Snow, Charles Percy

views updated May 23 2018


(b. Leicester, England, 15 October 1905; d. London, England, I July 1980)

physics, science administration, literature and criticism.

The second of William Edward and Ada Sophia Robinson Snow’s four sons, C. P. Snow grew up in England’s industrial Midlands. His father, a fellow of the Royal College of Organists, secured a precarious lower-middle-class existence by giving music lessons and clerking in a shoe factory. More than the apparently abundant intellectual stimulation in the home, it was the unsteady hovering just above subsistence, punctuated by bankruptcy of his father’s attempt at business, that had a decisive effect on the young Snow, who chose science as a career largely for the escape it offered from financial insecurity.

Scholarships permitted him to attend Leicester’s University College, where he took first-class honors in chemistry (1927) and an M.Sc. in physics (1928); another scholarship took him as a research student to Christ’s College, Cambridge, from which he secured a fellowship in 1930, the same year he obtained his Ph.D. Snow remained as a fellow until 1950. After 1935, with his career as research physicist over and that of novelist conclusively under way, his college duties consisted of tutoring, administration, and service to the university’s press as editor of the Cambridge Library of Modern Science and, from 1937 until 1940, the popular science magazine Discovery.

During World War II, Snow was a member of the Royal Society Advisory Subcommittee on Deployment of Scientific Resources (1939–1942), becoming, upon absorption of this committee by the Ministry of Labour, the ministry’s director of technical personnel. His service, which included training scientists for radar work and helping to cull the British contingent for the Manhattan Project, earned him the rank of C.B.E. (1943) and paved the way to his postwar career as a scientific adviser to the government.

Concurrently with his post as a civil service commissioner (1945–1960), where again his job was spotting scientific talent for government projects. Snow served as director (later physicist-director) of scientific personnel for the English Electric Company (1944–1964). Knighted in 1957, he became Baron Snow of Leicester in 1964 and the House of Lords’ parliamentary secretary to the newly formed Ministry of Technology (1964–1966).

Snow’s many honors included fellowship in the Royal Society of Literature (1951), honorary membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1962), and an appointment as extraordinary fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge (1966). In 1950 he married the English novelist and critic Pamela Hansford Johnson. They had one son.

Snow’s brief career as a research physicist was devoted mainly to extensions of his doctoral work on the infrared spectra of simple diatomic molecules and to crystallographic studies of complex organic molecules. A blunder he made in one of these studies convinced him he would never be a successful scientist. Snow and a colleague, Philip Bowden, thought they had hit upon a method for synthesizing vitamin A. However, their publication, which received excited attention, contained an obvious and critical error. The embarrassment, conjoined with the warm critical reception his third novel was just then receiving, finally determined the direction that Snow’s creative energy would take.

Snow wrote (and destroyed) his first novel at twenty, while he was still a chemistry student in Leicester. During the first years of his fellowship at Christ’s College, he published a detective story, Death Under Sail (1932); an exercise in science fiction, New Lives for Old (anonymous, 1933); and The Search (1934), a tale of the rise and fall of a young crystallographer. In 1935 he conceived a sequence of novels meant to capture (on the scale of Balzac’s Comédie humaine) the essential variety of his time and place. The realization of his scheme, the eleven-volume Strangers and Brothers, absorbed him for thirty years (1940–1970).

In pronouncement and practice Snow was resolutely antimodernist, regarding the literary mainstream’s experimentation and its concentration on the self as intellectually impoverished and perniciously antisocial. His intimate familiarity with the officialdoms of science, universities, and government was his stock in trade, while his unadorned prose, attention to plot, concern with the motives and moral dilemmas of the powerful, and preference for the large canvas made him, as the critic Melvin Mad-docks observed, “the greatest living nineteenth-century novelist.”

It was not as a novelist, however, but as a besieged publicist for the increasing importance of science in human life and as a pundit concerned with global problems of poverty, nuclear weapons, and the menacing collapse of Western civilization, that Snow became a major public figure with an international reputation. Enormous attention, much of it irritated, was paid his Rede Lectures, delivered at Cambridge in 1959 and published as The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1960). In them Snow claimed that lack of communication between literary and scientific intellectuals distorted understanding of the past, led to misjudgment of the present, and immobilized industrially advanced Western nations that would soon have to export applied science to the underdeveloped world. His case for science as an intrinsically moral activity, for technology as the answer to mankind’s most pressing problems, and against the “natural Luddism” of traditional culture’s leading exponents seemed to many a crass simplification. His archnemesis, the vituperative Cambridge literary critic F. R. Leavis, saw in Snow’s assessment of the relative significance of science and the humanities an example of how far real culture had deteriorated since the onset of its decline during the industrial revolution. The ensuing debate between partisans was one of the liveliest and most acerbic in the history of English literature, serving, as had the contest between the ancients and the moderns in the seventeenth century, to bring into the open, though not to bridge, the divide of suspicion and mistrust between literary and scientific intellectuals.

Snow’s Godkin Lectures at Harvard in 1960, published under the title Science and Government (1961), used the clashes between Henry Tizard and Churchill’s science adviser F. A. Lindemann during World War II over the viability of radar and strategic bombing to bring to the public’s attention “the great underground domain of science and government.” His purpose was to warn against the overinvestiture of power in science advisers, who function in a closed world of committee politics free from the checks and balances that might otherwise be provided by the scientific community. The same year, speaking before the American Association for the Advancement of Science on “The Moral Un-Neutrality of Science,” Snow insisted on the responsibility of scientists to urge a restriction of nuclear armaments.


