Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Reading Natural Sciences

Students at Cambridge read for a degree in Natural Sciences, yet many scientists often feel they don’t really get to or know how to read at all. Conversely, budding literary scholars may have become convinced that they don’t understand, or can’t do science. But does this have to be the case? Can reading bring science and literature together? Melanie Keene introduces the Cambridge Science and Literature Reading Group.

The Science and Literature Reading Group, jointly organised by the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, and the Department of English, Communication, Film and Media at Anglia Ruskin University, hopes to challenge some of the preconceived boundaries, barriers, and differences between academic disciplines by providing a forum in which diverse specialists can come together over a common interest in texts and the sciences. During informal discussions over themed readings, post-meeting drinks in Darwin College bar, and occasional trips to appropriate theatricals, we explore connected ways of investigating these subjects, stressing and assessing the importance of interdisciplinary interactions.

In recent years, termly themes tackled by the Group have ranged over genres and time periods, from analysing the written conventions of up-to-the-minute internet journalism to the ‘nature of’ poetic Lucretian philosophy. Alongside Lawrence Durrell we have interpreted the ‘Space and Time marriage’ as ‘the greatest Boy meets Girl story of the age’; worked out how to fit all the animals inside Noah’s ark via John Wilkins’ literary technologies; travelled to the Blazing World with Margaret Cavendish, and to two-dimensional Flatland with Edwin Abbott Abbott; shared Edgar Allan Poe’s whirligig Eureka moment; entered the amazing Mind of a Mnemonist; learnt geological history from the talking trilobites of a fakir’s remembered reincarnations; spied strange creatures inhabiting the moon through a South African telescope; and used the shipping forecast as a seduction technique, After Darwin. Along the way we have encountered writings by canonical literary figures (Robert Browning), renowned characters from the history of science (Humphry Davy), and classic works of ‘science and literature’ (Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia), as well as uncovering the more obscure outposts of this inter-discipline (namely the immensely silly play Fermat’s Last Tango).

Despite the relationship perhaps implied by the ordering of the Group’s title, we try not to look for a simple one way traffic from scientific practice to its ‘diffusion’ in contemporary literature. Rather, one aim of the Group is to help rethink these categories of ‘science’ and ‘literature’ themselves, especially in relation to past times and cultures, when such alignments often make little sense. Not just choosing to read poetry and fiction that includes scientific ideas, therefore, we also take the language of the sciences, their theories, terminologies, models and metaphors seriously as forms of literature; analysing, for example, the manner in which a scientific journal article is and was written. We have an ongoing fascination with the series of metaphors used when discussing how these disciplines interact, whether they be via ‘open fields’, membranes, tentacles, parasites, sympathies, encounters, mappings, interweavings, or, perhaps most appropriately for the format of the Group, conversations.

Such broader motivations underpin our fortnightly meetings, which usually begin with a brief introduction, before we attack the set readings from a number of angles. Whilst no-one in the room is usually an authority on a particular text, we can draw on a stellar array of expertise and insights; only last week, representatives of quantum theory, literature, psychology, the earth sciences, pathology, and the history of science contributed to an enhanced understanding of Chekhov’s short stories about doctors. In these ways, anyone who attends the group will leave with at least one nugget of novel information, or a shifted perspective, to take back to the library or the lab, be it on topics as diverse as the clinical symptoms of TB, conceptions of the narrative structure of disease, techniques of analysing formal prose structures, or the mythic story of Cupid and Psyche.

As someone who once wrote a poem about beryllium, and an essay on the chemical properties of water from the perspective of a penguin named Penelope, for me the Group provides a wonderful way of encouraging creative relationships and quite literal dialogue between members of a range of academic departments, whom I have long suspected can learn a lot from each other. A few years ago I was one of those students reading Natural Sciences, and now I can appreciate how, in the words of Muriel Rukeyser, “the universe is made up of stories, not of atoms.” Maybe you can too.

(This will appear in the Cambridge BlueSci magazine later this year.)

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