October 2007

TK Kenyon


Science and Art in the Novel: When Extremes Converge

The physicist C. P. Snow announced in 1959 in his book The Two Cultures that between science and art lies "a gulf of mutual incomprehension -- sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding." Granted, the two endeavors seem schism-separated, but a few scientists and artists have made the journey and lived to tell the tale.

Before Snow, in 1884, Edwin A. Abbott -- a British clergyman, Shakespearean scholar and amateur mathematician -- published Flatland, which utilizes multiple-dimension geometry to venomously satirize staid, repressive, caste-ridden Victorian England. Leonardo da Vinci was an anatomist, engineer, botanist, and could paint a little.

In recent decades, however, the two species of work have diverged further, mainly due to vocabulary. Both science and art have developed specialized vernaculars that obfuscates concepts and excludes the uninitiated.

To some extent, this shorthand proliferation is necessary. It is shorter to write the word “glycoprotein” in a scientific paper than to type “a chain of amino acids including a covalently bonded fatty side group that directs the protein to the membranes of cell,” or worse, draw it. Because scientists pay to have their work published in scientific journals, every word counts. (Yep, there is no advertising in scientific journals, so someone has to pay for the paper and ink, even for very prestigious journals. Publications are the measure of success in academia, so you must “publish or perish.” Five pages of text and figures can run to tens of thousands of dollars in a mid-level journal, especially in the case of color plates.)

The art world, however, is not innocent of exclusionary vocabulary practices. In the book Teaching the Postmodern Fiction and Theory, Brenda K. Marshall discusses structuralism, post-structuralism, intertextuality, historiographic metafiction, and more. When I first delved, years ago, I was reminded of the first time I tried to read a scientific paper when I was an undergrad: I recognized that the letters formed words, and I could define some words, but the words lumped together into an impenetrable mass of assumed knowledge and in-jokes. I hammered. It didn’t give.

For the post-modernist neo-Luddites among us, primary scientific literature is probably the best extant example of intertextuality. Every sentence of introductions and many in the bodies of works are terminated by references to another primary source. A paper’s conclusion delineates the boundaries of the particular work and connects it to the body of knowledge and to yet-unpublished or even unconceived work, thus extending tendrils of intertextuality not only into the past, but also into the future. A scientific paper is an insect in an intellectual ecosystem.

Some scientists, however, have recently made forays into the land of literature. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to pointedly ignore nonfiction works of popular science by scientists, from Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin to Cosmos by Carl Sagan to The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, because these are still scientists writing about science for an audience interested in science.

Excursions by scientists into the territory of literature are few and far between. Reviewers at the literary reviews, the gatekeepers and tastemakers, are often harsh, even snobby, and complain that the work is too hard to understand. The reviewers do not whine thusly when critiquing novels that include obscure and difficult elements of philosophy, art, religion, sociology, psychology, or history. There is a conspiracy, I fear, to relegate science to obscurity because it is too hard, which is false.

Dan Lloyd, a neurophilosopher at Trinity College in Connecticut, used his novel Radiant Cool, about a graduate student Miranda Sharpe who must find her missing thesis advisor, Max Grue, to introduce his theory of consciousness rather than publish it in a neurophilosophy journal where only his peers would read it. The book includes a hundred-plus page afterword detailing the theory. The usual suspect literary review sources were ambivalent about this book, pronouncing parts of it too difficult to understand. I’m not a neurophilosopher, and it just wasn’t that tough. It was fun.

Alan Lightman, a physicist and writing instructor at MIT, has produced several excellent volumes, most notably the very successful tome, Einstein’s Dreams. In this book, Lightman ventures into Einstein’s mind while he was formulating his theories and shows us what his dreams may have looked like. The resulting piece is fragmentary and more poetical than novelistic, but enchanting.

In an interesting counterexample, Manil Suri, a mathematician at the University of Maryland, has published the novels The Death of Vishnu and The Age of Shiva (forthcoming in 2008). (I find it exceedingly odd that the publisher W. W. Norton wrote that The Age of Shiva is “among the most important novels to come out of India in the last twenty years,” when Manil Suri has lived in the U.S. for the last twenty-eight years.) Manil Suri did not utilize mathematics in his writing, only delving into the more-acceptable and titillatingly exotic Hindu mythology for his metaphors, and thus reviewers liked his work.

