Literature is often a reflection of the ideas and mores prevalent in a society at a given time. It is therefore not surprising that ever since science began to play a major role in human civilization it too has had an impact on literature. In overt ways or only surreptitiously, emphatically or only mildly, science has been leaving its imprint on the literature of the peoples who have experienced the jolts of scientific thought and discoveries.
This becomes evident when on compares the literature of pre-scientific times with that of the post-scientific period. Before the rise of modern science, when religion and metaphysics rather than facts and figures held the attention of thinkers, literature was influenced largely by world views that rested on popular beliefs and pulpit teachings. It is good that this was so, and that this continues to be the case in many instances. For on the one hand such literature throws much light on the life and values of ages past. On the other and, the fears and prejudices, the naïve beliefs and myths of former times spurred the human imagination to produce some of the most powerful compositions in literary lore. The Vedas of ancient India, the Bible and the Koran, as also the countless poetic creations they have inspired, have all contributed to mankind's rich literary heritage.
Scholars have examined at considerable length the interactions between science and literature in particular periods of history, and in specific linguistic regions. But this is not the aspect of the subject that I propose to discuss in this paper. Rather I wish to explore science and literature as two enterprises that absorb the human intellect and feelings, as two domains of civilized activity that have never ceased to inspire the very best in the human spirit, and to examine how and when they seem to come into conflict with each other.
First, let us define the terms. What is literature? Because of its vast scope and varied expressions there is no simple and comprehensive definition of the word. To Robert Frost literature was "words that have become deeds." To Ezra Pound literature was "news that always stayed news." In less pithy terms Fitzmaurice Kelly described literature as "the best expression of the best thought reduced to writing." Some have insisted that one ought to make a distinction between literature and informational writing. Thomas de Quincy, for one, maintained that "all that literature seeks to communicate is power; all that is not literature, knowledge."
Leaving aside such inspirational and loft definitions, let us define literature in terms of its essential ingredients, which are: words and enjoyment. If these are granted to be necessary, if not sufficient, conditions for any literature, only may define literature as a communicable vehicle of enjoyment in which thoughts, ideas and images are clothes in pleasing combinations of words. The vehicle is usually the printed medium. And so it is that literature appears in a variety of forms; as essays, as short stories, as verses, as epic poems, as plays, biographies, hymns, histories; on occasions, even as sermons.
The definition of literature as suggested above is inadequate for at least two reasons. First, by including only the necessary conditions it tends to embrace within its scope much that would not be legitimately regarded as literature by purists. Thus a delightful combination of words and phrases, expressing thoughts and ideas of no intrinsic value, may make a claim for being called literature. Indeed many platitudes, perverseness, and plain nonsense, often do, on this score alone. Secondly, and this is closely related to the first criticism, this definition ignores one of the fundamental attributes of all literature, viz, that it is a meaningful commentary on some aspect of truth. If one takes into account this intrinsic quality of literature, the definition should refer to a specific mode of perception of truth and reality. It is at this point that a consideration of science becomes appropriate.
As with literature, there is no simple definition of science either. Generally speaking there is little disagreement among practicing scientists as to what constitutes science: hence the witticism that science is what scientists do. But when it comes to defining what science is, an endless list emerges. Science has been defined as "organized knowledge," "trained and organized common sense," "systematic classification of experience," etc.
In all such views science is regarded as a static storehouse of carefully arranged pieces of information. But science is a vast repository of knowledge only to the degree that literature is the set of all pleasurable combinations of words and phrases. And even as a masterpiece of literature has more to offer that the joyful ticklings resulting from clever verbal permutations, so too there is more to science than the mere recognition of the fact that the sun is some ninety three million miles away, or that the benzene molecule has a hexagonal structure. Science, as much as literature, is an effort to grasp the truth. Where the two differ is in the manner in which they perceive it, as well as the aspects of the truth that interests each.
Even more than these differences - to which I shall revert in a moment - there is a certain contrast in the emphasis on form and content, on the methods and results of science and literature. Shifts have taken place on these in quite opposite ways. Perhaps the most ancient form of literature was religious poetry. In all the great civilizations of the past, evocations to the almighty was common. The initial aim of those first literary compositions was to persuade the deities into propitious actions. And this was a very practical aim: to improve the condition of man here below. But as the many facets of literature grew, sheer enjoyment rather than practical utility became the prime concern of literature. Early scientific inquiry was inspired by disinterested curiosity, by the desire for the pure delight of knowing. But in its modern phase, criteria of practical applicability play major roles in the direction and development of the scientific search.
