A New Picture of the Two Cultures

In the Margins / by Greg Boustead /

A recent visualization of scholarly research based on online user patterns offers a fresh perspective on C.P. Snow's landmark treatise on science and the arts.

In addition to the well-publicized map of science released last week by Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers, which was parsed according to field of research, the group also created a cross-validating map as part of the same study. The network visualization is based on the same innovative clickstream data set as the field-coded map, but with nodes divided in half, categorically based on journals’ top-level classification, as either natural sciences (blue) or humanities and social sciences (yellow).

It’s been 50 years since British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow delivered his famous Rede Lecture on the “The Two Cultures,” calling for a movement toward more meaningful connections between the sciences and the humanities, each side of the continuum filling in gaps of knowledge toward a deeper understanding of phenomena. With this map we have perhaps the first sophisticated window into the nature of this divide — a 21st-century, data-driven map of the so-called two cultures. Although it’s clear that the humanities and natural sciences are still well defined (note the ostensible embrace by the natural sciences of the humanities), several areas of intersection and overlap are evident. “This map shows that two sides are very strongly intertwined, they’re part of the same system,” says Johan Bollen, who led the research.

What meaning might this new lens provide for distilling the interrelationship of the two distinct — but increasingly codependent — approaches to describing the natural world? What will this map and its points of intersection look like in another 50 years?

“If someone wants to find an early indicator of an unexpected connection between two fields — say, between information theory and plant phenology — that connection will appear immediately in clickstream data,” says theoretical biologist and Eigenfactor founder, Carl Bergstrom. “It’s still an open research question what exactly this new window will show us, but I’m pretty confident there will be very useful information about the nature of interdisciplinary research.”

Social sciences and humanities journals (yellow); natural sciences journals (blue). Click to enlarge. Credit: PLoSOne

Originally published March 20, 2009

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