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C. P. Snow

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Baron Snow
C. P. Snow in 1969 by Jack Manning for The New York Times
Charles Percy Snow

(1905-10-15)15 October 1905
Leicester, England
Died1 July 1980(1980-07-01) (aged 74)
London, England
EducationAlderman Newton's School
Alma mater
Known for
(m. 1950)
Scientific career
FieldsPhysics, chemistry, literature (novelist)
ThesisThe Structure of Simple Molecules (1930)
Doctoral studentsEric Eastwood
Lord Snow of Leicester was born at 40 Richmond Road Leicester. This plaque is displayed opposite his birthplace.

Charles Percy Snow, Baron Snow, Kt CBE FRSL (15 October 1905 – 1 July 1980)[1] was an English novelist and physical chemist who also served in several important positions in the British Civil Service and briefly in the UK government.[2][3] He is best known for his series of novels known collectively as Strangers and Brothers, and for "The Two Cultures", a 1959 lecture in which he laments the gulf between scientists and "literary intellectuals".[4][5][6][7]

Early life and education[edit]

Born in Leicester to William Snow, a church organist and choirmaster, and his wife Ada,[8] Charles Snow was the second of four boys, his brothers being Harold, Eric and Philip Snow,[9] and was educated at Alderman Newton's School.[1][10]

In 1923, he passed the intermediate British School Certificate, but remained at Alderman Newton's to work as a laboratory assistant for a further two years.[11] In 1925 he began a University of London external degree in science at University College, Leicester, graduating with a first in chemistry in 1927 and an MSc the following year.[12][13] Upon leaving Leicester, Snow gained a prestigious Keddey-Fletcher-Warr postgraduate studentship worth £200, allowing him to embark on doctoral research at Christ's College, Cambridge.[14] He received his PhD in physics from Cambridge in 1930, with a thesis on the infrared spectra of simple diatomic molecules.[15][16]

Career and research[edit]

In 1930 he became a Fellow of Christ's College. After a Nature paper on a new method of synthesising Vitamin A turned out to be incorrect, he withdrew from further scientific research.[17]

Snow served in several senior civil service positions: as technical director of the Ministry of Labour from 1940 to 1944, and as a civil service commissioner from 1945 to 1960. He was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1943 New Year Honours.[18] Snow was among the 2,300 names of prominent persons listed on the Nazis' Special Search List, of those who were to be arrested on the invasion of Great Britain and turned over to the Gestapo.[19]

In 1944, he was appointed director of scientific personnel for the English Electric Company. Later he became physicist-director.[20] In this capacity he was to employ his former student Eric Eastwood.

In the 1957 New Year Honours[21] he was knighted, having the honour conferred by Queen Elizabeth II on 12 February,[22] and was created a life peer, as Baron Snow, of the City of Leicester, on 29 October 1964.[3][23] As a politician, Snow was parliamentary secretary in the House of Lords to the Minister of Technology from 1964 to 1966 in the Labour government of Harold Wilson.[3]

Snow married the novelist Pamela Hansford Johnson in 1950; they had one son. Friends included the mathematician G. H. Hardy, for whom he would write a biographical foreword in A Mathematician's Apology, the physicist Patrick Blackett, the X-ray crystallographer J. D. Bernal, the cultural historian Jacques Barzun and the polymath George Steiner.[24][25] At Christ's College he tutored H. S. Hoff – later better known as the novelist William Cooper. The two became friends, worked together in the civil service and wrote versions of each other into their novels: Snow was the model for the college dean, Robert, in Cooper's Scenes from Provincial Life sequence.[26] In 1960, Snow gave the Godkin Lectures at Harvard University, about the clashes between Henry Tizard and F. Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell), both scientific advisors to British governments around the time of the Second World War. The lectures were subsequently published as Science and Government. For the academic year 1961 to 1962, Snow and his wife both served as Fellows on the faculty in the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan University.[27][28][29]

Literary work[edit]

