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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Postgraduate Diary: The Demons of Original Work

Thursday, June 29, 2006

As I mentioned in an earlier post, for the past month or so I have been writing a paper on , particularly as it relates to the "" debate and the contemporary "." The interesting thing about this thought experiment of mid-nineteenth-century thermodynamics is that James Clerk Maxwell never used the terminology of a demon at all; it was his fellow scientist, William Thomson, who provided that label, much to Maxwell's annoyance.

In the wake of the , literary critics were accused of drawing on the terminologies and theories of fields quantum physics or chaos theory in order to bolster their own arguments as having the same epistemological status within the academy as the much respected science faculty. They were using scientific models as metaphors for textual semantics and discourse, a practice which the scientists Paul Gross and Norman Levitt derided as "metaphor mongering."

My essay on Maxwell's demon shows how, whilst literary and literary critical uses of Maxwell's demon lend credence to this complaint about the abuses of science, simultaneously the evolution of Maxwell's demon shows that it is not simply literary intellectuals who are responsible for turning models into metaphors: scientists themselves sometimes do so in ways that play a key role in the development of new paradigms in science.

Very interesting, interdisciplinary stuff. Having used the essay as my end-of-year review piece, I was just waiting for feedback from my second supervisor, before submitting it to some of the relevant journals. Unlike tenured staff, I am not driven by the demands of the Research Assessment Exercise (or whatever may replace it now Gordon Brown has scrapped it) that one publish a certain amount each year. So I was intending to aim high for this paper, and to submit it to some of the more prestigious journals first, perhaps dropping down the unofficial ranks if it did not get accepted over the coming months. In particular, I was looking at the Configurations journal, the official publication of the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts. With people such as Gillian Beer and David Porush on the advisory board, this is about as respected as they come.

But academic research, driven by the requirement that it be in some sense aways provocatively original, has an uncanny way of holding the reins of the research you strain to pursue. Searching the web on a tangential topic last week, there at the top of the Google results was a link to "Bruce Clark: Allegories of Victorian Thermodynamics..." Its lacunae led me to a stomach dropping moment: there, published in Configurations in 1996, were twenty-three pages of careful historical research into the development of Maxwell's demon, relating it to the "Two Cultures," showing how allegories and models can mutate into metaphors because of the concerns of scientists.

The last four weeks of hard research and writing - pursuits that have taken me at quite a tangent to the specific concerns of my PhD - are invalidated in an instant. With a Faustian hubris, I had believed that my engagement with Maxwell's demon might lead me to produce new knowledge, to providing the all-important first publication on my academic CV. Instead, Maxwell's demon has returned to haunt me. This morning, in my inbox, like a digital cackle, the Oxford English Dictionary "Word of the Day" lurks: "Maxwell n. Compounds 1a. Maxwell's demon."


Posted by Alistair at 4:47 pm


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