April 6, 2010

Beyond the Two Cultures?

Two Articles from SEED Magazine:

Beyond the Two Cultures?

May 7th, 2009 marked 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 started the Edge Foundation explicitly to bring intellectuals of the Third Culture — many scientists, but also writers and philosophers — together 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.

Watch Interviews With Leading Thinkers as They Talk About 'The Two Cultures': Here


Knowledge in Real Time: Tracking the Two Cultures

A recent visualization of scholarly research [shown above] based on online user patterns offers a fresh perspective on C.P. Snow's landmark treatise on science and the arts.

In addition to the well-publicized map of science released last week by Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers, which was parsed according to field of research, the group also created a cross-validating map as part of the same study. The network visualization is based on the same innovative clickstream data set as the field-coded map, but with nodes divided in half, categorically based on journals’ top-level classification, as either natural sciences (blue) or humanities and social sciences (yellow).

It’s been 50 years since British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow delivered his famous Rede Lecture on the “The Two Cultures,” calling for a movement toward more meaningful connections between the sciences and the humanities, each side of the continuum filling in gaps of knowledge toward a deeper understanding of phenomena. With this map we have perhaps the first sophisticated window into the nature of this divide — a 21st-century, data-driven map of the so-called two cultures. Although it’s clear that the humanities and natural sciences are still well defined (note the ostensible embrace by the natural sciences of the humanities), several areas of intersection and overlap are evident. “This map shows that two sides are very strongly intertwined, they’re part of the same system,” says Johan Bollen, who led the research.

What meaning might this new lens provide for distilling the interrelationship of the two distinct — but increasingly codependent — approaches to describing the natural world? What will this map and its points of intersection look like in another 50 years?

“If someone wants to find an early indicator of an unexpected connection between two fields — say, between information theory and plant phenology — that connection will appear immediately in clickstream data,” says theoretical biologist and Eigenfactor founder, Carl Bergstrom. “It’s still an open research question what exactly this new window will show us, but I’m pretty confident there will be very useful information about the nature of interdisciplinary research.”

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