Q: Let’s begin with the paradigm of the two cultures. I think most of us who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s were taught that in the intellectual world, science and the humanities were radically different.
A: The literary culture was thought to be more of a culture of feeling and intuition, where science was cold and calculated. I think that was really the basic thing. Science was highly mathematical, linear thinking, where the artistic and the creative side, the poetry, was all in the nonscientific world.
Q: Intellectuals in science and in the nonscientific fields didn’t talk to each other very much?
A: Not only did they not talk to each other, as I can remember from my own adolescence and attitude. . . . But at Cornell in the 1950s, all these bright science kids on full scholarship funded by the Defense Department would go on and on about how weak-minded and un-macho the literature students were. There was a definite sense of superiority, involving both sides against each other. There was a real split.
Q: Cornell had great scientific figures in the physics department, like Hans Bethe and Philip Morrison, and in the literature department, you had Vladimir Nabokov, one of the greatest modern authors. So there was ground on both sides of the divide for a certain arrogance.
A: Among the undergraduates, but even among the professors. If you look at Richard Feynman’s books, and Feynman was a great mathematical and physics genius, he talks about the philosophers, and he makes fun of the Cornell philosophy department. You can see the conflict, the divide, in Feynman’s autobiography, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” which sold millions of copies.