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

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What Scientists Read

Friday, July 20, 2012

In recent years, literary studies has increasingly appropriated science, opening new fields for critical enquiry. Darwinian literary studies, for example, shows how the reading of literature can be explained in terms of our evolutionary biology. Literary historians of science show how understanding the ways in which writers have represented science can help us better to communicate scientific knowledge today. Critical readers are turning to empirical studies, such as semantic analysis, to give their criticism the status of fact.

I would not want to demean such efforts to engage literature with science. Before I shifted more towards literature and game studies, my PhD research looked at the ways in which cybernetic science had been (mis)represented in literary and film science fiction. Science and Culture has been a key category under which I've posted on this blog over a number of years.

Nevertheless, I remain sceptical about the ultimate destination of such traffic between science and literature. There is always a feeling that such interdisciplinarity, whilst intellectually interesting in its own right, is also an attempt to lend literary studies the superficial credibility of the "real-world impact" that science possesses. If it is effective, scientific research invariably emerges from universities to have some social benefit, such as a new cure for cancer, or a green energy source. The "impacts" of science, especially the most exciting blue skies science, may not always be direct and instantaneous, but they are invariably assumed to be present. Literary studies clings to the coat-tails of the scientific impact-agenda, suggesting to policy makers and public - who increasingly demand pragmatic outcomes from their funding - that it has relevance, even if this is not always immediately obvious.

It is in this spirit of the age that we find works of literary criticism such as Mark L. Brake's and Neil Hook's Different Engines: How Science Drives Fiction and Fiction Drives Science, which I reviewed recently. In my review, I commented that the book offers a popular survey of the ways in which science has influenced fiction through the ages. However, the authors struggle to give convincing evidence to justify the second half of their tagline, how fiction has driven, influenced or affected the course of science. I noted (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that:
It would be ideal if literary scholars could provide hard examples of imaginative fiction leading to new scientific knowledge, and it is not hard to understand why Brake and Hook – lecturers in science communication and science fiction respectively – wanted to write this book. Just imagine the boasts of English Department heads to funding bodies: a Derridean deconstruction of Frankenstein discovers the genetic cure for cancer! Sadly, it is not that straightforward.
It would be lovely to show how the likes of H.G. Wells' time machine has led to new developments in the field, but in practice imagining a time machine in print is one thing, whilst building one requires entirely different and non-commensurate skills.

However, for all my (I hope healthy) scepticism, a new project seems to be offering some clues that even if literature cannot contribute to a particular scientific discovery in a strong sense, we should not ignore the importance of literature altogether. What Scientists Read, run through the University of Edinburgh, asks a question that desperately needs answering: how does literature influence scientific thought and practice?

Whilst the sciences have provided inspiration for the arts, conversely "Little attention is paid in contemporary scholarly science and literature studies to the influence of literature on science, and the impact literature might have on scientists and scientific practice." The project is interviewing a select group of scientists and seeking wider contributions via the blog to review the ways in which science might be affected by literature and reading.

This seems to be a potentially interesting avenue of exploration. Science is after all filled with moments of sudden inspiration. For example, Friedrich Kekulé reputedly thought of the structure of the benzene molecule after having a day dream about a snake seizing its own tail. Of course, Kekulé did not pluck this discovery from thin air, and the existing discoveries of molecular chemistry in which he was immersed over a number of years were the most important drivers towards this cumulative point. But who is to say what other coalescence of cultural forces sparked this seminal moment of insight? The imagery of a snake chasing its own tail is not an uncommon one. Did something - a painting, a story in a book, a news article - make it visually present to Kekulé on that particular day? It is of course hard to determine and the case remains hotly disputed by historians of science; but just because it is evasive this does not mean that cultural influence is irrelevant.

Scientists live and work within society, and may be shaped by the same historical forces that affect us all. Sometimes this is overt, such as when atomic science was driven by the necessity of war. But there is no reason why culture might not also be an important, shaping influence. To return to the example of Wells, nobody would suggest that the imaginary contraption of The Time Machine leads us any closer to building a time machine in a practical sense. Yet in our present day, would scientists still be devoting serious study to time travel had we not had such rich and enticing imaginings from literary fiction? 

It is this sort of possibility that What Scientists Read is investigating, and that I think is a more convincing type of analysis that those in which largely conventional literary studies try to borrow credibility from science without doing anything fundamentally different. Having said that, it would be right to wonder if even this project might have its limits. Discovering what scientists read is one thing. Far harder is to discover whether scientists' reports of the impact of their reading go beyond the merely subjective, so that we can say determinedly that what they read changed the way in which they do science. 

The risk here - as with science fiction generally - is the fallacy of retrospective prediction. In the 1960s, for example, Star Trek imagined a personal communicator device; when mobile phones were eventually invented for real, it looked as if science fiction had somehow predicted science fact. The eventual reality was popularly construed as a logical, teleological outcome from the fiction. In actuality, of course, society retrospectively conceptualises a new technology in terms of the things we have already imagined, thus making it seem more familiar than it actually is. And of course we handily forget all the other things that Star Trek imagined that have not yet come to fruition. It is easy to imagine What Scientists Read sliding into a similar fallacy, with scientists reporting as important a book that they once read, simply because that book happens to resonate most strongly with the eventual discoveries of their research. From this teleological perspective, it can look deceptively as if reading a work of fiction has caused them to focus on a particular field or to interpret a particular result in a certain way. But as ever causation and correlation - especially correlation when self-reported by a biased observer - are very different things. I am sure that the team behind the project are well aware of this, but finding ways to mitigate against the retrospective effect is going to be a challenge.

Assuming (as I'm sure it will) that the project nevertheless leads into a critically perceptive report, the second limitation of What Scientists Read would seem to be that answering the question about What Scientists Do Read does not necessarily allow us to make any instrumental statements about What Scientists Should Read. Are there certain works which are particularly effective in inspiring, motivating or driving science? Is science fiction the best way of contributing to scientific practice? Is there a role for literary criticism in guiding scientific readers to help them to develop better knowledge by reading the right kinds of books?

These questions would seem to be the most difficult to answer. But to return to my original scepticism about science and literature studies, they also seem to be potentially the most useful questions that we could pose within the field. What Scientists Read could, potentially, assert an epistemic value for literature and literary studies that we have not really seen before.

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Posted by Alistair at 2:24 pm


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