Snow's first novel was a whodunit, Death under Sail (1932). In 1975 he wrote a biography of Anthony Trollope. He is better known as the author of a sequence of novels entitled Strangers and Brothers in which he depicts intellectuals in modern academic and government settings. The best-known of the sequence is The Masters. It deals with the internal politics of a Cambridge college as it prepares to elect a new master. With the appeal of an insider's view, the novel depicts concerns other than the strictly academic that influence decisions of supposedly objective scholars. The Masters and The New Men were jointly awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1954.[30] Corridors of Power added a phrase to the language of the day. In 1974, Snow's novel In Their Wisdom was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.[31]

In The Realists, an examination of the work of eight novelists – Stendhal, Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Benito Pérez Galdós, Henry James and Marcel Proust – Snow makes a robust defence of the realistic novel.

The storyline of his novel The Search is referred to in Dorothy L. Sayers's Gaudy Night and is used to help elicit the criminal's motive.

The Two Cultures[edit]

On 7 May 1959, Snow delivered a Rede Lecture called The Two Cultures, which provoked "widespread and heated debate".[3][32] Subsequently, published as The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, the lecture argued that the breakdown of communication between the "two cultures" of modern society – the sciences and the humanities – was a major hindrance to solving the world's problems. In particular, Snow argues that the quality of education in the world is on the decline. He wrote:

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 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.

The satirists Flanders and Swann used the first part of this quotation as the basis for their short monologue and song, "First and Second Law".

As delivered in 1959, Snow's Rede Lectures specifically condemned the British educational system, as having since the Victorian period over-rewarded the humanities (especially Latin and Greek) at the expense of science education. He believed that in practice this deprived British elites (in politics, administration, and industry) of adequate preparation for managing the modern scientific world. By contrast, Snow said, German and American schools sought to prepare their citizens equally in the sciences and humanities, and better scientific teaching enabled those countries' rulers to compete more effectively in a scientific age. Later discussion of The Two Cultures tended to obscure Snow's initial focus on differences between British systems (of both schooling and social class) and those of competing countries.

Snow was attacked by F. R. Leavis in his Richmond Lecture of 1962 whose subject was "The Two Cultures", something that has come to be referred to as "the two cultures controversy".[33][34] Although it was seen as a personal attack against Snow, Leavis maintained that he was targeting how public debates worked.[34]


Coat of arms of The Lord Snow
CrestA telescope fesswise between two pens in saltire Proper.
ShieldAzure semy of snow crystals Proper.
SupportersOn either side a Siamese Cat Proper.
MottoAut Inveniam Viam Aut Faciam[35]

Strangers and Brothers series[edit]

Other fiction[edit]

  • Death Under Sail, 1932
  • New Lives for Old, 1933
  • The Search, 1934
  • The Malcontents, 1972
  • In Their Wisdom, 1974, shortlisted for the Booker Prize
  • A Coat of Varnish, 1979