I. Original Works. Paul Boytinck’s valuable C. P, Snow: A Reference Guide (Boston, 1980) is an annotated bibliography of Snow’s novels, pamphlets, essays, book reviews, and open letters; coverage of his scientific output, however, is incomplete and should be supplemented with Poggendorff, VI, pt. 4.2487, and VIIb, pt. 8, 5005–5008. The three-volume omnibus edition of Strangers and Brothers (London, 1972) is definitive and contains useful introductory material; Public Affairs (London, 1971) brings together Snow’s major essays, including “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (1959) and “Science and Government” (1962), and his afterthoughts on both. At the time of his death. Snow had finished the first draft of a highly personal memoir on modern physics; these vignettes, errors in place, were posthumously published as The Physicists (Boston, 1981).

The Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin possesses an extensive collection of Snow manuscripts, letters, and assorted papers.

II. Secondary Literature. No biography ranging as widely as the subject itself has yet been written; the sketches are predominantly by those interested in Snow’s fiction. John Halperin’s transcription of conversations with Snow and his wife, C. P. Snow: An Oral Biography (Brighton, 1983), seeks its subject in his novels; Snow’s brother Philip, in his Stranger and Brother: A Portrait of C. P. Snow (London, 1982), relies chiefly on Snow’s letters. Boytinck (see above) lists biographical-critical treatments written during Snow’s lifetime by English literature professors.

Boytinck also surveys the debate in the English-speaking world precipitated by F. R. Leavis’ ferocious Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow (London, 1962), along with other work on Snow and his influence. For the tellingly large literature in non-Western European languages, the student is mostly on his or her own, though I. M. Levidova’s Charlz Persi Snow: Biobibliograficheskii ukazatel (Moscow, 1977) gives guidance for readers of Russian.

J. G. May

Charles Percy Snow

views updated May 29 2018

Charles Percy Snow

The English novelist and physicist Charles Percy Snow (1905-1972) wrote "Strangers and Brothers," a series of novels depicting the professional and intellectual classes and detailing the struggles involved in the pursuit of ambition and the exercise of power.

On Oct. 15, 1905, C. P. Snow was born into a working-class family in Leicester. He graduated from Leicester University with a first in chemistry and a master of science degree in physics. In 1930 Snow received a doctorate in physics from Cambridge, where he remained until 1950 as a fellow and as an administrator.

Deeply involved in molecular research during the 1930s, Snow turned to writing fiction for relaxation. His first novel, Death under Sail (1932), was a detective story. His second, The Search (1934), concerning scientific research, began the novelistic exploration of the personal lives and public ambitions of the British professional and intellectual classes that later achieved its fullest expression in the novels of the "Strangers and Brothers" series. In 1940 the first novel of this series, from which it takes its title, was published. Strangers and Brothers introduced many of the characters who appeared in the later novels, particularly Lewis Eliot, the narrator of all of them and the subject of two.

During World War II Snow gave up writing to become the director of technical personnel for the Ministry of Labour. In 1943 he was made a commander of the British Empire, and in 1945 he was named a civil service commissioner with the responsibility of selecting scientists for government projects, a post he held until 1960.

After the war, Snow returned to writing and published the second volume in his series, The Light and the Dark (1947). Lewis Eliot's struggles for happiness in love and success in his career were recorded in Time of Hope (1949) and Homecoming (1956).

In 1950 Snow married the English novelist Pamela Hansford Johnson. In 1951 the fourth novel of the series The Masters, was published. The New Men (1954), which dealt with scientists involved in developing the atomic bomb, was the fifth novel in the series. In 1957 Snow was knighted. A year later the seventh novel in the series, The Conscience of the Rich, appeared. It concerned the struggle for independence of a talented young man who resists his wealthy father's attempts to dominate him.

During the 1950s Snow lectured frequently. His most controversial lecture, "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution," concerned the dangerous communication gap between humanist and scientific intellectuals. In 1960 he published The Affair, the eighth novel in his series. Corridors of Power, a study of the exercise of power at the highest levels of government, appeared in 1964. The Sleep of Reason, issued in 1968 as the tenth novel in the series, concerned the details of a lurid torture-murder. Snow also published lectures, criticism, and a volume of biographical studies, Variety of Men.

Further Reading

Two worthwhile studies of Snow's work are Frederick R. Karl, C.P. Snow: The Politics of Conscience (1963), and Jerome Thale, C. P. Snow (1964).

Additional Sources

De la Mothe, John, C.P. Snow and the struggle of modernity, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.

Halperin, John, C.P. Snow—an oral biography: together with a conversation with Lady Snow (Pamela Hansford Johnson), New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983.

Snow, C. P. (Charles Percy), The physicists, Boston: Little, Brown, 1981.

Snow, Philip, Stranger and brother: a portrait of C.P. Snow, New York: Scribner, 1983, 1982. □

Snow, C.P. (Charles Percy), Baron

views updated May 21 2018

Snow, C.P. (Charles Percy), Baron (1905–80) English novelist, scientist, and civil servant. He is especially celebrated for his lecture The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959), which diagnosed a radical divide between scientists and literary intellectuals, and for his 11-volume novel sequence, known collectively as Strangers and Brothers (1940–70), which includes The Corridors of Power (1963).