With some modesty, I add myself to this list of scientific insurgents who have made tactical incursions behind the line of literature. My novel, RABID, includes metaphors from science, mostly virology and neuroscience. It also has a dead body and a trial. I hope that it elucidates the ways that we enlighten ourselves. I have been exceedingly fortunate in that several major reviewers have been kind and taken time to understand the metaphors in it, rather than merely dismissing them as too hard to understand. I am more outraged by reviewers for my fellow scientist-writers than for my own experiences.

Scientists have also been hacking footpaths into the great forest of visual art. Felice Frankel, of MIT’s School of Science, works with scientific materials and produces photographs and micrographs that are truly beautiful. She has published three books of her visual art: On the Surface of Things: Images of the Extraordinary in Science, a collaborative effort with Harvard biochemist George Whitesides (Chronicle Books, 1997); Envisioning Science: The Design and Craft of the Science Image (MIT Press, 2002)" and again with Whitesides, No Small Matter (Harvard University Press, 2007.) Companies that manufacture microscopes often sponsor contests for budding scientific visual artists.

Some writers have ventured into the land of science and brought back concepts for their work. While the entire genre of science fiction is predicated on scientific concepts, many lit-crit folks do not venture into SF for even the choicest morsels. Indeed, Kurt Vonnegut received scathing reviews for some of his novels as the worst kind of sci-fi dreck (from Kirkus) until it was realized by the cognoscenti that it was actually the best kind of postmodernist literature.

My personal favorite cross-cultural creation is Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen, which makes high drama of theoretical physics. If you haven’t seen the version by PBS Hollywood Presents, I urge you to. The two physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg were great friends until one night in 1941, even though Bohr was a Jew living in occupied Denmark who had contacts with the Allies, and his protégé Heisenberg collaborated with the Nazis. After that night, they never spoke again. Frayn postulates on what happened that night, in terms of physics, psychology, meta-fiction, and humanity. When I saw this play, I almost gave up writing to pursue another line of inquiry, because the definitive experiment had already been performed.

A.S. Byatt uses neuroscience and computer science to good but not numinous effect in her series that begins with The Virgin in the Garden, progresses through Still Life and Babel Tower, and ends with A Whistling Woman. The epic of Frederica Potter and her friends takes on good and evil and civilization and barbarity. It is an entertaining read.

While writers have been hesitant to incorporate science into their art, scientists have long mined art, especially novels, for metaphors and vocabulary.

Perhaps the greatest example of this is when Murray Gell-Mann was casting around for a name for the tri-flavored elemental particles smaller than a proton and happened upon the line “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Three flavors of quarks and three quarks for Muster Mark: eureka! Quarks come in three flavors: up/down, top/bottom, and strange/charmed, for a total of six quarks.

Kurt Vonnegut used science to end the world in Cat’s Cradle via “Ice-9,” a self-replicating, ultra-stable polymer of water that has been used as a metaphor in turn to describe self-replicating nanotechnology and prions (mad cow disease agent).

But now, we must ask ourselves, beyond C.P. Snow’s injunction, why do so few people cross over and trans-write?

Long denigrated as the realm of the geeky, science has been touted as boring and too difficult for lay people to understand. This is false. While I have a few theories about why some people push that agenda, whether puffery, alienation, or superstition, it’s a lie. Science is the pursuit of truth. Whether physics or virology, the truth is usually simple.

Long denigrated as effete and elitist, some people promulgate that art is stupid. This is false. While I have a few theories about why people push that agenda -- puffery again, backlash anti-elitism, or parochialism, it is also a lie. Art communicates truth. Whether modern dance or a novel, the truth is usually simple.

Naturally, the two cultures can converge. Science is the pursuit of truth. Art communicates truth. The gulf should be crossed more often, because a fertile land lies between their borders, not a great chasm.