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Snow, Charles Percy

Category: Scientist

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baron-snow-of-leicester

Charles Percy Snow, Baron Snow, CBE (15 October 1905 – 1 July 1980) was an English physicist, chemist, politician and novelist. He is on the site for three reasons. 

  • The first is that he had a quite startling spiritual experience that appeared to open him to immense insights in later life.
  • The second is that he is someone who was able to combine the intellectual and the creative as a consequence – thus an example of a person who achieved balance as a consequence of that experience, not only did he have a distinguished career as a scientist, but he also wrote a number of novels, which were very popular and still are popular today.
  • The third is that he was also something of a prophet predicting what may happen if the balance between the intellectual and the emotional, the arts and the sciences was not bridged – loss of wisdom.

Snow's first novel was a whodunit, Death under Sail (1932). But in the 1930s Snow began the 11-volume novel sequence collectively called “Strangers and Brothers” (published 1940–70), about the academic, public, and private life of an Englishman named Lewis Eliot. The novels are a meticulous analysis of bureaucratic man and the corrupting influence of power.

 

The best-known of the sequence is The Masters. It deals with the internal politics of a Cambridge college as it prepares to elect a new master. ‘Having all the appeal of an insider’s view’, the novel depicts concerns other than the strictly academic that influence the decisions of supposedly objective scholars. The Masters and The New Men were jointly awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1954. Corridors of Power added a phrase to the language of the day. In 1974, Snow's novel In Their Wisdom was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

As a politician, Snow was parliamentary secretary in the House of Lords to the Minister of Technology from 1964 to 1966. Snow also served in several senior civil service positions: as technical director of the Ministry of Labour from 1940 to 1944, and as a civil service commissioner from 1945 to 1960. He was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1943 New Year Honours.

In the 1957 New Year Honours he was knighted, having the honour conferred by Queen Elizabeth II on 12 February, and was created a life peer, as Baron Snow, of the City of Leicester, on 29 October 1964. 

The Two Cultures

The Two Cultures, is a 1959 lecture in which he prophesies what may happen if the gulf between science and the arts is not bridged and education becomes increasingly specialised. 

From THE REDE LECTURE, 1959-   THE TWO CULTURES

There are about fifty thousand working scientists in the country [UK] and about eighty thousand professional engineers or applied scientists. During the war and in the years since, my colleagues and I have had to interview somewhere between thirty to forty thousand of these—that is, about 25 percent.
The number is large enough to give us a fair sample, … We were able to find out a certain amount of what they read and thought about. I confess that even I, who am fond of them and respect them, was a bit shaken. We hadn't quite expected that the links with the traditional culture should be so tenuous, nothing more than a formal touch of the cap.
As one would expect, some of the very best scientists had and have plenty of energy and interest to spare, and we came across several who had read everything that literary people talk about. But that's very rare. Most of the rest, when one tried to probe for what books they had read, would modestly confess, "Well, I've tried a bit of Dickens", rather as though Dickens were an extraordinarily esoteric, tangled and dubiously rewarding writer, something like Rainer Maria Rilke. In fact that is exactly how they do regard him: we thought that discovery, that Dickens had been transformed into the type-specimen of literary incomprehensibility, was one of the oddest results of the whole exercise………….
And of the books which to most literary persons are bread and butter, novels, history, poetry, plays, [they know] almost nothing at all. It isn't that they're not interested in the psychological or moral or social life……………... It is much more that the whole literature of the traditional culture doesn't seem to them relevant to those interests. They are, of course, dead wrong. As a result, their imaginative understanding is less than it could be. They are self-impoverished.

But what about the other side? They are impoverished too—perhaps more seriously, because they are vainer about it. They still like to pretend that the traditional culture is the whole of 'culture', as though the natural order didn't exist. As though the exploration of the natural order was of no interest either in its own value or its consequences. As though the scientific edifice of the physical world was not, in its intellectual depth, complexity and articulation, the most beautiful and wonderful collective work of the mind of man. Yet most non-scientists have no conception of that edifice at all. Even if they want to have it, they can't. It is rather as though, over an immense range of intellectual experience, a whole group was tone-deaf. Except that this tone-deafness doesn't come by nature, but by training, or rather the absence of training.
As with the tone-deaf, they don't know what they miss. They give a pitying chuckle at the news of scientists who have never read a major work of English literature. They dismiss them as ignorant specialists. Yet their own ignorance and their own specialisation is just as startling.


 

This lecture and the books he wrote about the same subject - the Scientific Revolution (1959) and its sequel, Second Look (1964), were, unsurprisingly, attacked by the intellectuals he himself was attacking.  But he remained resolute and the discussion that followed was heated and at times acrimonious.  It was a brave act to fight a cause from within the very box he sought to change.  Snow called attention to a breach long noted but rarely enunciated by a figure respected in both fields.

We have also included an observation with more of this lecture and his prophecy.

