literature are inescapably joined at the hip on account of the arguable absence of absolute truth in either. At best, all we have are beliefs at a moment in time. If we kid ourselves for one moment that we have the answers, then science has failed. The true division in this day and age, in my opinion, is the one between those that believe they know it, and those who recognize that they don't. The pessimists may be re-christened skeptics in this scenario. In our information-heavy environment it is easy to think scientists have all the answers; there is so much out there to be found. However, what we lack is a clear consensus on what the real questions should be these days. As we become more specialized we can find more solutions to those may parts that make up the whole. But is the whole any better off? How would we ever know? Our specialized systems don't allow us to easily address the question about the health of the whole. We look to the skeptics to force us to reconsider our assumptions and re-shape the terrain of scientific inquiry.

According to Ferry's article, the literary giant (and one of my favorite authors), Ian McKewan says you can't be curious and depressed. It's hard to argue with that, but the exptrapolation of optimism to hope in the essay is troubling to me. I don't see hope having much of a place is science. In the arts, yes. At the bedside, for sure. But in science, isn't hope the one aspect we systematically try to keep out of the picture? Hope is passive, surely. Science requires that we move beyond hope, and beyond current belief, to a future where something is different. Science suggest forward motion, that replaces hope with meaurable outcomes that we can believe in. At least for a while...

At the heart of CP Snow's teachings is the notion of keeping an open mind and being relevant and responsible in scienc. With the Internet, global warming, corporate greed, and the tremendous gulf between the rich and the poor, I wonder what he would think of our world today?