C. P. Snow in New York

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  • 32 SC IENT IF IC AMERIC AN September 20 09

    CRITICAL MASS

    BY L AWRENCE M. KR AUSS

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    C. P. Snow in New YorkA new column that examines the intersection between science and society provides an update on the two cultures

    Earlier this summer marked the 50th anniversary of C. P. Snows famous Two Cultures essay, in which he lamented the great cultural divide that separates two great areas of human intellectual activity, science and the arts. Snow argued that practitioners in both areas should build

    bridges, to further the progress of human knowledge and to ben-efi t society.

    Alas, Snows vision has gone unrealized. Instead literary agent John Brockman has posited a third culture, of scientists who communicate directly with the public about their work in media such as books without the intervening assistance of literary types. At the same time, many of those in the humanities, arts and politics remain content living within the walls of scien-tifi c illiteracy.

    Good reasons exist for this phenomenon. In the fi rst place, while we bemoan the lack of good science teaching in our public schools (the vast majority of middle school physical science and math teachers, for example, do not have a science degree), scientifi c illiter-acy is not a major impediment to success in business, politics and the arts. At the university level, science is too often seen as something needed merely to fulfi ll a requirement and then to be dispensed with. To be fair, the same is often the case for humanities courses for sci-ence and engineering majors, but the big difference is that these students cannot help but be bombarded by litera-ture, music and art else-where as a part of the pop culture that permeates daily life. And whats more, individuals often proudly proclaim that science isnt their thing, almost as a badge of honor to indicate their cultural bent.

    There is another factor, one that was on display at the World Science Festival in New York City this summer, which helps to undermine the role of science in society. Amid events on the cos-mos, modern biology, quantum mechanics and other areas at the forefront of science, I participated in a panel discussion on sci-ence, faith and religion.

    Why would such an event be a part of a science festival? We

    accord a special place to religion, in part thanks to groups such as the Templeton Foundation, which has spent millions annually raising the profi le of big questions, which tend to suggest that science and religious belief are somehow related and should be treated as equals.

    The problem is, they are not. Ultimately, science is at best only consistent with a God that does not directly intervene in the dai-ly operations of the cosmos, certainly not the personal and an-cient gods associated with the worlds great religions. Even though, as physicist Steven Weinberg has emphasized, most peo-ple who call themselves religious tend to adhere to only those bits and pieces from scripture that appeal to them, by according un-due respect for ancient religious beliefs in general, we nonethe-

    less are suggesting that they are on par with conclusions that have been drawn from centuries of rational empiri-cal investigation.

    Snow hoped for a world that is quite different from how we live today, where indifference to science has,

    through religious fundamentalism, sometimes morphed into open hostility about concepts such as evolution and the big bang.

    Snow did not rail against religion, but ignorance. As the moderator in my panel fi nally understood after

    an hour of discussion, the only vague notions of God that may be compatible with sci-ence ensure that God is es-sentially irrelevant to both our understanding of nature and our actions based on it.

    Until we are willing to ac-cept the world the way it is, without miracles that all empirical evidence ar-gues against, without

    myths that distort our comprehension of nature, we are unlikely to bridge the divide between science and culture and, more im-portant, we are unlikely to be fully ready to address the urgent technical challenges facing humanity.

    Lawrence M. Krauss, a theoretical physicist, commentator and book author, is Foundation Professor and director of the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University (http://krauss.faculty.asu.edu).

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