Intellectualism as a failed activity

Snow’s other focus for criticism was the remoteness and pointlessness of the academic, the pure intellectual, the man without a purpose, other than to satisfy his own intellectual curiosity at the expense of the tax payer.  He was quite damning of intellectuals, calling them ‘snobs’ and implying they were simply a drag to any form of progress. 

From THE REDE LECTURE, 1959-   THE TWO CULTURES

all over the West, the first wave of the industrial revolution crept on, without anyone noticing what was happening. It was, of course—or at least it was destined to become, under our own eyes, and in our own time—by far the biggest transformation in society since the discovery of agriculture. In fact, those two revolutions, the agricultural and the industrial-scientific, are the only qualitative changes in social living that men have ever known. But the traditional culture didn't notice: or when it did notice, didn't like what it saw………………..

The academics had nothing to do with the industrial revolution; as Corrie, the old Master of Jesus, said about trains running into Cambridge on Sunday, `It is equally displeasing to God and to myself'. So far as there was any thinking in nineteenth-century industry, it was left to cranks and clever workmen.

The industrial revolution, which began developing in New England fifty years or so later than ours,  apparently received very little educated talent, either then or later in the nineteenth century. It had to make do with the guidance handy men could give it—sometimes, of course, handymen like Henry Ford, with a dash of genius.


 

From someone in an academic institution this was revolutionary talk.  In other papers he dwelt on the same theme, that essentially real progress had never really come from within academia, it had always come from industry or the applied arts.  He was particularly damning of the reward system academia had developed for itself – doctors, professors etc where the reward was given by fellow academics.  In many ways his books and lectures seemed to question even the very existence of academia at all.  What were they for?  What had they ever done that actually progressed the lot of common man or knowledge?  They had ceased to be observers of the world, ceased to be true scientists collecting observations out in the field.  Shakespeare was not an academic, neither was Goethe or even Faraday. 

The driving force to all his criticism was a deeply held love for his fellow man and their lot, informed in large part by his own experiences of family life :

From THE REDE LECTURE, 1959-   THE TWO CULTURES

Industrialisation is the only hope of the poor. I use the word `hope' in a crude and prosaic sense. I have not much use for the moral sensibility of anyone who is too refined to use it so. It is all very well for us, sitting pretty, to think that material standards of living don't matter all that much. It is all very well for one, as a personal choice, to reject industrialisation—do a modern Walden, if you like, and if you go without much food, see most of your children die in infancy, despise the comforts of literacy, accept twenty years off your own life, then I respect you for the strength of your aesthetic revulsion. But I don't respect you in the slightest if, even passively, you try to impose the same choice on others who are not free to choose. In fact, we know what their choice would be. For, with singular unanimity, in any country where they have had the chance, the poor have walked off the land into the factories as fast as the factories could take them………..

I remember talking to my grandfather when I was a child. He was a good specimen of a nineteenth-century artisan. He was highly intelligent, and he had a great deal of character. He had left school at the age of ten, and had educated himself intensely until he was an old man. He had all his class's passionate faith in education. Yet, he had never had the luck—or, as I now suspect, the worldly force and dexterity—to go very far. In fact, he never went further than maintenance foreman in a tramway depot. His life would seem to his grandchildren laborious and unrewarding almost beyond belief. But it didn't seem to him quite like that. He was much too sensible a man not to know that he hadn't been adequately used: he had too much pride not to feel a proper rancour: he was disappointed that he had not done more—and yet, compared with his grandfather, he felt he had done a lot. His grandfather must have been an agricultural labourer. I don't so much as know his Christian name. He was one of the `dark people', as the old Russian liberals used to call them, completely lost in the great anonymous sludge of history. So far as my grandfather knew, he could not read or write. He was a man of ability, my grandfather thought; my grandfather was pretty unforgiving about what society had done, or not done, to his ancestors, and did not romanticise their state. It was no fun being an agricultural labourer in the mid to late eighteenth century, in the time that we, snobs that we are, think of only as the time of the Enlightenment and Jane Austen.

The industrial revolution looked very different according to whether one saw it from above or below.  The only question was, how to make it better.

Shifting the emphasis in education

 

There were two main thrusts in Snow’s wish for educational reform.  In the first place, education had to lose its early emphasis on specialisation.  Not only do children not know what they want to do at 14 or 15, the time when selection starts to take place, but they don’t benefit from choosing, they lose perspective, from seeing the broad picture.  The emphasis on exams does not help, since education is no longer a preparation for life and wisdom, schooling simply becomes a series of exams, and hoops to jump through, whose aim is …. What?

Secondly, he tried to steer educational reformers into thinking about education on practical subjects as opposed to esoteric ones.  Children learn practical subjects more easily anyway.  When something has a use, children and adults will learn it without much prompting, and as a consequence, more useful citizens enter the workplace and life in general.

