Nicolas Tredell

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Snow and the Science Wars

Paper delivered on Day One of the “Art and Science Now: The Two Cultures in Question” Conference, a collaboration between the London Consortium, Tate Modern, Science Museum and Wellcome Trust, 22-24 January 2009

In his introduction to the Canto edition of C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, Stefan Collini remarks on the development of “relativistic accounts of science” and affirms that “for the present the diffusion of […] relativistic accounts of science has made it more difficult to endorse the starker or more aggressive version of the ‘two cultures’ thesis” (p. l [50]). The Introduction was first published in 1993, but soon after that it seemed that “the diffusion of […] relativistic accounts of science”, far from weakening the “two cultures” thesis, had helped to provoke a cultural conflict, in the shape of the so-called “Science Wars”, in which battle was joined between at least some scientists who defended the universal claims of science and at least some intellectuals in the humanities who propounded that the truths which science offered were relative to specific social, political and rhetorical situations. The conflict seemed vividly to highlight the continued existence, indeed the exacerbation, of the “gulf of mutual incomprehension”, as Snow called it, between scientists and humanist intellectuals, even if a significant contingent of the latter now preferred to think of themselves as anti-humanist.

There’s little doubt where Snow would have stood in the Science Wars; he would have dismissed “relativistic accounts of science” as “silly” – one of his favourite no-nonsense adjectives – and he would have seen the antics of their advocates – particularly those involved in literary criticism and theory – as a partly comic, partly pathetic confirmation of his worst fears about the incapacity of humanist intellectuals to engage intelligently with science. It’s Snow, after all, who makes fun of poets who misuse scientific expressions when he remarks in The Two Cultures: “there was a time when ‘refraction’ kept cropping up in verse in a mystifying fashion, and when ‘polarised light’ was used as though writers were under the illusion that it was a specially admirable kind of light” (p. 16). Here he playfully adumbrates what would become a major indictment in the Science Wars: the charge that humanist, or anti-humanist intellectuals appropriated scientific terms and concepts without fully understanding them and sometimes got them hilariously or outrageously wrong.

But to say where Snow would have stood in the Science Wars is not to endorse the view that he was an uncritical apologist for science. In the initial controversy over his “Two Cultures” lecture and to some extent subsequently, he was often presented in that way – sometimes verbally caricatured as such – and to a degree he himself contributed to that perception. Snow – the Snow who emerges from his voluminous fictional and non-fictional writings – was a man of many masks, or rather of a multiplicity of rhetorical personae. It’s the switches between these personae, the sometimes very rapid shifts between different rhetorical modes, which help to make The Two Cultures lecture itself both one of the most fertile and one of the most reviled texts in the cultural history of the past fifty years. One of Snow’s most vigorous personae is that of a character derived from Arnold Bennett and J. B. Priestley, a blunt, plain-speaking unrepentantly vulgar man from the Midland or Northern provinces of England, the difficult guest at literary dinner parties who asks questions like: “What is a machine tool?” (Two Cultures, p. 30). But it is important to stress that this is only one of Snow’s personae and that to get a fuller sense of the complexity of Snow’s attitudes to science – and indeed, more generally, to the possibility of authoritative knowledge – we need to look across the full range of his work and at his fiction as well as his non-fiction.

Just as Snow is often seen as an uncritical apologist for science, so he is often seen as a plodding practitioner of pedestrian realistic fiction – and again, to some extent, this is a perception he encouraged, casting himself as the literary plain dealer reaching beyond the confines of metropolitan or academic literary criticism to a wider popular audience impatient with the intricacies of modernism. But Snow began his published literary career, not as a realist, but as a writer of genre fiction – his first novel, Death Under Sail, published in 1932, was an accomplished example of that quintessential 1930s genre of cognitive reassurance, the detective story – and his second novel New Lives for Old, which we’ll say more about in a moment was, at least partly, a science fiction tale. In the rest of his fictional output there are generic elements which can’t simply be subsumed under the rubric of realism: elements of the thriller and of melodrama, for instance. Any adequate account of Snow as a novelist should acknowledge and analyse the generic variety, the formal hybridity, of his fiction and should also relate this hybridity to the complexity of the issues, scientific and otherwise, which he tackles.

