Science and Modern Literature
Science and Modern Literature
The modern era has witnessed rapid advancements in science and technology that rival, if not displace, traditional knowledge systems represented by the fields of literature, art, philosophy, and religion. Despite the traditional gulf between scientific and literary discourse, however, writers and critics of imaginative literature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have consistently looked to science as a source of knowledge and valuable insight into the human condition. Discoveries such as relativity, chaos theory, evolution, cybernetics, and quantum theory have provided writers with considerable inspiration and new modes of thought that have become an integral part of literature in the postmodern age.
By the nineteenth century the hegemony of scientific thought as the paradigm of modern knowledge had begun to increasingly exert itself in the imaginations of writers. Advances in the field of biology in particular played a role in the intellectual and artistic currents of the Victorian era, especially by Charles Darwin's theory of biological evolution through natural selection. Darwin's publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859 and the later application of his deterministic theories to social rather than purely biological systems by Herbert Spencer exercised considerable influence on writers of naturalist fiction such as George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Emile Zola, and many others. Another discovery of the period, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, also had an enduring effect on literature that followed, although it appears most conspicuously in the works of postmodern writers of the twentieth century. The Second Law defines the concept of entropy—a measure of homogeneity or lack of differentiation in a system—and is typically associated in literature with a tendency toward depicting increasing chaos in the universe.
Accelerated scientific advancements in the twentieth century have contributed to the decline of belief in the mechanistic, rational, and supremely-ordered Newtonian universe and have inspired themes of discontinuity and unpredictability that are common tropes of postmodern literature. Twentieth-century discoveries in science and logic, including Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity, Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, and the complexities of quantum physics have contributed to a particular view of reality apparent in the works of John Updike, Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and others. Taking cues from such theories, which realize natural barriers to scientific knowledge even while opening hitherto unexplored areas of study, these and many other writers and critics of the twentieth century have tended to apply the concepts of randomness, uncertainty, and the breakdown of traditional causality in their works. Other developments in science from the latter half of the twentieth century have also contributed to the literary atmosphere of postmodernism. Notable among these are the study of chaos theory, which establishes the complex order of disorderly systems while positing their long-term unpredictability, and cybernetics, which views both humans and machines as complex systems of information—ideas analogous to those of such writers as Italo Calvino, Don DeLillo, Stanislaw Lem, and Jacques Derrida.
Related areas of critical interest in the subject of science and literature include the perception that science is a social construct like other forms of human inquiry, and therefore subject to certain cultural limitations. Commentators have outlined the important differences between poetic and scientific discourse while observing that scientific language, though exacting and verifiable, as yet has failed to duplicate the language of feeling and beauty found in poetic utterances. Finally, several commentators have observed the importance of science fiction as a subgenre. First exhibited in the imaginative writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells, science fiction focuses on the place of science in contemporary and future life and is concerned with the possible impacts of rapidly-accelerating technological discoveries on society and on human perceptions of reality. As such, science fiction continues to provide a viable medium of speculation and communication in a technological world.
I, Robot (novel) 1967
Doctor Copernicus (novel) 1976
Giles Goat-Boy (novel) 1966
Comment c'est [How It Is] (novel) 1964
Imagination morte imaginez [Imagination Dead Imagine] (drama) 1965
Dr. Heidenhoff's Process (novel) 1880
Mr. Sammler's Planet (novel) 1969
Leben des Galilei [The Life of Galileo] (drama) 1938
Die unbekannte Grösse [The Unknown Quantity] (novel) 1933
"Paracelsus" (poetry) 1835
Pearl S. Buck
A Desert Incident (novel) 1959
Erewhon (poetry) 1872
Le cosmicomiche [Cosmicomics] (short stories) 1965
Ti con zero [t zero] (short stories) 1967
G. K. Chesterton
The Man Who Was Thursday (novel) 1908
Arthur C. Clarke
2001: A Space...
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David J. Gordon
SOURCE: "The Dilemma of Literature in an Age of Science," in the Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXXVI, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 245-60.
[In the following essay, Gordon examines tensions between modern literature and science.]
The French scientist Jacques Monod, using the evidence of modern biology, has brought up to date the hypothesis formulated by Democritus—that all natural processes are governed by the impersonal forces of chance and necessity. Monod thus questions, as science, animistic or idealistic positions which sanction the projection of will, reason, or feeling onto nature in order to establish a humanly significant conception of natural power and destiny. But he respects an independent realm of values and the experience of freedom from which values are derived. Acknowledging a world of mind separate from a world of matter or brain, he aligns himself with a tradition of philosophic dualism extending from Descartes to Chomsky.
