Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Wither the Two Cultures?

Nearly fifty years ago C. P. Snow delivered his famous “Two Cultures” lecture, deploring the state of affairs in which the humanities, especially those who believed in constructionism, had intellectually diverged from the sciences. Scientists didn’t care about Shakespeare; while literists bragged about not knowing any math.

But pick up a modern popular novel and it’s hard to see this criticism holding much weight. All the literary outlets have been touting Thomas Pynchon’s new tome, Against the Day. Pynchon’s novels, as eminent literist Scott McLemee put it, discuss “the domains of information theory, mathematical physics, cosmology” with frequent references to such subjects as “William Hamilton’s quaternions or Georg Riemann’s zeta function” in which the Michelson-Morley experiment takes center stage.

It’s hard to imagine anything but a new Richard Feynman book could do more to warm a scientist’s heart.

Meanwhile, take Jonathan Franzen’s bestseller, The Corrections (even an Oprah’s book club pick!). The book, which revolves around the dot-com economic upturn, not only features frequent and detailed references to eigenvector-based computer algorithms, advances in neurological technology, and odd properties of electrophoresis, but even features a main character who goes from being in that most constructivist of professions — left-wing literary criticism — to a job building dot-com websites.

It seems geekiness has gone mainstream. And along with it, the geeky culture of scientism now buts up against the aesthete culture of literism. It’s hard to see how anyone can take the two cultures complaints seriously anymore.

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December 27, 2006


This was probably bound to happen at sometime. Many recent bestsellers pride themselves on intense research and knowledge of the particular domain. You find jargon, technical words, and theories thrown all over the place. The reader is suitably impressed.

A word of caution using another example: I (and many other TV watchers) see medical shows (like Gray’s Anatomy) where we cannot half understand the terminology (medical terms) used. But the context of what is happening and the emotional tone keeps me engrossed. Could that be what is happening with these kind of books?

posted by Krishna Kumar on December 27, 2006 #

Vladimir Nabokov, the novelist and entomologist, agreed with you forty years ago. He told an interviewer: “I might have compared myself to a Colossus of Rhodes bestriding the gulf between the thermodynamics of Snow and the Laurentomania of Leavis, had that gulf not been a mere dimple of a ditch that a small frog could straddle.”

The whole interview:

posted by Seth Roberts on December 27, 2006 #

A better test than a couple of carefully chosen works of fiction is universities. I happened to be one of the few people who has always been interested in both cultures, and took courses in university from both sides of the divide, and I can assure you that the humanities professors (and students) are for the most part completely ignorant of the sciences and mathematics — and do indeed wear their ignorance as a badge of pride — and the professors and students in the sciences are for the most part equally ignorant of the humanities, literature, etc.

There are always some exceptions, of course. I had a few science professors who were polymaths of sorts, and I had one polymath humanities professor who was scientifically literate and interest, but these were exceptions that emphasized the continuing relevance of Snow’s critique.

I’d submit that universities — professors and their students — are far better places to look for evidence than works of fiction. Even in Snow’s day, there were works of fiction and people who spanned both sides of the divide (e.g., Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll), but Snow looked among his colleagues at Cambridge and saw that the great divide was for the most part the rule rather than the exception.

posted by Gill Bates on December 27, 2006 #

I think you’re mistaking the use of “technobabble” for scientific interest.

Like Ron Moore talking about Star Trek scripts:

“I think I’m probably proudest of the lines that people would just laugh at because they would publish them as literally, “Captain, the TECH is TECHing.” “Well, TECH the TECH,” would be the answer. People would read this and go what, are you kidding? I’d promise, in the second draft I’ll fix all of that stuff.”

posted by Seth Finkelstein on December 28, 2006 #

Although the cross-pollination of the left-brained and right-brained is on the rise again, do not be blinded by the trees.

The one thing we haven’t paid much attention to is the anti-intellectualism which appears to be gaining ground. What does it matter if a large number of people refuse to think carefully at all?

posted by Simon Law on December 28, 2006 #

Fast forward to the day when the distinction between writing a novel and programming a propaganda script vanishes. After all, it’s all about the code … the surviving meme … the surviving DNA … is it not? That people and their institutions are not automatons is true, only if you do not pan out far enough to where the important statical correlations obtain. Take for example, Mr President, to surge or not to surge. As an automaton, you will surge … you will secure and hold Baghdad* … it is the only way forward consistent with your prior rhetoric of victory and the industrial imperative to finish constructing your enemy … you must do it! That is the command of the script. Sorry, the script does not sanction the occasional courageous break from the weighty baggage of a long career. Sorry, such a rare and unexpected event, however dramatic, however life saving, however just … does not appear anywhere in the script.

  • http://tinyurl.com/y9vytt

posted by Seth Russell on December 28, 2006 #

So, is this a clever pun, or did you misspell “whither”?

posted by Evan Prodromou on January 2, 2007 #

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