New Lives for Old provides a good starting point for this exploration. It’s not a very well-known novel, but then Snow took care that it shouldn’t be very well known. It was published anonymously in 1933 – perhaps another example of Snow’s fondness for wearing masks – and it was simply attributed in the blurb to “one of the cleverest of our younger scientists”. Snow never let the novel be reprinted and, according to his youngest brother, was very reluctant to talk about it. New Lives for Old is certainly Snow’s most hybrid work, combining science fiction, comedy and satire with elements of a political thriller and of a quasi-Proustian exploration of the intricacies of desire and jealousy; it’s also a work in which Snow raises and dramatizes a range of difficult questions about science. New Lives for Old is neither formally nor ideologically complacent and doesn’t at all suggest the uncritical acceptance of the claims and consequences of science of which Snow would sometimes be accused after The Two Cultures.

As those of you familiar with the novel will know, the protagonist of New Lives for Old, a sixty-five-year old Professor of Biophysics at King’s College, London, is called Billy Pilgrim – a name that was later to become rather better-known as that of the time-hopping protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). The novel opens with the discovery, by Pilgrim and a younger colleague, David Callan, of how to synthesize a hormone which will increase the human lifespan by thirty years – and which will also, so to speak, increase the human sexspan. This is a key emphasis in New Lives for Old - the prolongation of life will also entail the prolongation of the capacity for vigorous sexual desire – and performance – in both men and women. Accurate prophecy is perhaps one of the lesser virtues of science fiction, but New Lives for Old is quite prescient about certain consequences of increased lifespan and sexspan: for instance that, because the hormone slows down the emergence of physical signs of ageing but does not reverse them, there will be a greatly increased demand for cosmetic treatments; or that long-term marriages are more likely to break up as sexually rejuvenated older men and women seek new and younger partners. This is not so far from the way we live now.

The greater significance of New Lives for Old, however, is the way in which it dramatizes a range of concerns about science and its applications. The two cultures are partly embodied in the novel in the shape of Billy Pilgrim and his close friend, the novelist Alec Vanden, and it is Vanden who, from time to time, leads the attack upon science or scientists, for example telling Pilgrim:

[M]ost scientists [...] have a picture of themselves as a sort of new priesthood […] you like to think that scientifically you always tell the truth. And you’re all f-frightfully sensitive when your scientific work is attacked, because at the same time your picture of yourselves as tellers of the truth is being damaged (p. 67).

New Lives for Old also suggests, however, that differences over the nature of science are to be found among scientists as well as between scientists and humanists; these may, for instance, be mapped on to generational differences, as in the dispute between Pilgrim and his younger colleague, Callan, when Pilgrim belittles the idea of disinterested intellectual satisfaction in solving a scientific problem, saying:

[a]s for scientific satisfaction, the nice quiet domestic pleasure you get out of proving that you know the structure of these molecules – that Nature sent you a little puzzle to which you were clever enough to find the answer – well, that’s a pretty cheap sort of satisfaction (18).

It is, however, Pilgrim’s idea of the moral neutrality of science that is most severely tested in New Lives for Old. Pilgrim wants to amputate truth from consequences. His discovery quickly gives him access to the corridors of power, and, in an interview with the Prime Minister during which they discuss the implications of rejuvenation, Pilgrim maintains his “quite unshakable view” that “[s]cience is not moral or immoral; it’s just a collection of facts about the physical world. The use of those facts is entirely outside the control of the men who happen to find them out” (p. 45). This issue will be taken up again, in a much more pressing way, in Snow’s novel about the development and use of the atomic bomb, The New Men (1954). In New Lives for Old, Pilgrim’s discovery of the life-prolonging hormone is almost immediately implicated in political questions, to which Snow is highly alert. A major strand of the novel is the political and social conflicts which arise from the fact that the life-prolonging treatment is expensive and, in capitalist societies, only available to those who can afford it: in Snow’s fictional projection of the future, these conflicts culminate in a revolution in Britain.

