Science and literature should not be thought of as binaries


It is a new phenomenon that science and literature are to be thought of as separate disciplines; there is a wide-ranging history of the two working with each other.

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By Sam Campbell

Science and literature, now far too often divided as academic disciplines from primary to higher education, were never thought of in such diametric terms by our forebears. Aristotle’s meditations on physics, epic poetry, ethics, biology and tragic drama are not so different in their formal style: his writings on each of these subjects demonstrate a desire to delineate the mysteries of all of these disciplines; to dissect them and identify their substance by their parts. It is no coincidence, either, that in Greek culture Apollo was a god of both art and medicine. While they are divided, the intention is the same.

Indeed, it was not until modernity that science and the arts were thought of as separate — whether in terms of their value or otherwise. On the contrary, they were frequently in conversation, being studied and discussed in the same places and by the same people.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, the poet Percy Shelley was an avid follower of the progress in the field of natural sciences while at Eton, and then as an undergraduate at Oxford. These were times when science was often considered to be an occult interest, and it was probably this that attracted him — staunch atheism was certainly another factor. As a schoolboy, Shelley came under the influence of an itinerant teacher and lecturer, Adam Walker, who wrote extensively on astrophysics, electrostatics, chemistry and magnetism.

Similarly, in his brief time at Oxford, he found as his mentor the royal physician, James Lind, a fellow of the Royal Society. His rooms at college were full of paraphernalia which he kept to conduct his own chemical experiments, and his guests would sometimes find their teacups containing concentrated acid. The culture in which he chose to surround himself was made up of eccentrics, artists, writers, and practitioners united in curiosity, and skepticism about the conservative doctrines of the political, religious and academic establishment. Art and science were equal within this culture as a means of challenging the status quo.

Like her husband, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (née Godwin), had an interest in the sciences. She too came from a background of dissidents — with her mother and father publishing seminal pieces of writing on feminism and radical political science respectively. It is often discussed how her most famous work, Frankenstein, was influenced by a curiosity (as well as a healthy amount of suspicion) about the scientific and technological experiments which were occurring in the early 1800s — one unambiguous connection with her work would be the science of “galvanism” (reanimating corpses).

In the 20th century and beyond, there are many examples of cultural figures who were deeply interested in both science and literature. John Steinbeck was taught marine biology by a close friend; Samuel Beckett regularly met with a neuroscientist friend to discuss the brain; the American poet William Carlos Williams was a practicing doctor; Aldous Huxley wrote an entire book on the similarities between literary and scientific language.

One particularly interesting author — whose work shows especially the shared ethical qualities of science and literature — is Primo Levi, an Italian writer, scientist and survivor of Auschwitz. He worked for most of his life as an industrial chemist, juggling his literary and scientific labours side by side. In his Searching for Roots, Levi traces a common genealogy that ranges from Lucretius to Charles Darwin and Joseph Conrad, T.S. Eliot to black holes, and argues the literary faculties of scientific papers. The common endeavours of literature and science are the confrontation of humankind enduring suffering, and maintaining contact with the natural world. His most famous book, The Periodic Table, is a collection of short stories, each of which take their title from and are thematically linked to one of the elements.

So, there are many lessons which can be learned from the study and practice of both literature and science in conjunction with one another; the lived experiences which can only be had when one thinks of the connections between them both. These lessons might be to do with technique or method — the shared aspect of questioning, deducing and the perpetual creation of new possibilities. Or they may be the ethical consequences of these questions; what they mean for humanity, and how each discipline can temper the other. Together, they foster a more engaged and ethical understanding of what artistic and scientific progress can do for the good of people.