Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China

Eric Hobsbawm writes:

The great debate about ‘The Two Cultures’ divided the arts and sciences in Cambridge, and the intellectual pages of Britain, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but is now hardly remembered, memorialised only in Stefan Collini’s edition of the 1959 Rede Lecture. This lecture was a claim for the centrality of science and an attack on ‘literary intellectuals’ by the now almost forgotten C.P. Snow; unjustly forgotten, because his ponderous novels about hope, power and prestige tell us much about the public and academic life of his period. In a sense the debate was about the 1930s, the scientists’ age of glory and the disappointed poets’ low, dishonest or otherwise depreciable decade. In a narrower sense it represented a rearguard local engagement between arts intellectuals and Cambridge’s self-confident natural scientists, well on the way to their 83 Nobel prizes, who knew that the future greatness (and funding) of the university would essentially be in their hands. Probably nothing irritated arts dons more than the scientists’ certainty that the future was theirs. In a wider sense, it was about the relation between reason and imagination. In Snow’s view the scientists had both, and the literary intellectuals were fatally hobbled by their ignorance and suspicion of science and the future. Only one of the two cultures really counted.

(LRB 26 February 2009)

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