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No. 2685:
C.P. Snow at a Cocktail Party

Today, C. P. Snow at a cocktail party. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

C. P. SnowI was a graduate student in 1959 -- studying thermodynamics, but also spending a lot of time doing early renaissance music. That year C. P. Snow's essay, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution appeared. Of course I applauded it. Shouldn't we all live know both cultures -- science/technology and the humanities?

Snow's classic illustration was the scientist at a cocktail party. He finds that his friend from the humanities has no concept of the second law of thermodynamics. Okay, we all have holes in our education, but this fellow felt no embarrassment -- any more than the scientist fretted over how little he knew of the classics. 

Snow was bothered by the old British educational system which tended to define an educated person by a humanities yardstick. Some called him a PR man for the sciences for his trouble. Others hailed him as the prophet of a properly balanced education.

Learning is in better balance today. As the Internet bathes us in knowledge of all kinds at every level, the two cultures are no longer insulated from each other. Yet Snow's cocktail party conversation still hovers. It reminds me of that poor soul who tried to heat a cold house by holding a match under the thermostat. 

Well, it'll take more than someone sounding smart in public to solve the problem. When Snow said "Second Law of Thermodynamics," some intelligencia tried to fix the deficiency by learning a thermodynamic catch word. The Second Law says that the entropy of any isolated system can only increase. So they seized the word entropy.

How often have you heard some smarty-pants running on -- "blah, blah, blah, entropy" -- suddenly plopping that imposing non sequitur into a sentence. I was just reading a popular book on science when it spoke of a "process of entropy." What! Entropy's not a process; it's a physical property. It has meaning only when a system is static and nothing at all is happening -- before or after a process. Entropy is meaningless during a process.

Catchwords clearly won't bridge the gulf between Snow's two cultures. If I go about saying "blah, blah, blah, Homer," or "blah, blah, blah, Bartok," that's no better than dropping the word entropy without ever having opened a thermodynamics text. 

Four years after his published essay, Snow wrote an addendum. He said the second law had been a poor example since it cut too deeply into human understanding. He should have stayed nearer the surface -- something more descriptive, maybe about cells or DNA. He also allowed that there can be no more "Renaissance men". The scope and depth of accrued knowledge has grown too large. 

Science               Humanities

He should've lived to see the Internet. It's today's cocktail party, and it no longer lets the cultures stand apart. We still pose and use catchwords, of course. But we really do live in a healthier world -- a mixed and stirred world, where science and the humanities are now being forced to engage one another. 

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

For both Snow's original 1959 lecture, and the 1964 addendum, see C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures and a Second Look: An Expanded Version of the Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. (Cambridge at the University Press, 1964).

Actually, Snow did not identify the "gathering" as a cocktail party. But that is the sort of situation that was common in his time and at which such conversations might be heard. The photo of C. P. Snow is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The other two images are clipart.