The 2,186th Meeting of the Society

January 21, 2005 at 8:00 PM

Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club

Snow’s “Two Cultures” Revisited, from an Engineer’s Perspective

William Wulf

President, National Academy of Engineering

About the Lecture

Everyone knows about C.P. Snow’s 1959 lecture at Cambridge University, “The Two Cultures.” In it, Snow decries the destructive divide between the cultures of the humanities, especially literature, and the sciences—but he also notes other divides as well. From the perspective of a life that has spanned academia, entrepreneurship, science and engineering, and even some of the humanities, our speaker will venture some observations on these “other divides” and the barriers they present to human understanding and progress. Less heralded in Snow’s lecture were his critique of British education, but some of these comments are highly relevant today and will also be elaborated.

About the Speaker

WILLIAM A. WULF is currently the President of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). Together with its sibling, the National Academy of Sciences, the NAE is both an honorific organization and an independent, authoritative advisor to the government on issues involving science and technology. Earlier, Mr. Wulf was an Assistant Director of the National Science Foundation, Founder and CEO of Tartan Laboratories, and a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Virginia and Carnegie Mellon University. He is a is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a Corresponding Member of the Academia Espanola De Ingeniera, a Member of the Academy Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Library of Alexandria), a Foreign Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and a Fellow of the IEEE, Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Association for Women in Science (AWIS), International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


President Robert Hershey called the 2,186th meeting to order at 8:15 pm January 21, 2005 in the Powell Auditorium of the Cosmos Club.

The minutes of the 2,184th meeting were not read because the recording secretary was late.

Mr. Hershey introduced the speaker of the evening, Mr. William Wulf. Mr. Wulf is president of the National Academy of Engineering. He has taught computer science, founded a software company, and was assistant director of the National Science Foundation. He is also a founding trustee of the New Library at Alexandria. The title of his address was “Snow's ‘Two Cultures’ Revisited, from an Engineer's Perspective.”

C. P. Snow was trained as a physicist. As he matured, he became an author and wrote about a dozen novels. Having lived in the two cultures, he became quite worried about the subject of his lecture. Snow observed that the two cultures, the scientific and the literary, do not, indeed cannot, communicate. His 1959 lecture was very long and included a painstaking self-analysis as well as his observations about the cultures around him.

The cultural divides have not narrowed, Mr. Wulf finds. The problem is now worse. He said his colleagues understand the words of the other culture, but not what the person is saying. He spends a lot of time interpreting between the two cultures. Although he resonates to Snow's premise, he does not pretend to understand all the cultures to which he has been exposed.

Mr. Wulf said he does not know how many cultures there are. Using the simple math of three numbers, one, two, and infinity, he said there are more than two. Each culture has a stereotype of itself and others, particularly one with which each contrasts itself. Each characterizes itself as being on the top of the heap. Business people assume they live in the ‘real world’ while academics live in an ‘ivory tower.’ Scientists do ‘pure research,’ and at one time prided themselves that the problems on which they worked could not have any practical use. Applied science is for second-rate minds. Academics live the ‘life of the mind’ and see only massive greed in the private sector. The one he hates the most: philosophers call themselves ‘thinkers,’ with troubling implications for the rest of us.

For as long as Mr. Wulf can remember, people have talked about the importance of interdisciplinary work. Einstein spoke of a time when all new discoveries would come from the interstices. What Wulf sees at the interstices is the development of new specialties that quickly develop their own identities, norms, and barriers.

Being an engineer, he did feel obligated to defend them. Contrary to the stereotypes, he finds engineers very interested in esthetics. Indeed, solutions that engineers admire are the elegant ones. He gave an example from the time he was a young practicing engineer and had an insight that yielded an elegantly simple way to have a machine dial a telephone. In the first part of the previous century, engineers were often viewed as heroes, not as plodders. While invention is the creation of something new, innovation is the creation of something new that people will value. That people will give up something of value to have something one has produced is actually high praise. He does not claim that money is the only measure of value, but it certainly is a useful one.

Mr. Wulf thinks there must be some very deep human need to define a tribe in which to exist. Scientists are affected by this need like other human beings.

Scientists believe that pure science is the origin of valuable knowledge. In their model, knowledge proceeds in linear fashion from scientific thought and pure research through applied research and engineering to application. Engineers know this is horse manure. Engineering often precedes the science, as in the development of the airplane.

Snow was quite critical of British education. He thought the Americans, Russians and Swedes were doing much better because of the broadening effect of their interest in engineering and other practical pursuits. Wulf doubted he would be comforted by the current situation. Engineering is ignored by the media. There are few stories about it in the papers and magazines. There are two engineers who report on national public radio, but isn't it telling that he knows there are two? How many scientists there are, he does not know.

Here in Washington, policy makers are often technologically ignorant and feel no embarrassment about it. Yet they feel free to choose solutions to technical problems. The results are often not good. An example is the so-called “hydrogen economy,” endorsed by President Bush in his 2003 State of the Union Address. No one has been able to say how hydrogen is going to be produced. Hydrogen is non-polluting only when burned. It must also be refined, stored and transported. It has a strong tendency to escape into the atmosphere and it is a powerful greenhouse gas. The total system efficiency remains to be determined. In short, we would need a handful of miracles to have a hydrogen economy.

We have been brought up to think that we have all the time in the world. We don't. Technological change is accelerating. It took 65 years for the automobile to reach 30% of the American population, 40 years for the telephone, 25 for television, 20 for the personal computer, and seven for the internet. The problems that need to be solved as a result of all this development, such as global climate change, are fundamentally technological. We face some large choices. We could reduce the population of the earth by perhaps 90% or we may engineer technology to sustain something like our current lifestyle. What is worrisome is that as long as the technological culture does not communicate, which it has made little attempt to do, we are really not making progress.

After the address, Mr. Wulf entertained questions. One questioner decried reliance given to modeling solutions and the influence these imperfect studies have on policy. Another amplified the role of tribalism in the cultural divisions, and Mr. Wulf recalled how he had once witnessed rapid tribe development in a snowed-in airport, where tribes were defined by their loading gates. In response to a comment on the role of universities in cultural division, Mr. Wulf observed that, in universities, unlike almost all other organizations, people are rewarded for supporting their own individual goals, not those of the institution.

Mr. Hershey welcomed Mr. Wulf to membership in the Society. He invited people to join the Society, made the parking announcement, invited everyone to stay for the social hour, and announced the next meeting. He adjourned the 2,186th meeting at 9:21 pm to the social hour.

The attendance: 51
The weather: foreboding
The temperature: -3°C
Respectfully submitted,

Ronald O. Hietala,
Recording secretary