  1. ^ a b Anon (2017). "Snow, Baron (Charles Percy)". Who's Who & Who Was Who (online Oxford University Press ed.). Oxford: A & C Black. doi:10.1093/ww/9780199540884.013.U159735. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ C. P. Snow at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata
  3. ^ a b c d The Columbia Encyclopedia (6th Edition, 2001–2005). "Snow, C. P." Accessed 26 July 2007.
  4. ^ Markl, H (April 1994). "Dementia dichotoma—the 'two cultures' delusion". Experientia. 50 (4): 346–51. doi:10.1007/BF02026636. PMID 8174681. S2CID 34079880.
  5. ^ "Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?", Seed Magazine article, 7 May 2009
  6. ^ Lisa Jardine (2010) "C.P. Snow's Two Cultures Revisited," Christ's College magazine, pp. 48-57
  7. ^ Snow, C. P. (1963). The Two Cultures: A Second Look. London: Cambridge University Press.
  8. ^ Philip Snow (1982). Stranger and brother: a portrait of C.P. Snow. Macmillan. p. 3. ISBN 0-333-32680-6.
  9. ^ Philip Snow (1998). A time of renewal: clusters of characters, C. P. Snow, and co, ups. Radcliffe Press. p. 234.
  10. ^ Plomley, Roy (1975). "C. P. Snow's Desert Island Discs". BBC.
  11. ^ Snow, Stranger and brother, p. 22.
  12. ^ Snow, Stranger and brother, pp. 25, 29.
  13. ^ Tredell, N (2012). C.P. Snow: The Dynamics of Hope. Springer. ISBN 9781137271877.
  14. ^ Snow, Stranger and brother, p. 30.
  15. ^ Snow, Charles Percy (1930). The structure of simple molecules. cam.ac.uk (PhD thesis). University of Cambridge. doi:10.17863/CAM.31121. OCLC 1085143960. EThOS uk.bl.ethos.763531.
  16. ^ Anon (2017). "This Month in Physics History: May 7, 1959: C.P. Snow Gives His "Two Cultures" Lecture". aps.org. American Physical Society.
  17. ^ Peter Lachmann (2019) 'The Two Cultures at Cambridge', European Review, Volume 27, Issue 1, pp. 46–53 doi:10.1017/S1062798718000571
  18. ^ "No. 35841". The London Gazette (Supplement). 1 January 1943. p. 16.
  19. ^ The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William L. Shirer, Book Club Associates, 1971, page 784.
  20. ^ "C.P. Snow facts, information, pictures | Encyclopedia.com articles about C.P. Snow". encyclopedia.com. Encyclopedia.com.
  21. ^ "No. 40960". The London Gazette (Supplement). 1 January 1957. p. 2.
  22. ^ "No. 41003". The London Gazette. 15 February 1957. pp. 1044–1045.
  23. ^ "No. 43477". The London Gazette. 30 October 1964. p. 9195.
  24. ^ "Letters to the Editor: George Steiner, Maugham in China, George Sand, etc". The Times Literary Supplement. 27 March 2020. ISSN 0307-661X. Retrieved 29 March 2020.
  25. ^ C. P. Snow Christ's College Magazine 231, 67–69, (2006)
  26. ^ Shrapnel, Norman. Obituary, William Cooper, The Guardian, London, 7 September 2002.
  27. ^ Recent Thoughts on the Two Cultures, Wesleyan University
  28. ^ "WesFacts". Wesleyan University. Archived from the original on 24 September 2007. Retrieved 23 November 2009.
  29. ^ Guide to the Center for Advanced Studies Records, 1958–1969 Archived 14 March 2017 at the Wayback Machine, Wesleyan University
  30. ^ "The James Tait Black Memorial Prizes: The Prize Winners". Englit.ed.ac.uk. 21 May 2012. Archived from the original on 15 January 2007. Retrieved 22 June 2012.
  31. ^ C P Snow Archived 3 January 2010 at the Wayback Machine at the Man Booker Prize website
  32. ^ W. Patrick McCray (2019) Snow's storm Vol 364, Issue 6439 pp. 430-432 doi:10.1126/science.aaw9396
  33. ^ Ellis, David, ed. (2013), "The Richmond lecture", Memoirs of a Leavisite: The Decline and Fall of Cambridge English, Liverpool University Press, pp. 67–73, ISBN 978-1-78138-711-5, retrieved 19 August 2023
  34. ^ a b Collini, Stefan (16 August 2013). "Leavis v Snow: the two-cultures bust-up 50 years on". The Guardian. London. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 19 August 2023.
  35. ^ Debrett's Peerage. 1973.

Further reading[edit]

  • C P Snow and the Struggle of Modernity. John de la Mothe. (University of Texas Press, 1992). ISBN 978-0-292-72916-2
  • "Venturing the Real" Geoffrey Heptonstall (Contemporary Review June 2008) (Britannica On-line May 2010)
  • C P Snow: A Reference Guide. Paul Boytinck. (Hall, 1980).
  • "The scientific papers of C P Snow." J C D Brand. History of Science, Vol 26, No 2, pages 111–127. (1988). [1]
  • C P Snow: The Dynamics of Hope Nicholas Tredell. (Palgrave Macmillan 2012).
Academic offices
Preceded by Rector of the University of St Andrews
Succeeded by