Sunday, June 08, 2008


I admit I don't know much about CP Snow, but I find significance in this quote by him, which I came across today:

"It is more justifiable to say that those without any scientific understanding miss a whole body of experience;they are rather like the tone deaf from whom all musical experience is cut off and who have to get on without it."
- CP Snow (Writer)
Over the years, I have heard a number of people claim that hearing about or learning the science behind some wondrous phenomenon "takes all the mystery out of it", or "robs the event of its beauty" or "brings it down to heartless, cold facts."

Baloney! This quote by Snow gives me a new answer for future such moments--no, no, I can say, science adds the glorious soundtrack to the movie of life! If you learn *how* this thing happened, you ADD a dimension to the wonder you feel when you see it.

I have seen this subject covered elsewhere, of course, including in an excellent and moving article by Ann Druyan, widow of the late, great scientist and writer, Carl Sagan. The article first appeared in Skeptical Inquirer, and I had the privilege of reprinting it in ETC in January, 2006.

On further research, I find that Snow stirred up the academic world, at least in England, with a lecture in 1959 on this very subject, titled Two Cultures. This excerpt appears on the Wikipedia page for Snow:
A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the law of entropy. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: 'Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?'

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, 'Can you read?' — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.
This harmonizes nicely with something my friend, Ed Bailey, said to me in an email yesterday:
In court a judge will tell you real quick "ignorance of the law is no excuse for violating them."

Why is ignorance of the laws of science such a widely accepted excuse for violating them?
Why indeed?

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