[To the reader: the following is a guest post by Leila A. McNeill. She is a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma finishing up a master’s degree in the History of Science. She previously earned a master’s degree from the University of Texas at Dallas in literature. Her work has focused on the literature of science, popularizations of science written by women, and women and gender in science and medicine.]
Much of the work that investigates the boundaries between literature and science has been focused on Europe, specifically the German Romantics like Goethe and the British Victorians like Thomas Hardy, people who we wouldn’t identify as scientists. It is, perhaps, easier to look at Hardy’s Tess of the D’urbervilles and see Charles Darwin’s tangled bank, a scene of ruthless and beautiful natural selection which ends the Origin of Species, because we would expect Hardy, a writer of fiction, to implement metaphors reflecting the culture and intellectual milieu of his time. However, this is not the type of prose we have come to expect from a scientist, which instead should be clear, concise, and objective. Yet, if we closely read Darwin’s last paragraph in which he asks the reader to contemplate a “tangled bank,” we see that he employs both metaphor and poetic prose. Indeed, Darwin ultimately concludes that “[t]here is grandeur in this view of life [evolution through natural selection]…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.” Not only is he using very “unscientific” language to describe a discovery of nature, but he finds sheer grandeur, beauty, and wonder in this discovery—an emotional response to nature and science thus warrants emotional, expressive language. Richard Holmes in The Age of Wonder calls this response of both terror and wonder to nature the “inner life of science,” which reflects nature’s “impact on the heart as well as on the mind.” For Holmes, and it seems true for Darwin as well, scientific passion is wrapped up in the experience of “wonder.”
Darwin’s tangled bank isn’t an isolated case. Holmes shows that William Herschel and Humphrey Davy had a similar type of response to the natural world. I want to jump across the Atlantic, however, and look at two American scientists, Maria Mitchell and Rachel Carson.
Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) is considered the first professional female American astronomer, and she is also recognized as the first hired faculty member of Vassar College, the first woman elected for membership for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1848) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1850), and for her discovery of Miss Mitchell’s Comet, which she spotted through her telescope in 1847. Her scientific achievements are clearly admirable, but only a single part of who she was. She was also dedicated to women’s suffrage and education. She rubbed shoulders with the most well-known of the American Transcendentalists — the Alcotts, Emerson, Thoreau — and even travelled Europe in the company of Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife Sophia Peabody. Mitchell’s profession as an astronomer did not exclude her from the company of writers, poets, and philosophers; if anything, her inclusion in their circles enriched her experience of science and astronomy. Mitchell famously said, “We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics. Nor all logic, but is somewhat beauty and poetry.”
Mitchell herself was also a poet. She composed poems about the heavens and wrote poetry to and about her students, whom she cherished enough to commemorate in verse. Annually, she held her famous end-of-term “dome parties” at her Vassar observatory for her students, all female. During these parties, she and the students took turns writing poems. Throughout the academic year, Mitchell required her students to engage in rigorous mathematics and charting the stars and planets; this was something quite rare for girls’ education during this time. That they were able to move so easily from high-level mathematics to poetry says something about a parity between the two activities. Both require precision, ingenuity, and imagination; different, perhaps, in aim and expression, but not so different in execution. One of Mitchell’s dome party poems goes: “While Saturn’s ring is poised aright/ And Saturn’s moons still glow/ The five who watched them many a night/ Will not from memory go.” Saturn was Mitchell’s favorite planet, and the five who watched its moons were her students. Wrapped up in this short quatrain are the things most important to her as an educator— her astronomy, her students, and her feminism.
Twentieth century American environmentalist, marine biologist, and science and nature writer Rachel Carson also found a confluence between science and literature. Carson’s first love was writing, but a college professor encouraged her to pursue science. Eventually, she found a common ground between the two interests and was able to combine both passions into one career: “The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction. It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.” Her science and nature books collectively reflect her talent for creative writing, but after Silent Spring, the “unscientific” way with which she wrote eventually served as a means for her opponents to attack her scientific authority and credibility. Yet, her way of describing nature was extremely attractive to a public readership and was successful in winning their favor. Carson saw wonder as an intricate and inseparable part of scientific discovery. In her book A Sense of Wonder, she says that “[i]f a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.”
Over and again, these scientists find grandeur, imagination, and wonder inherent in nature and scientific discovery. Why, though, does this matter, and why should we care? Richard Holmes gives a firm, manifesto-like answer: “I believe science needs to be explored in a new way. We need not only a new history of science, but a more enlarged and imaginative biographical writing about individual scientists. Here the perennially cited difficulties with the ‘two cultures,’ and specifically with mathematics, can no longer be accepted as a valid limitation. We need to understand how science is actually made; how scientists themselves think and feel and speculate. We need to explore what makes scientists creative, as well as poets or painters, or musicians…The old rigid boundaries…are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them.” As historians of science, we are in a unique position to interrogate the boundaries between disciplines and, subsequently, intellectual cultures. We definitely aren’t scientists. We are historians in a field that was founded by scientists, so many of the preconceived notions that science and literature are mutually exclusive persist still. But as Holmes says, we should be impatient with that dichotomy.
My training as a literary scholar made me comfortable with using terms like ‘the human experience’ or ‘wonder,’ but my training as an historian of science made me very uncomfortable using that kind of language. However, I read the words of these scientists who themselves use this way of expression to describe nature, science, and their processes of discovery, and I think that perhaps it’s time to put the scientists back into their human context alongside their historical one.