It is, however, Snow’s third novel, The Search, published in 1934, which engages most centrally and explicitly with issues related to science. Here the dominant form is that of the realist Bildungsroman, the novel of personal education and development, in which the protagonist, Arthur Miles, traces through his own life the awakening, pursuit and eventual loss of a sense of scientific vocation. The Search is a richly packed novel with many resonances for the themes of this conference – and it's also worth mentioning, in our current context, that it contains a vivid fictionalized portrayal, in the character of Leo Constantine, of a distinguished twentieth-century scientist, J. D. Bernal, who was Professor of Physics and pioneer of crystallographic research in the very institution in which we’re gathered today, Birkbeck College – “an odd but in some ways suitable vantage point”, as Snow interestingly calls Birkbeck in his memoir of Bernal (p. 25). But we’ll focus now on two highly charged and partly complementary incidents at the beginning and end of The Search. Near the start of the novel, Arthur becomes enraptured by astronomy and asks his father to help him assemble a home-made telescope from two lenses and a cardboard tube. When his father botches the job, Arthur tries to spare his feelings by claiming that the telescope works, thus choosing the human tie in preference to truth. Near the end of the novel, Arthur himself has given up science after an embarrassing public error in which he rushed untenable results into print (as Snow and his colleague Philip Bowden did); but Arthur’s links with science are still strong, and he is faced with a difficult choice when he realizes that his friend from his undergraduate days, Charles Sherriff, who is on the verge of attaining a university chair, has published erroneous results – and he is fairly sure Sherriff has faked them. Even as an ex-scientist, he knows what he ought to do, and he drafts a letter to Nature pointing out the flaws in Sherriff’s findings. But he eventually decides not to send the letter, in order to try to protect Sherriff and his wife Audrey – who is, as it happens, a former girlfriend of Arthur’s. Arthur knows that Sherriff’s faulty results will be detected before too long, but he reckons that Sherriff will have got his chair by then and will be able to pass off the errors as honest mistakes. Arthur realizes that, in withholding the letter to Nature, he is violating what one of his scientific mentors had defined as the “only ethical principle which has made science possible […] that the truth shall be told all the time” (p. 257). Arthur reflects on his decision in this way:

With one of memory’s materialisations, I recalled the time my father and I had finished making our telescope; and how, to allay his disappointment, I had pretended to see wonders which were not there. Perhaps that was my first denial of science, right at the birth of my enthusiasm; and whether I had known much of myself or little now, I should still have saved Sherriff by the same instinctive drive. Ah well! I had acted at last; and now I was alone, having set myself apart from the final collective faith. (p. 318)

This is a characteristic topos near the end of a Bildungsroman, the moment when the protagonist finally casts off old attachments and strides forth into isolation and freedom. But those attachments are more usually of a traditional religious kind, as in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), or familial, as in D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913). But at the end of The Search, it is science – often seen as a solvent of traditional bonds, as an agent of liberation – which is rejected as “the final collective faith” – a description of science which links up with Vanden’s charge, in New Lives for Old, that most scientists think of themselves as a new priesthood. The ending of The Search might also be read as an alternative version of the dilemma later envisaged by E. M. Forster, in “What I Believe”, first published in 1939: that if he had to choose between betraying his country and betraying his friend, he hoped he would have the guts to betray his country (Two Cheers for Democracy, p. 76). In the final pages of The Search, Arthur Miles, forced to choose between betraying science and betraying his friend, chooses to betray science. And this betrayal probably causes greater uneasiness in modern secular readers, whether they are scientists or non-scientists, than the betrayal of one’s original religious faith or family or country. The Search, of course, is a novel and does not necessarily endorse Arthur’s decision, but it does imaginatively reconstruct a situation in which Arthur’s choice could seem a valid one.

