It is one of the great ironies of modern times, observed the New York Times last year, that CP Snow’s The Two Cultures remains one of the most frequently cited, yet least read, books of the past 50 years.
After all, Snow’s thesis was that the pool of human knowledge was at risk of being drained by a potentially insurmountable gulf between scientists and literary intellectuals, who were at that time regarded as the guardians of culture. As an example, he recounted going to a cocktail party where fellow scientists admitted to knowing no Dickens and the literati revelled in their ignorance of basic scientific terminology. So he started one of the great spats of post-war intellectual life, provoking literary critic FR Leavis into a fantastically bad-tempered attack on Snow, stating that the scientist-turned-novelist had perhaps overestimated his own understanding of intellectual greatness. The first canapé in the cocktail war – sorry, culture war – had been thrown. Anyone who read Ian McEwan’s novel Solar – featuring a Nobel Prize-winning physicist taken aback by non-scientists’ claims to know anything at all – will recognise that Snow’s warning still lingers in the literary imagination. It has clearly stirred the minds of the culturati on the BBC’s niche arts channel, BBC4, who have opened their doors for a whole season of programmes on The Tools of Science.