But let us pursue further some of the common elements between science and poetry. To the superficial observer, indeed sometimes even to the devotees of the fields, the two may strike as contrasting endeavors as different from each other as day and night. Yet the two have a great deal in common: In both instances creativity plays a fundamental role, and even as in a hundred versifiers there may be but one genuine poet, so too in the realm of science the routine searchers are many and mechanical; the truly great scientific minds are few and far between. In poetry, as in science, the urge to create is stronger than the plans to execute. When the poet Poe said that for him poetry was not a purpose, but a passion, he was also expressing the feelings of the true scientist to his own field.
Both science and poetry are efforts to cast truth and nature in symmetry and harmony. To the poet, "poetry is truth dwelling in beauty," and to the scientist science is truth dwelling in beautiful formulas. Truth, that elusive entity, is of significance only to the seeker. Therefore, the difference between poetry and science lies in the modes of perception and in the framework of the search, not in the inspiration of the quest.
Even when the poet speaks out against the scientific conception
he comes closer to the scientist in his description. William Blake,
that inspired mystic who regarded "Reason as the Devil, and
Newton as its high-priest," and who proclaimed that "Art
is the Tree of Life...Science the Tree of Death," did echo
powerfully the romantic revolt against a mammoth mechanical view
of the universe such as was being suggested by 18th century physics
and astronomy. But when he spoke of the raptures as one strives
To see the World in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your Hand
Eternity in an Hour,
he was merely putting to rhyme and rhythm the thrills of the scientific investigator. For when the chemist analyzes the elemental constitution of a sand particle, or the physicist probes into its atomic structures, they too see a world in a grain of sand. When the botanist describes the magic of wild flowers, their forms and their colors, and the plant histologist uncovers the biochemical turbulences that provoke their emergence and their transformations, they too see heaven in action in a wild flower. When the cosmologist computes the very limits of the universe, and the astronomer captures electromagnetic subtleties from distant galaxies, they too hold infinity in their hands. And when the astrophysicist examines the evolution of stellar systems he too holds eternity in an hour.
No wonder then that the pure scientist has always been sensitive to the charms of poetry. Galileo was an admirer of Ariosto, and knew the entire Orlando furioso by heart, as Euler could recite the Aenid from beginning to end. The mathematical physicist Simon Poisson mastered long passages from Racine and Corneille. Newton, Davy, Watt, Maxwell, Lallande, Ampere, Faraday - to name but a few of the great scientific minds - all showed more than a passing interest in poetry. Some of then even composed verses themselves.
Yet, not many poets have been enthusiastic students of scientific disciplines. Indeed when they do write on science they often tend to disparage the scientific enterprise, and make pitying references to the inadequacies and emptiness of science as they see it. From the pathological contempt for the science expressed by some of the more extreme romantics to the modern schools of inquiry into the illogical and the irrational which venerate the absurd in the inspired, if mistaken conviction that magic and mystery-mongering would lead to higher levels of reality, many gifted poets have painted the methods and fruits of the scientific quest in terms and images that connote pity and ridicule.
I believe there is an explanation for this: In spite of the fact that poetry is intensely personal and science is intentionally international, the creations of the poet are more easily shared by people at large than the findings of the scientist. It is true that in order to derive all the joys and meanings of a good poem one needs to read it over and over again; in many instances, a certain refinement of sensibilities appreciation of the poem. And yet, most people of reasonable culture, and certainly those who have delved into the intricacies of science, are generally capable of enjoying a great many decent poems. The situation is quite different when it comes to literary intellectuals appreciating technical science. If one is not equipped with a minimum of scientific background one may find it difficult to absorb, let along appreciate, the abstruse formulas and hieroglyphic equations of the man of science. The scientific world view may therefore seem meaningless, not to say distorted, to the uninitiated.
A consequence of this is that on the whole poets have not only refrained from handling the subtler splendors of scientific abstraction, but, what is worse, damned the scientist's gropings in merciless meters. No scientist ever decried the mystical meanderings of the poet, nor complained that the inspired bard deforms nature superimposing his imagery on it. No respectable man of science is known to have seriously protested the ball-of-cheese picture of the moon and run to his telescope to marvel at the lunar craters. But when the poet hears the learned astronomer, and sees his proofs and figures ranged in columns before him, he grows tired and sick very soon, and wanders off b himself in the mystical moist air, and from time to time looks up in perfect silence at the stars.
