Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Reading C P Snow and The Two Cultures

Over at The Intersection blog which I often read and comment on, Chris Mooney (author of "The Republican War on Science") has initiated an informal reading of C. P. Snow's "The Two Cultures". Anyone who is interested is more than welcome to read the influential and very short lecture and blog or comment on it. The schedule is listed in the post. The recommended edition is the Canto edition, with a very readable introduction by Stefan Collini. Incidentally it was this version that I read many years ago (a second-hand copy picked up from one of those delightful book sales at The Institute of Engineers in Pune). Time now for a re-reading.

I have encountered Snow in two other interesting books. The first one- "The Physicists: A Generation that Changed the World"- was authored by him and contains clear and abundant photographs as well as recollections and insights on some of the most famous physicists of the century whom he closely knew. In this for instance I read his generous assessment of Enrico Fermi that captures the supreme greatness of the man's talents and achievements
"If Fermi had been born twenty years earlier, it is possible to envisage him first discovering Rutherford's nucleus and then discovering Bohr's atom. If this sounds like hyperbole, anything about Fermi is likely to sound like hyperbole"
Snow also thought that Robert Oppenheimer's real tragedy was not his sidelining or victimization during the 1950s witch hunts but the fact that he would have thrown away all his fame, brilliance and glory if he had the privilege to make one timeless discovery like Pauli's exclusion principle.

Another book with Snow in it is a fascinating piece of "scientific fiction" written by John Casti. "The Cambridge Quintet: A Work Of Scientific Speculation" features four famous scientists and intellectuals- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Erwin Schrödinger, J B S Haldane and Alan Turing- being invited over to Snow's house for a multi-course dinner. As the dinner unfolds, so do the conversations between these stalwarts. The topic is artificial intelligence, and the participants hold forth in myriad and fascinating ways on the subject with excursions that not surprisingly take them into avenues like the philosophy of mind and language, epistemology and metaphysical questions. Very much worth reading.

In any case, I am looking forward to reading The Two Cultures again and writing about it. Anyone who is interested is more than welcome. The entire lecture is 50 pages and could be read in a few hours of thoughtful contemplation. The topic is as relevant today as it was then, which explains the lecture's enduring appeal. The consequences though could be vastly more pronounced.

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