Where does his persuasive argument leave the arts, particularly the art of poetry, which is unimaginable without the license of animistic projection? Monod apparently seeks only to undermine certain philosophies with scientific pretensions rather than poetry itself, but readers of Chance & Necessity who are students of literature may be prompted to reconsider the difficulties faced by humanistic study in an...
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SOURCE: "Science and Fiction," in Bridges to Science Fiction, George E. Slusser, George R. Guffey, Mark Rose, eds., Southern Illinois University Press, 1980, pp. 3-21.
[In the following essay, Levin offers his view of the affinities between modern fiction and science.]
Since my three-word title echoes those two nouns which denote the subject of this symposium, it should be self-evident that my own key-word is the conjunction between them. Not that I would wish to put asunder what has clearly been compounded with so much imagination, industry, and ingenuity. The copula is merely my confession that I have little right to expatiate on the compound. Though I have had frequent opportunity to read and write and talk about various forms of fiction, my encounters with the genre that we have been invited to discuss—enjoyable and instructive as they may have been—have been somewhat casual and slight. As for science, I can only confide that in my case the ordinary layman's interest has been enhanced; if not solidified, by a number of happy associations with professional scientists through academies, common rooms, and personal circumstances. Yet I realize, as I begin to fill in the pages that follow, that I am adopting the simple-minded tactic of the journalist in Pickwick Papers. Having been assigned an article on Chinese Metaphysics, it will be remembered, he looked...
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SOURCE: "The Two Cultures at the End of the Twentieth Century: An Essay on Poetry and Science," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, Winter, 1994, pp. 121-35.
[In the following essay, Cherry emphasizes the importance of communication between poets and scientists.]
In an essay first published in The New Statesman in 1956 and later included in a series of lectures delivered at Cambridge University, C. P. Snow said of himself, "By training I was a scientist; by vocation I was a writer. .. . It was a piece of luck, if you like, that arose through coming from a poor home." I, too, came from a poor home, though it was an educated home, and my parents, who were string quartet violinists, thought that economic salvation would lie in having one of their children turn out to be a scientist. I never got further than a hodgepodge of introductory science courses and rather more math, but even that superficial acquaintance with science has proved to be "a bit of luck." I have taken seriously what C. P. Snow called the problem of 'The Two Cultures"—that "the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups"—and tried to find ways in my writing to reunite what had been separated, to bring together what had been estranged, to fuse, as it were, what had been fissioned. If the results are essentially private, well,...
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SOURCE: "Cultural Politics and the Irish Theatre: Samuel Beckett and the New Biology," in Theatre Research International, Vol. 18, No. 3, Autumn, 1993, pp. 215-21.
[In the following essay, Armstrong discusses the influence of Erwin Schrodinger's theory of quantum biology on the dramas of Samuel Beckett.]
Sweat and mirror notwithstanding they might well pass for inanimate but for the left eyes which at incalculable intervals suddenly open wide and gaze in unblinking exposure long beyond what is humanly possible.
Samuel Beckett, Imagination Dead Imagine,
Lawrence Stone, Princeton Professor Emeritus of History, has recently declared that 'every cultural enterprise, even science, is at least in part a social construction.'1 Biologist Jay Gould vehemently agrees. 'Science', says Gould, 'is done by individuals, whose conclusions are influenced by the beliefs they bring with them.'2 The contamination factor is unavoidable. On the other hand, Erwin Schrodinger, the renowned quantum physicist, brought to biology experimental truths that may take us to the edge of the universe. For him, the contamination factor was intentional. Beginning in the 1940s, his work had a direct effect on the writings of Samuel Beckett.
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Cosslett, Tess. The "Scientific Movement" and Victorian Literature. New York: The Harvester Press, 1982, 188 p.
Considers the "values of science" presented in the works of such writers as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, George Eliot, George Meredith, and Thomas Hardy.
Demastes, William W. "Re-Inspecting the Crack in the Chimney: Chaos Theory from Ibsen to Stoppard." New Theatre Quarterly X, No. 39 (August 1994): 242-54.
Applies the scientific paradigm of chaos theory to an analysis of Henrik Ibsen's The Master Builder and to the works of later absurdist and postmodern dramatists.
Foster, John Wilson. "Against Nature? Science and Oscar Wilde." University of Toronto Quarterly 63, No. 2 (Winter 1993): 328-46.
Examines the hostility toward science displayed in the writings of Oscar Wilde.
Hayles, N. Katherine, ed. Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991, 308 p.
Collection of essays on the intersection of chaos theory and modern literature.
Haynes, Roslynn D. From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994, 417 p.
Historical survey of shifting literary perceptions of the scientist...
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