The poet finds meticulous measurement and cold logic as negating forces in the wholesome enjoyment of life and nature. This may be a questionable aesthetic criterion. It is not only unfortunate that the poet is unable to derive excitement and joy from the astronomer'' charts and speculations. It is unfair for him to imply that the astronomer is incapable of merging himself in the magical splendors of a starlit night in an hour of lonely contemplation. Indeed, it is entirely possible that the empirical student of the heavens stares at the distant speck of Betelgeuse at an even higher level of mystical delight as he considers how recklessly the young stars of Orion are wasting away their energies at enormous rates,
There is another factor, more justifiable perhaps, for the poet's lack of enthusiasm for the scientific enterprise: the humdrum technology that seems to have resulted from science. From the wretched slums of early industrial revolution to the maddening megalopolises of today, at each advancing step of technological civillization, a little seems to be lost of man's pristine peace, of his harmonious rapport with nature. This poet regards as a debasement of the human condition. And in mistakenly, though understandably, identifying science with its awesome offshoots of lifeless technology and mechanical monstrosities, poets have spoken out harshly against science.
This state of affairs is so different from what Wordsworth had hoped for in his preface to Lyrical Ballads. "If the labours of men," he wrote there, "should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the poet will sleep no more than at present (1800). He will be ready to follow the steps of the man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensations into the midst of objects of the science itself. The remotest discoveries of the chemist, the botanist, or the mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the poet's art as clay upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things should be familiar to us, and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of these respective sciences shall be manifestly, and palpably material to us as enjoying and suffering beings."
If this has not yet come to pass, if no poet has yet painted electronic orbits and nuclear magnetic resonance in iambic pentameters, if relativity theory and quantum mechanics have not been case in sonnet form, then neither has Tennyson's fears come true. In his Timbuctoo, Tennyson foresaw the decay of poetry resulting from the advancement of science. "Soon your brilliant towers shall darken with the waving of her (science's) hand, " he grimly warned the Muse. Instead, poetry and literature have been growing in form and essence, the progress of science notwithstanding.
I noted a moment ago that nor many poets have been too enthusiastic in singing the glories of the scientific adventure, nor concerned with putting to rhyme and song the wave function or the Lorentz transformation. I also remarked that most great men of science have displayed considerable inclination for poetic and literary pleasures. But it must be added that this does not imply any universal taste on the part of the scientifically trained for what the French call belles lettres.
As an unfortunate matter of fact, those schooled in the technical fields have often been conditioned to expect the concrete and the calculable all the time. And it is fair to say that the vast majority of technologists and science-educated individuals - who should be clearly distinguished from scientists - generally find little meaning and less satisfaction in poetic abstractions. Hence the validity of C.P. Snow's thesis of the two cultures. If Snow's terminology's were sometimes ambiguous, his overall appraisal of the situation was not far from the mark. Among the many reactions to his book that of the eminent literary critic and pundit F.R. Leavis was certainly the most scathing and bitter. But it was also the most illustrative of Snow's thesis. Claiming to analyze the significance of Snow, Leavis went on to make ruthless personal attacks, painted Snow as an aesthetic components of science.
The intellectual dichotomy between the scientific and the literary intellectual is certainly not of recent origin. When Plato refused admission into his academy to those who did not know geometry, when St, Augustine warned that mathematics could lead to the devil, and when Martin Luther called Copernicus a fool for trying to upset the heavens, we had instances of the divergent perspectives to interaction with the cosmos. In the context of English literature scholars have interpreted Swift's Battle of the Books as signifying the dawn of the parting of the ways between men of letters and those of science. Not only did Bacon decry the tortuous literary styles of his day which, he felt, sacrificed matter for manner of presentation, but the Royal Society exacted from its members "positive expressions, clear senses, and avoidance of swellings of style,", and urged them to bring all things "as near to mathematical plainness" as possible.
This insistence on verifiable facts and consistent formulas is at variance with the picturesque descriptions and leisurely reflections to which the man of letters is prone. And the difference in attitudes arises not so much because of a difference in taste as because of the dissimilar modes of inquiry and levels of perception. There are domains of investigation that properly belong to science. And there are questions and problems that are meaningful in a literary context. What makes the candle go off when enclosed in an airtight bottle for long is clearly a matter for scientific investigation, as the sorrows of a bereaved mother are not. It is an ancient piece of wisdom that man is a bereaved mother are not. It is an ancient piece of wisdom that man is a creature with a head and a heart, with thoughts and feelings, with logic and emotions. In the intensely personal matters that concern him, the heart holds the sway. In questions of less personal importance, especially in matters relating to the inanimate and the external, logic and reason may be applied in unadulterated forms.
