Saturday, May 9, 2009

[Yasmin_discussions] One Two Three or More Cultures; 50th anniversary of C.P Snow's The Two Cultures


Thank you so much for telling us about Gaberbocchus Common Room !! You state

Gaberbocchus Common Room opened in August 1957. "The aim of this
Common Room is to provide
artists and scientists and people interested in the philosophy of
science and the philosophy of art
with a congenial place where they can meet and exchange thoughts..."

CP Snow was also a friend of my parents and the living room of my
parents house in the late 1950s was just like the common room you
describe !! Jacon Bronowski rented the house for the summer, Julian
Huxley, Vera Molnar, Joseph Needham, Lancelot Law White, Frank Popper,
Lilian Lijn, and many others came through the house. There was a
chess night that brought together artists, scientists, philosophers
and scholars.

I think if Gaberbocchus was exceptional in 1957, today there are
thousands of such meeting places around the world, and the internet of
course creates ways of crossing institutional/disciplinary
boundaries in ways that was much more difficult in 1957. The
announcements of YASMIN tell us of such meeting places in Istanbul to
Bangalore to Manizales.

The other thing that is different is that there now so many people who
have dual careers in both the
arts/humanities and in the sciences/engineering. In 1960 my father
made a list of all the people he knew who had dual careers. He came up
with about 15 people; People like CP Snow of course who was a novelist
but had worked as a physicist before becoming a civil servant, A L
Copley the founder of what is known as bio-rheology ( the fluid
physics of blood) but also was a widely exhibited abstract
expressionist painter, Claude Berge who was a mathematician but very
active in the OULIPO group
in Paris. The list wasnt very long.

Today I would wager that there are thousands of such people with such
dual careers. From Alan
Lightman who is a well known physicist and novelist, or Ken Goldberg
who is a professor in robotics
and automation but a widely exhibited artist. There are also good
examples of close collaborators
who have joint dual careers such as David Dunn the composer who works
with James Crutchfield
in both forest ecology reseach and musical production. There are
hundreds of artists who file patents
regularly such as Maggie Orth in textiles, ( see for Thill's growing
list). Recently Leonardo published a text by a research dentist in
Singapore who is also an exhibiting new media artist.

The result is that I find that the two cultures debate has really lost
its urgency and relevance; I am personally unsympathetic to the "third
culture" position. I think that there are really good reasons to have
people specialising deeply in narrow disciplines from solar energy to
particle physics to medieval history; if anything we need more narrow
experts in a number of areas. On the other hand I think we have
burning issues today that require us to enable new ways of bridging
the disciplines on specific issues. I suspect the modern university is
the wrong place to do this in general ( there is such a proliferation
of new kinds of place of art-science-technology activity). One of the
burning issues that Snow highlights in his Two Cultures essay is the
problem of economic development in the third world, and uneven
distribution of wealth; Unfortunately one might argue that things have
gotten worse at this time of global crisis in this regard rather than
better over the past 50 Years and that we need new ways of coupling
the best people in the arts and humanities with those in the science
and engineering.

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