C.P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’

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Everyone who’s studied arts or sciences at university will be aware of the gulf between the faculties. Arts students think scientists are arrogant and insular, and scientists think the arts are pointless and dumb. When engineers get involved, the mutual hatred rises like in a cartoon thermometer.

The separation has been referred to as ‘The Two Cultures’ since C.P. Snow coined the term in a 1959 lecture. I just re-read the book to try and see what light Snow sheds on the problem, and whether it’s still historically relevant today, when people like Brian Cox and projects like Synapse are helping to bridge the gap.

What I found was a lecture that defined a problem while typifying it, rather than helping to solve it.

Read my review of the book here, and see if you agree with my conclusion: that while Snow and Leavis were taking pot-shots across the arts-science divide, they were missing a much bigger and more important problem that could unify the faculties – or sink them both.

Dick Smith’s false energy dichotomy

2013-08-02_DickSmith_s“Just to fill up the plane, 600 dollars a drum. Wow, imagine what happens when that gets to ten bucks a litre. Hoo hoo! I won’t be flying it, I don’t think.”

That’s an early moment in Dick Smith’s energy documentary, Ten Bucks a Litre, that aired last night on ABC. In between a few strange moments it’s a reasonable show, albeit with a highly questionable conclusion. Smith’s question is this: what is Australia’s current energy situation, and are we ready for the changes ahead?

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Obeid and Macdonald: corrupt while in control of 5% of global carbon budget

2013-08-01_Obeid_sYesterday, Australia’s independent corruption watchdog found that former Labor party figures Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald had acted corruptly. Obeid, a former New South Wales Labor party powerbroker, and Macdonald, the former state energy minister, are now being referred to prosecutors to consider criminal charges. The men, together with several others, had misused inside knowledge from Macdonald’s position in office to make tens of millions of dollars by buying land before it was rezoned for coal mining.

The case has naturally received a lot of media coverage, not only due to the raw facts of the abuse of power, but also because of the show the Obeids put on along the way: son Moses Obeid claiming it could have been Jesus Christ who pencilled confidential zoning information onto a map; Eddie Obeid’s diary giving an entertaining glimpse into the enema schedules of the rich and powerful; and Mr Obeid’s ever-righteous harrassment of journalists: “[Kate] McClymont has been mixing with scum for so long that she no longer knows who is good and who is bad, what is real and what is made up.” The involvement of a prostitute called Tiffanie came as less a surprise than an inevitable trope. Many of us enjoyed sharing the jubilation (schadenfreude?) of the Sydney Morning Herald journalists yesterday as they wrote and tweeted about the ICAC findings that vindicated their work.

One important aspect of the case, though, hasn’t had much attention. It’s the fact that these politicians weren’t just abusing a position of power, but they were acting corruptly while having oversight of of vast coal reserves – fossil fuel resources whose future use will have huge global environmental significance. In fact, the Economic Demonstrated Reserves of black coal in NSW alone (those we currently know about and deem profitable to extract) make up over 5% of the total global carbon budget.*

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Richard Feynman vs wayward national science priorities

From my recent review of The Meaning of It All:

In this month alone, Britain’s new chief scientist Sir Mark Walpole said his top priority was ‘ensuring that scientific knowledge translates to economic growth’, the president of Canada’s National Research Council said it will now focus only on research that is ‘commercially viable’, and the US Government just appointed a climate change skeptic to chair the House Science Committee who’s going to change the rules so only ‘groundbreaking’ research is funded. Back here in Australia, CSIRO has entered into a research agreement with BP, the company responsible for the worst accidental marine oil spill in history, to help them survey the pristine Bight ecosystem for oil reserves, and in certain divisions staff are being told to suspend nearly all communication of their work to the public and redirect the efforts toward building industry partnerships.

Public science in these countries seems to be in the hands of people who, at best, misunderstand the nature of science, or at worst are actively trying to undermine it. For clarity in these troubled times – to seek confirmation you’re not the one who’s going mad – there’s one person you turn to. The wonderful, incomparable, Richard P. Feynman.

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