In the 1950’s, the distinguished English scientist and novelist C. P. Snow published first a brief essay and then, in expanded form, a book decrying the baleful consequences of what he famously called The Two Cultures. The best-known passage in the book, quoted in a Wikipedia article on the affair, runs as follows:
“A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?
I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.”
There are several things worth noting about this passage which mark it as having been written by someone educated in England. First, while it is common for scientists and humanists to encounter one another socially in the Senior Common Room or at the High Table of an Oxford or Cambridge college, such casual encounters are a good deal less frequent in American universities. Second, at the time Snow was writing, it was common practice for English secondary schools to sort students into a science track and a humanities/social sciences track as early as age eleven or twelve, with the result that a great many people with university degrees had had virtually no encounters with the natural sciences [a fact I discovered in London in 1954 during a brief but enjoyable liaison with a young English woman who had gone the humanities/social sciences route in school.]
One is of course reminded of the Alan Sokal send-up of literary critics, discussed on this blog last year.
Inasmuch as my writing routinely crosses many disciplinary boundaries, I find quite often that part of what I am saying is lost on my audience, a consequence of the compartmentalization Snow was decrying. To choose only the most recent example, my post earlier this morning in response to the inquiry from a Ms. N was intended by me quite consciously as an attempt to achieve what I might call a Thurberesque authorial voice, while ostensibly speaking about the philosophy of Immanuel Kant [a fact that I telegraphed openly by my reference to the Thurber short story.] Some of my readers, schooled in the arts of literary criticism, will have recognized this fact, while others, schooled in Philosophy, will as easily have understood and appreciated the remarks about syllogistic logic. But will these and other readers have understood the union of the two in one post? Will readers as well have understod that the tone of my response was designed to protect me from the possibility that the inquiry was in fact a hoax, a joke designed to trap me into a pompous scholarly reply? I wonder.
Among my many writings, it is Moneybags Must Be So Lucky that is in this way most transgressive. Perhaps that is why, in the words of David Hume, it “fell stillborn from the presses.” [Does everyone who reads that last phrase understand Hume’s metaphor?]