From THE REDE LECTURE, 1959-   THE TWO CULTURES

How many educated people know anything about productive industry, old style or new? What is a machine-tool? I once asked a literary party; and they looked shifty. Unless one knows, industrial production is as mysterious as witch doctoring. Or take buttons. Buttons aren't very complicated things: they are being made in millions every day: one has to be a reasonably ferocious Luddite not to think that that is, on the whole, an estimable activity. Yet I would bet that out of men getting firsts in arts subjects at Cambridge this year, not one in ten could give the loosest analysis of the human organisation which it needs.

I think it is only fair to say that most pure scientists have themselves been devastatingly ignorant of productive industry, and many still are. It is permissible to lump pure and applied scientists into the same scientific culture, but the gaps are wide. Pure scientists and engineers often totally misunderstand each other. Their behaviour tends to be very different: engineers have to live their lives in an organised community, and however odd they are underneath they manage to present a disciplined face to the world. Not so pure scientists. ……….

Pure scientists have by and large been dim-witted about engineers and applied science. They couldn't get interested. They wouldn't recognise that many of the problems were as intellectually exacting as pure problems, and that many of the solutions were as satisfying and beautiful. Their instinct—perhaps sharpened in this country by the passion to find a new snobbism wherever possible, and to invent one if it doesn't exist—was to take it for granted that applied science was an occupation for second-rate minds.


 

Snow has been proved right in numerous ways.  In computing for example, those at the cutting edge of computing are in industry, not academia.   The same is true of engineers.  At one time, those in industry despaired of the impractical and frankly incorrect teaching of universities in the UK.  Some children were still being taught how to write operating systems in the 1990s, as if we hadn’t got enough operating systems to last us a life time.

Life

Born in Leicester to William Snow, a church organist and choirmaster, and his wife Ada, Charles Snow was the second of four boys, his brothers being Harold, Eric and Philip Snow.  He went to Leicestershire and Rutland College, now the University of Leicester, where he read chemistry for two years and proceeded to a master's degree in physics. From Leicester, Snow gained a scholarship to Christ's College, Cambridge, and gained his PhD in physics (Spectroscopy). In 1930 he became a Fellow of Christ's College.

After working at Cambridge in molecular physics for some 20 years, he became a university administrator, and, with the outbreak of World War II, he became a scientific adviser to the British government.

 

Snow was married to the novelist Pamela Hansford Johnson.  Baroness Snow (29 May 1912 – 18 June 1981) was an English novelist, playwright, poet, literary and social critic. In 1936, she had married an Australian journalist, Gordon Neil Stewart. Their son Andrew was born in 1941, and a daughter Lindsay. Pamela and her first husband Neil were divorced in 1949. In 1950, Pamela married C. P. Snow. Their son Philip was born in 1952. For the academic year 1961 to 1962, Snow and his wife both served as Fellows on the faculty in the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan University.

Snow died somewhat unexpectedly at his home, aged 75, in 1980.  His wife died a year later.

From THE REDE LECTURE, 1959-   THE TWO CULTURES

Most of the scientists I have known well have felt—just as deeply as the non-scientists I have known well—that the individual condition of each of us is tragic.
Each of us is alone: sometimes we escape from solitariness, through love or affection or perhaps creative moments, but those triumphs of life are pools of light we make for ourselves while the edge of the road is black: each of us dies alone.
Some scientists I have known have had faith in revealed religion. Perhaps with them the sense of the tragic condition is not so strong. I don't know. With most people of deep feeling, however high-spirited and happy they are, sometimes most with those who are happiest and most high-spirited, it seems to be right in the fibres, part of the weight of lift. That is as true of the scientists I have known best as of anyone at all.
But nearly all of them—and this is where the colour of hope genuinely comes in—would see no reason why, just because the individual condition is tragic, so must the social condition be. Each of us is solitary: each of us dies alone: all right, that's a fate against which we can't struggle—but there is plenty in our condition which is not fate and against which we are less than human unless we do struggle.

 

References

Fiction

Strangers and Brothers series

  • George Passant (first published as Strangers and Brothers), 1940
  • The Light and the Dark, 1947
  • Time of Hope, 1949
  • The Masters, 1951
  • The New Men, 1954
  • Homecomings, 1956
  • The Conscience of the Rich, 1958
  • The Affair, 1959
  • Corridors of Power, 1963
  • The Sleep of Reason, 1968
  • Last Things, 1970

Other fiction

  • Death Under Sail, 1932
  • New Lives for Old, 1933
  • The Search, 1934
  • The Malcontents, 1972
  • In Their Wisdom, 1974, shortlisted for the Booker Prize
  • A Coat of Varnish, 1979

Non-fiction

  • The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, 1959
  • Science and Government, 1961
  • The Two Cultures and a Second Look, 1963
  • Variety of men, 1967
  • The State of Siege, 1968
  • Public Affairs, 1971
  • Trollope: His Life and Art, 1975
  • The Realists, 1978
  • The Physicists, 1981

 

 

Observations

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