The Third Culture: The Power and Glory of Mathematics


Ian Stewart in New Statesman:

[C.P.] Snow’s lecture [on the gulf between the two cultures of arts and sciences] was based in part on an article he had written for the New Statesman in 1956. He was continuing a tradition that goes right back to the magazine’s first editorial, which adopted a broad cultural stance: “We shall deal with all current political, social, religious, and intellectual questions . . . We shall strive to face and examine social and political issues in the same spirit in which the chemist or the biologist faces and examines her test-tubes or his specimens, ignoring none of the factors, seeking to demonstrate no preconceived proposition, but trying only to find out and spread abroad the truth whatever it may turn out to be.”

Perhaps not wishing to alarm potential readers too much, the editorial expanded on its scientific metaphor: “Social problems may not be – indeed, are not – susceptible of scientific analysis in the popular acceptation of that term, since human beings are not to be weighed in balances nor measured with micrometers . . .” It was a reasonable view then, but times have changed. Today very few social problems are not tackled by measuring aspects of human attitudes, behaviour or bodily form. Consider the current concerns about an obesity epidemic, backed up by extensive statistics in which people are literally weighed in – on balances.

The NS editor clearly had an inkling that such changes were imminent and continued: “. . . unless there can be applied to [social problems] something at least of the detachment of the scientific spirit, they will never be satisfactorily solved. The cultivation of such a spirit and its deliberate application to matters of current controversy is the task which the New Statesman has set for itself.” It was a worthy task, pursued with aplomb and considerable success; it is a task not yet finished, and if anything it is now even more vital than it was a century ago.

The cultural divide between art and science has narrowed perceptibly since Snow delivered his lecture and the issues have been thrashed out extensively, so we now have a better understanding of their nature. However, it might be more accurate to say that the divide has been spanned by a number of bridges, rather than made smaller.