C.P. Snow Lecture Series

Stimulating Interdisciplinary Dialogue and Thought

Did you know that the School of Humanities and Sciences boasts the longest running speaker series at the College? The C. P. Snow Lecture Series began more than 40 years ago as a means of bridging the gap between the sciences and the humanities. The series was named after Sir Charles Percy Snow, a man who truly embodied the mission of the series for his work as an internationally renowned scientist, author, lecturer, and past member of the British cabinet. In fact, it was Snow’s essays on the “two cultures” that inspired Professor Robert Pasternack to begin the lecture series. Pasternak, chairman of the speaker series committee and member of the chemistry department, wrote to Lord Snow in 1964 and requested permission to use his name. Snow responded, “I am deeply touched by what you say and shall be honored to have your series of talks called the C. P. Snow Lecture Series.” The series was born in 1964, the same year that the science building (now Williams Hall) was opened on the College’s new South Hill campus. As Pasternack said in a 1976 Ithacan article, “We suddenly found ourselves in a beautiful new building and felt compelled to search for good programs with which to utilize our new facilities.”

In the early years, lecturers included Nobel laureate in physics Hans Bethe, philosophers Hilary Putnam of Harvard University and Max Black of Cornell University, as well as astronaut Scott Carpenter. Soon after the series began,the committee decided to organize the talks around yearly themes. Looking at these themes, it is striking to see how cutting edge the series always was and continues to be, and how clearly these talks reflected the concerns of a particular time.

In 1972 the title of the lecture series was “The Future.” Rod Serling kicked off the series with an exploration of “the day after tomorrow” and a screening of a TV drama titled The Class of ‘99. In 1980, the lecture series was called “Science in the 1980s.” Lecturers spoke on early environmental concerns, posing questions about man’s impact on the “chemical climate,” the carbon dioxide problem, and the increasing scarcity of fresh water. In the ‘90s speakers examined AIDS, addiction, the Internet, and the ethical challenges of the Human Genome Project. In the last decade alone, many distinguished scholars, authors, scientists, and social critics have come to campus to share their work with the Ithaca College community. Robert Bullard and Oren Lyon lectured on environmental justice; Manjul Bhargava presented on mathematical patterns within drumming and poetry; author and social activist William Rathge spoke on the archeology of garbage (or garbology) and examined waste at the City of Ithaca’s facility; and Patch Adams presented us with his thoughts on alternative medicine. Last year, architect, author, and illustrator David Macaulay’s talk was titled “Body Building and Other Architectural Journeys,” and he showed us his vivid illustrations of architectural structures and of the internal organs. While on campus, Macaulay also taught a master class (as do all the C. P. Snow speakers) to H&S students studying in related fields. Macaulay’s master class was on architecture and illustration.

Though the topics and speakers are quite diverse, the lectures have always sought to stimulate interdisciplinary dialogue and thought. According to Peter Melcher, assistant professor of biology and chair of the C. P. Snow committee, much of the series’ success can be attributed to this: “The founders and the faculty who initiated this series had brilliant foresight, and I’m so glad the school ensured its perpetuity. Scientists need to learn about the arts and the humanities -- science doesn’t take place in a vacuum. And art, music, poetry, the humanities -- they’re all so intertwined with scientific innovations. On all fronts, understanding is greater when there is an open, interdisciplinary exchange of information.”

If you’d like to access any lectures between 1987 and 2001, you can find them in the College’s archives at the library. And, if you missed David Macaulay’s talk last year, you can check it out on Second Life; his lecture was the very first one to be streamed into the online virtual world. It worked so well that the committee plans to continue streaming in the future.

And the series will have a future. G. Ferris Cronkhite, professor of English and longtime member of the C. P. Snow committee, believed in the series’ mission so much that he endowed it, leaving a substantial bequest to ensure that the series would continue. As a result of his generous contribution, not only is the committee able to bring these lecturers to campus, but they are also able to present one or two students with the C. P. Snow Scholar Award, a $500 gift established to recognize students “who have fulfilled Snow’s vision in their schoolwork and extracurricular activities” by finding a way to bridge the gap between the sciences and the humanities. Students nominated for the award go through a competitive process. They must maintain at least a 3.0 grade point average, submit two faculty letters of reference, and write a 500-word essay in which they explore the importance of integrating the sciences and the humanities and discuss how they’ve achieved this in their studies and beyond. The award was first given in May 1980 to Jennifer Miller. She received the award just two months before the death of C. P. Snow. “We’re very proud of our C. P. Snow scholars. They’ve been phenomenal,” Professor Melcher says.