U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Toward a Literary History of Science?

[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.]

For many and varied reasons, I am often astounded that C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures is still talked about in a serious way, or rather in a way that suggests that ‘yes, that is the way things are.’ I realize through these conversations that many of us historians of science are still laboring under the perception that literature and science are separate pursuits and the people who pursue them inherently belong in different circles. Maybe that is the way things have come to be but that’s not the way things ‘were’— history tells us something quite different.

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.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Hear, hear! I’ve not so much studied the relation between the (natural and social) sciences and literature, but the use of figurative language, models, and maps in science; and with regard to the first, especially metaphors. Indeed, there’s a growing literature on the use of metaphors in science, an early excellent example of which remains David E. Leary, ed. Metaphors in the History of Psychology (Cambridge University Press, 1990). You can find many of these titles in my bibliography for analogy and metaphor: https://www.academia.edu/4844097/Analogy_and_Metaphor_bibliography

    Cf. the following from one of the better introductory books on science by the late John Ziman:

    “[E]ven the most austerely ‘scientific’ models operate through analogy and metaphor. The Rutherford-Bohr model depicts the hydrogen atom as a miniature solar system. Darwin’s concept of ‘natural selection’ is analogous to the ‘artificial selection’ practised by animal breeders. ‘Plate tectonics’ is about thin, flat, rigid areas of ‘crust’ floating on a highly viscous but fluid ‘mantle.’ Linguists talk of the ‘brain mechanism’ by which grammatical language is generated. And so on. Scientific theories are unavoidably metaphorical. [….] Sometimes a ready-made model can be taken over from another branch of science—for example Fresnel’s model of light as the vibration of an elastic medium. Sometimes the key elements come out of everyday life, as in von Neumann’s model of economic behaviour as a ‘game,’ or the molecular-biological model of DNA as a genetic ‘code.’ This heterogeneity is not a serious defect. The scientific value of a theoretical model, as with all metaphors, does not require it to be literally equivalent to the system it represents. It resides in the variety of phenomena that it makes plain, or suggests. This understanding seldom comes through elaborate formal analysis. [….] Indeed, analogy and metaphor cannot be driven out of scientific reasoning. Scientific ideas cannot be communicated through the ‘literal’ medium of formal logic. [….] [In fact], the history of a scientific discipline can be traced through its changing repertoire of models and metaphors—what Gerald Holton calls its themata. Modern physics, for example, deals in ‘forces’ and ‘fields,’ or ‘waves’ and ‘particles,’ and has no place for pre-modern themata such as ‘sympathies,’ and ‘attractions,’ or ‘essences’ and ‘effluvia.’ [….] It is clear that scientific maps, models, metaphors, themata and other analogies are not just tools of thought, or figures of speech. They are the very substance of scientific theory. As sources of meaning and understanding, they stand on equal footing with explicit verbal and symbolic representations.”—John Ziman (2000: 149-150)

    Re: “Over and again, these scientists find grandeur, imagination, and wonder inherent in nature and scientific discovery.” Please see a nice example of this from perhaps the most theoretical if not philosophical of all the sciences, physics, in John Zee’s Fearful Symmetry: The Search for Beauty in Modern Physics (Princeton University Press, 2007).

  2. Very interesting, but don’t forget about selection of other scientists (men and women) who work on weapons. I would bet that “these scientists find grandeur, imagination, and wonder inherent in nature and scientific discovery,” too, but may lack the implied “goodness” of your chosen examples.
    The biography on Freeman Dyson Maverick Genius may also be an interesting source with his wide-range of subjects as well as it more literary pursuits of science and society in the NYReview of Books.

    • todd, I have more than a few of the biographies of these individuals listed in my bibliography, Nuclear Weapons—Development, Detonation, Deterrence & Disarmament https://www.academia.edu/4844106/Nuclear_Weapons_bibliography

      A conspicuous and inspiring exception to the rule in several important respects is the moving life story of the Polish-born physicist involved in pioneering nuclear weapons research for the British and later the Manhattan Project, Josef Rotblat (1908-2005), as found in Andrew Brown’s Keeper of the Nuclear Conscience: The Life and Work of Joseph Rotblat (Oxford University Press, 2012).

  3. This is a valuable post, and I agree. John Dewey’s voice seems important in this, too. In my own work on the intellectual history of the modern art education movement, I’ve been so struck by the fact that Dewey (and others) were vigorously effacing the boundary lines between “scientific” and literary/artistic modes of knowing from the 1920s onward. And it does, as you say, raise a question about how on-point Snow’s thesis really was. J. Bronowski’s midcentury work, such as the essays in Science and Human Values, is also interesting in this context, and today, Alan Lightman’s consistently elegant and accessible essays challenge us to do exactly what your doing.

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