What is not always recognized is that the same subject may be approached from two - perhaps even more - different perspectives. The waltz may be reduced to periodic patterns arising from a complex configuration of forces and reactions. A Mozart sonata may be Fourier analyzed, and a smile on a babe's face may be looked upon in terms of nerve impulses and muscular contractions. But such points of view, if taken too seriously or adopted uniquely, have a tendency to diminish our aesthetic sensibilities. And this is not all. The scientific interpretation of nature, with its avowed obsession for coherence and consistency, is concerned primarily with relations. No scientific truth stands by itself, as no event in the physical world occurs all by itself. Hence the order that science reveals is one of mutual balance, of reciprocal support, of cosmic harmony. Once the order is discerned, the puzzle solved, and the mechanism exposed, there is little beyond. Meaning and value have no place here.
Literature on the other and, as indeed most other arts, attempt to see things not simply as they are, but as they are with respect to man. Literature is interested not so much in how the world functions, as in how that functioning affects man. It aims to go beyond the recognition of facts and phenomena and into the domain of the way and the wherefore. Questions of meaning and purpose, of values and wisdom, do not belong simply to philosophy. In their more immediate forms they provoke the poet and the novelist into thought and writing.
It is sometimes asked if such questions have any significance at all. More exactly, do they have answers? It would seem that they have not one, but a hundred and more answers. And each creative writer offers his own. The fascination for literature lies, not in the questions posed - for these can be summarized in a sender tome - but in the variety of contexts in which they appear, in the richness of the answers they suggest. This is not a case where a puzzle is there to baffle a human mind, where a puzzle once solved leads you on to the next, as in science. Rather here it is the variable vision that enriches the field. The very non-uniqueness of the solution renders literature limitless in scope and lush expressions. Hence also the individuality of the answer, the stamp of the artist in his work: in contradistinction to the collective nature of the scientific enterprise.
But at the epistemological level the question can still be asked as to whether and how far the scientific interpretation of the world of experience is complete and wholesome; whether indeed it can, as its more ardent disciples have sometimes claimed, bring within its sweep sooner or later every facet of man's perceptions from fleeting elementary particles to receding galaxies, and not excluding such unphysical manifestations of the human psyche as love and hate, justice and honor. Scientifically chiseled fields ranging from psychology to anthropology, let alone neurology and endocrinology, have tirelessly - and not without success - probed into the very foundations of human values, motives, moods and emotions, snatching away, as it were, from the literary artist's hold the clay of his craft. But the plundering is only superficially dangerous. All that the scientist does is to reveal the structure of the clay, its primordial properties and recesses. This knowledge could only contribute positively to the work of the creative writer. Indeed the influence of Freud on 20th century literature bears ample testimony to this. Who knows, the glandular basis of our moods, the neurological facets of pleasure and pain, as well as the genetic components of our behavior, may all well be incorporated some day in the characterization of a hero in a future novel.
But even without all this, literature can flourish on the intuitive and imaginative genius of great writers. After all, long before Freud and Jung, Shakespeare had portrayed the subtle relationships between mother and son, and centuries before the Sophocles had revealed other neurotic links. The artist's into human nature often penetrates deeper than the carefully controlled gadgets of experimental science. More importantly, his revelations transcend the purely physicochemical components of human existence which, let us admit, are not to be disposed of lightly or discarded contemptuously; but which may nonetheless not be the perspective of the whole truth.
There is yet another factor which contributes sometimes to the negative outlook that artists and literary men have towards science. This is related to the origin and destiny of man as revealed by the sciences. Not only did the Copernican insight kick man off the glorious center of the universe and render his splendid abode a mere insignificant speck in a vast universe; but developments in geology gave the lie to a poetic picture of an artistic creation as portrayed in holy books. Evolutionary biology traced back man to arboreal antics, and in all this spark of a divine soul seemed to be transformed into mere protoplasmic functions. The magnificent story of a God molding man with love and joy is replaced by science by one that is far less satisfying to out emotional instincts. Science would have us believe that in the remote infancy of our planet, over three billion years ago, there were lands barren and waste, atmosphere was hydrogen, ammonia, methane and other gases. Gigantic clouds and torrential rains rose and fell, seeping salts from land to sea. In the mammoth laboratories of the planet's oceans and airs, kindled by heat and lightning, by radiation's from the sun, and by heaven knows what other excitant, the turbulent chemistry of the early molecules churned out the first organic structures. Carbohydrates and fats were thus concocted. These increased in complexity as further reactions took place, and the waters of the period constituted what has been called a primordial soup in which mutual reactions resulted in molecules of ever increasing wonder and size. Energy trapping processes came into play. After a myriad permutations and patterns mysterious entities with the property of self-replication emerged. These grew in number and variety, until at last the nucleic acids and proteins were formed. The miracle of life had begun.
