May 7 marks the 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures lecture. Half a century ago the prominent novelist and speaker, who studied under Lord Rutherford, described a chasm between literary intellectuals and scientists, a gulf that impoverished both sides and impeded efforts to relieve suffering around the world. Science was not understood or respected by the dominant culture, to the detriment of all, he said. At some point scientists had ceased to be considered intellectuals, Snow noted, and though any educated person was required to know Shakespeare, almost none knew the second law of thermodynamics.
Snow’s words touched off decades of debate on both the existence of the “Two Cultures” and the possibility of a “Third Culture” — a group Snow envisioned as curious non-scientists who could bridge the gap between scientists and humanists. In 1991, literary agent John Brockman wrote an essay entitled “The Third Culture,” which made the point that “scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.” In 1991, his Edge Foundation launched a website — Edge — explicitly to bring together intellectuals of the Third Culture — many scientists, but also writers and philosophers—with the goal of bringing empirical studies directly to the public. The Third Culture has grown beyond Edge, as scientists have become increasingly public — and even famous — figures. Seed approached six thinkers to ask where we are now: Whether the Two Cultures are still divided, and what role the Third Culture is playing.
Originally published May 7, 2009