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Literature as experiment

The two cultures may have more in common than we think

Pippa Goldschmidt 30 September 2009

Thoughtful: writers and scientists both fantasize

Is literature synonymous with science? Is all we’re doing when we write fiction simply experimenting in a made-up world?

The view that literature and science have nothing to say to each other, and are antithetical in their portrayals of the world, is now widely held to be a cliché, and inaccurate to boot. This cliché is partly based on C. P. Snow’s (in)famous ‘Two Cultures’ lectures which he delivered fifty years ago, but it also goes much further back than that, as illustrated by Keats’ complaint in his poem ‘Lamia’ that science is merely a ‘dull catalogue of common things’ and that Newton’s work on optics has ‘unweav’d the rainbow’.

But nowadays, we’re familiar with the ways in which literature draws on science. We’ve read Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and Oryx and Crake, and Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love and A Child in Time. There are numerous anthologies of poetry about science. We can appreciate that science is useful to literature in all sorts of ways, for providing metaphors and visual images, even for conferring authority. Here at there is a lot of discussion about the way that literature represents science, and a list of literary works that have scientific elements in them.

However, all this concentrates on the content of literature. But are there aspects of the scientific process in common with writing literature?

Brecht commented that he conducted experiments on audiences with his dramas, and spoke of turning the theatre into a laboratory. The play ‘Copenhagen’ by Michael Frayn, which investigates the circumstances of the real life meeting between the two physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr during the war in 1941, can be seen as an experiment in the way it repeats variations of the conversation between these two men in a recurring attempt to understand what really happened at this meeting. So, is writing literature akin to carrying out an experiment?

In ‘Copenhagen’ the audience is presented with different versions of the events, but we never get to understand what really happened at the meeting between Bohr and Heisenberg, and why. Superficially that can feel like a failure. But that isn’t the aim of this particular experiment. What we’re left with is an understanding that it is fundamentally impossible to know what happened that night in Copenhagen, despite all the written records. That is a satisfactory outcome of this dramatic experiment. It doesn’t matter that this experiment cannot really happen, that it’s only acted out for us. In this way, it’s a perfect example of a thought experiment.

Thought experiments have a long pedigree in science. They are best characterised as hypothetical experiments which we can imagine, but which we are not (usually) able to carry out. They allow us to set up an initial scenario and think through the repercussions.

The scenarios can be very simple; one of the most famous was initially described by Newton and consists of a bucket of water. Set the bucket spinning and the water starts to spin, stop the bucket and the water continues to spin. We can imagine the water spinning regardless of whether the bucket is spinning, by picturing the height of the water and whether it forms a concave surface. You can of course spin a real bucket of water. But Newton’s point was to examine why the water in the bucket is spinning, and what it’s spinning with respect to. Newton argued that it’s not spinning with respect to its immediate surroundings, i.e. the bucket walls, but with respect to the empty space in the rest of the universe. He used this to bolster his hypothesis of absolute space, existing independently of any objects in it.

But in the nineteenth century, Ernst Mach, the Austrian physicist and philosopher, was able to come to a different conclusion by challenging Newton’s assumptions. Not only were the results of Mach’s reasoning a profound influence on Einstein, but also his methodology. Einstein himself became a whiz at developing thought experiments.

Indeed, as twentieth century physics became more esoteric and abstruse, physicists became more and more reliant on thought experiments to illustrate the implications of their work. Schrödinger’s cat is one of the most famous examples, and was developed as a reductio ad absurdum to criticise the bizarre, and (to Schrödinger) wrong-headed, ‘standard’ Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics. In this experiment a cat is locked in a box with a vial of poison. After a fixed amount of time, depending on a random process, the cat will either be killed by the poison, or not. But according to quantum physics, until we open the box, observe the cat, and therefore measure the outcome of the experiment; the cat is in a superposition of quantum states and is both dead and alive.

This experiment is not about to be performed in any laboratory soon. It doesn’t need to be. Thought experiments are a beautiful use of imagination in science. They allow the scientist to imagine ‘what if?’ And this is precisely what fiction writers ask. Every story starts with an idea, a scene, a character, or a situation. Then the writer says ‘what if’? What happens next? The writer has to define the logic that the story must adhere to; the ‘rules’ of that particular experiment. If it doesn’t (e.g. if the author introduces an ending which doesn’t follow naturally from the rest of the story, or which fails to use important information in the story), the reader is left feeling cheated. We have a bad story, similar to bad science.

Scarlett Thomas’ recent novel The End of Mr. Y is very much an explicit thought experiment. The protagonist in this novel is doing research on thought experiments, and there is much discussion of the similarities and differences between language and the material world. But the novel itself is a thought experiment in merging those differences, because the very act of reading it allows the readers to construct their own views of the protagonist’s journey through the alternative reality; the Troposphere. Again, the novel works because it’s well written and its logic, although bizarre and complicated, does obey rules that the reader is (just about) able to follow.

So, is literature synonymous with science? Is all we’re doing when we write fiction simply experimenting in a made-up world? There are differences. Some of these differences lie with the reader.

When an author writes, they set up the initial conditions of their thought experiment. They may or may not explicitly describe the outcome or interpretation of that experiment. But regardless of how specific they are about the outcome, it is always incomplete, until the reader or audience ‘experiences’ the experiment and comes to their own conclusion.

This conclusion may not be what the author anticipated. And unlike the scientist, the author may not want to anticipate any specific reading of their work. Because of this incompleteness in the work, the reader is as essential as the writer to the overall process of carrying out the experiment. (If the author is trying to be too ‘complete’ or too insistent on a specific interpretation, their work can tip over into propaganda or polemic, and again the reader can feel cheated.)

This is different to the ostensible aim of the thought experiment in science in which the experimenter is aiming for a clear result, even if that result is, as in the case of Schrödinger’s cat, simply to show the absurdity of other people’s work. Or even if subsequent work shows the initial outcome of the thought experiment to be wrong, as in the case of Newton’s bucket. We can still say this is a successful experiment because it allows us to consider, and draw conclusions on, an aspect of reality.