Once the spark of life was lit incredible throbbings ensued. The self-replicating systems grew in numbers, and as they multiplied new complexities arose. An end product of it all is Man and his civilization.
With all its technical erudition this version falls short of the simpler and more beautiful story of an almighty God shaping humans in His image. Even if one grants physicochemical forces as determining factors in the origins of life, our destinies as suggested by thermodynamics and astrophysics seem to be even more distasteful. The second law of thermodynamics predicts an eventual heat death for the entire universe, a grotesque climax for all our hopes and ambitions. And long before that, astrophysicists coldly inform us, our sun would have frittered away its nuclear potentialities, perpetrating blindly mass extinction of vital processes on our planet. And if we are to believe this awesome projection, our planet will in a distant but certain future continue to swirl around a silent sun much as the many meaningless rocks that go by the name of lifeless planets and asteroids. Elliptic orbits and gravitation there will still be, but no human mind to calculate or to comprehend. If this is the sort of dismal tale that science, if this is the ruthless terror that it can wrought on our spirits, is there any wonder that those who touch the heart and soul of man, those who ponder his plights and predicaments, pleasures and pains, in short, the artists and the poets, find science reprehensible and revolting?
I believe it is in the ultimate meaninglessness of it all which is implicit in the sciences that unveil conditions in primordial times and in ages to come, in the sciences that mercilessly tell of silent eons and lifeless repetitions that the cause of the antagonism between the arts and the sciences is to be found; not in the mutual incomprehension of the artist and the scientist.
Finally, let us consider the role of the imagination in literature and in science. Shakespeare had stated that role in poetry:
The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
a local habitation and a name.
The value of imagination in the scientific pursuit is no less. The view of the scientist as a helpless groper chained to the crass world of tangible reality is a very misleading one. When John Tyndal called imagination the architect of physical theories, and when Max Born noted that faith, imagination and intuition were all decisive factors in the progress of science, they were not referring to literary imagery. Breaking through the walls of direct perceptions to construct and explore a world of ideas and images, and to infuse that world with the breath of reality is what the imaginative process is all about. As the theoretical physicist conjures up hamiltonians and entropies, his exchange forces and parity operators, he does precisely that. When Kekule' hit upon the structure of an organic molecule, and Van't Hoff conceived the tetrahedral architecture of the carbon atom imagination played a role.
There is, however, one important difference: To the poet imagination is the very essence of his craft; the more of it the better. He may worship it, and see in it the ultimate truth. "What the imagination seizes as beauty must be the truth," proclaimed Keats, and as if to emphasize he added, "whether it existed before or not." But the man of science is conditioned by agreement with data of experience in accepting ought as truth: although here too the criterion of beauty may tempt the investigator. "Einstein's theory (of general relativity) has the highest degree of aesthetic merit; " rejoiced H.A. Lorenz, "every lover of the beautiful must wish it to be true."
The imagery of conceptual science often transcends the world everyday experience. This again is another cause for the chasm that separates the scientist from the literary intellectual. Yet, by a strange paradox the same factor that pushes science into the realm of the intangible is also the one that transforms much of science into an aesthetic experience. The factor I am referring to is mathematics.
Mathematics is that unique creation of the human intellect which is perhaps the most magnificent blend of poetry and science. In some mysterious manner it combines all the strengths and glories of the sciences and the arts. In the sheer beauty of its expressions mathematics is supreme poetry; but in its rigor and its logic it is a friendly partner to the scientist. In its creativity and fertility of thought it is poetry again; but in its measurable magnitudes it serves the cause of science. When one considers mathematical symmetries one detects the art in it as one would in a painting or in architecture, but when one sees its powerful applications, it becomes science again. In its revelation of harmonies and in its detection of relationships between apparently diverse ideas mathematics resembles the intuitive genius of the artist, but when these relationships also reflect aspects of the physical world we see science in mathematics.
It seems as though mathematical thought has blossomed in the human
mind to remind us that art and science, poetry and physics, are
not antagonistic but complementary to each other; that even though
the two may not always see each other face to face, they both
contribute to the uplifting of the human spirit. It is as if literature
and science are the balancing wings of the same bird which, though
they seem to work in apparent independence, in fact glide the
creature cooperatively in its soaring heights.