After The Search, Snow begins the eleven-volume sequence of “Strangers and Brothers” novels and his protagonist, Lewis Eliot, is not a scientist. But Eliot does originally train for and practise a profession which is, like that of a scientist, centrally concerned with truth and evidence and putting things to the test: he is a barrister. But a barrister, especially in an adversarial legal system such as the British one, in which prosecuting and defence counsel oppose each other, is also concerned with narrative, with telling stores, and thus moves, more evidently than a scientist, in the ambiguous zone between fact and interpretation. In the “Strangers and Brothers” novels, Eliot, traversing a maze of courts, committees and corridors of power – and, especially in The New Men, scientific laboratories and institutions – enters, time and again, into courtroom or courtroom-like situations where interpretations compete, and he experiences, more than once, vertiginous moments when the apparent basis of truth starts to dissolve.

Perhaps the most vivid dramatization of such a moment is in the eighth “Strangers and Brothers” novel, The Affair, published in 1960. This deals with the aftermath of a scientific fraud. Eliot takes up the case of Donald Howard, who has been deprived of his fellowship at Eliot’s old Cambridge college because he has apparently perpetrated a fraud by using a faked photograph in his thesis and in his subsequent published paper which was later detected by American scientists in the same field. Eliot has to plead Howard’s case before a Court of Seniors, a quasi-legal body made up of senior members of the college. The details of Howard’s defence are complex, but the crux of the matter is that Howard’s name could be cleared if it could be established that a photograph in one of his supervisor’s notebooks was also a fake. The supervisor, a distinguished senior scientist and benefactor of the college, is now dead, but the relevant notebook has been sent to the college. When it reaches the Court of Seniors, however, the photograph which could clear Howard is missing. In order to defend Howard, Eliot has to imply that the photograph may have been torn out by one of the senior members of the Court – the Bursar, Alec Nightingale. But he cannot accuse Nightingale directly, or the senior members would simply close ranks and throw out Howard’s appeal. So Eliot has to walk a tightrope. As he puts it: “I had at once to keep the suspicion on Nightingale and simultaneously leave both him and the Court [of Seniors] a tolerable way out”(p. 991). As the hearing proceeds, Eliot feels that the grounds of truth are dissolving under him and he comes to the edge of an epistemological abyss when he confronts Nightingale with the page in the notebook which has a blank space where a photograph should have been. Eliot puts it this way:

[G]azing at the empty page, I lost my sense of fact. I could see [Nightingale], on a December morning [when he first received the notebook], also gazing at the page: either at the photograph securely there, or the gap after he had torn it out. Everything seemed equally probable or improbable. It was a sort of vertigo that I had felt as a young man, when I did some criminal law: and since, in the midst of official security: or dazzled by the brilliance of suspicion […] In the midst of the facts of the crime, there were times when one could believe anything. (p. 993)

As at other key points in the “Strangers and Brothers” series, Snow conveys here a sense of the vertiginous gulfs that underlie “the plane of reason and efficiency” on which his characters in courts and committee rooms and the corridors of power – and in scientific laboratories – ostensibly operate.

Snow’s novels raise a host of questions about science, and about the very possibility of authoritative knowledge, which complicate, without invalidating, his emphasis in The Two Cultures on the beauty and power of science and on the importance of scientific understanding and education. There’s even a sense in which it could be said that the Science Wars of the 1990s and their repercussions are anticipated, fought out in advance across Snow’s fictional and non-fictional writings – writings which dramatize a gamut of positions from an assured belief in the authority of science to an epistemological scepticism which undermines the basis of any claims, even scientific ones, to authoritative knowledge. But Snow’s writings also point beyond the Science Wars to the possibilities, which this conference exemplifies, of a more complex understanding of the relationships between science, art, truth and society.


Anon. [Snow, C. P.], New Lives for Old (London: Gollancz, 1933).
Forster, E. M., ‘What I Believe’ [1939], in Two Cheers for Democracy (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1970), pp. 75-84.
Snow, C. P., “J. D. Bernal: A Personal Portrait”, in Maurice Goldsmith and Alan Mackay (eds.), The Science of Science: Society in the Technological Age (London: Souvenir Press, 1964), pp. 19-29.
- - -, The Search (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1965).
- - -, The Affair (1960), collected in Strangers and Brothers, vol. 2 (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1972).

- - -, The Two Cultures, with an introduction by Stefan Collini, Canto edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
Tredell, Nicolas, entries on C. P. Snow and his works in the online Literary Encyclopedia at

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