C. P. Snow is wrong! (or was he?)


When I took my doctoral exams, back in the day, one of my exams was on musical aesthetics. I had studied up on all the latest writings by MeyerCage, Copland, Stravinsky, and was totally taken aback when I sat down to start the exam.  One question. One question only. And this was it:

“In his essay, The Two Cultures, C. P. Snow argues that there are two academic cultures, Science and the Arts, that do not, will not, and cannot communicate or coexist with one another.  How do you respond to this thesis as someone in the field of computer music?”

Charles Percy Snow (from Wikipedia)

What??? I had never heard of C. P. Snow, never heard of his essay, nor its central and influential premise. How the heck do I answer this? On the other hand, I had certainly experienced the point-of-view Snow (I thought) was expressing, mostly in the form of puzzled looks, contorted faces and extreme grimaces when people learned of my field of study (this was 1985, before the Mac Plus).

My retort? “C. P. Snow was wrong!” Without hesitation, I argued that Snow’s fundamental premise was wrong and without merit. That, in fact, at their very highest levels, the arts & sciences actually mimic each other in terms of process and inspiration.  For example, the arts are perceived by the uninitiated to be purely driven by divine inspiration.  A painter, a photographer, a composer sits down and waits for a muse to direct their every movement, decision and action. At the same time, the sciences are perceived by the uninitiated as completely logical, built upon prior work and devoid of any kind of inspiration (divine or otherwise).

But in truth, these stereotypes are wrong. When understanding the great works of art or music, we always find deep connections to prior work. Often, masterpieces are based on prior work, incorporate prior work, or give an oppositional approach to contrast prior work. In Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Rite of Spring, he transforms Russian folk music in ways that shattered cultural limitations of 19th century rhythm, meter and harmony. In Pulcinella, he “stole” music of (or attributed to) Pergolesi and rewrote it in a modernist language that was simultaneously old and new.

Albert Einstein, by F. Schmutzer

At the same time, Einstein was redefining our understanding of the physical world; not only with logical derivations of earlier math/physics, but by asking questions no one thought to ask, by posing “mind experiments” involving objects travelling at or near the speed of light. While the solutions to these problems may have been thoroughly logical and mathematically inevitable, it took a spark of pure inspiration to ask the questions that lead to the development of Relativity.

It turns out that the C. P. Snow question, out of the blue as it was, has been a part of my career since I began to consider its implications 26 years ago. Not long after I wrote that C. P. Snow was wrong, I discovered that Snow was actually commenting on the state of academia, being quite critical of its “two cultures” approach. It was the two cultures that were wrong, not C. P. Snow.

And now, there is a concerted effort to bring the arts into science and technology education.  StemToSteam.org is the home page of an effort to insert A for the arts in to the broader effort by the NSF and others to improve Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education at the K-12 level (and beyond). This is a critical effort for education as a whole, one in which we have been engaged for sometime now with our AVATAR Initiative in Digital Media at LSU.

It’s good to know that finally there is a national movement to refute the “two cultures” mentality in academia and research. It’s about time.

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