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An unkind literature

Why has the novel shortchanged science?

Lewis Wolpert 18 January 2006

The explicit hostility of imaginative writers to science has a venerable history…

Literature has not been kind to science. You will hunt through countless novels throughout history and have the greatest difficulty finding a single worthwhile description of science or of a scientist. There are virtually no books in the classical canon of English fiction which have illuminated the process of science in a way that scientists could identify or sympathize with, or that can compete with Jim Watson’s autobiographical The Double Helix. What great classic novel has a scientist as a believable central character? If literature is meant to reflect our culture then as far as science is concerned it is a miserable failure. One of the very few exceptions in classic literature is the surgeon Tertius Lydgate in George Elliot’s Middlemarch, who is shown performing some basic biological research.

The explicit hostility of imaginative writers to science has a venerable history which is very well documented in Roslynn Haynes’s From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature (John Hopkins University). Examples from her chapter headings provide a good sense of her thesis: Arrogant and Godless; Scientists in Eighteenth-Century Satire; Inhuman Scientists; The Romantic Perception; Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know; Reality Overtakes Fiction; The Impersonal Scientist. The image of the scientist as detached, male, middle-aged, boring, bald and bespectacled is very much with us still, no matter that most scientists are young, and many are female. A woman scientist in a novel, such as the one Antonia Byatt’s Babel Tower, is even harder to find.

Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels mocks the astronomers for their pretensions to secure knowledge and their preoccupation with the physical world. We also find here a view point that will be repeated again and again: scientists are obsessed with their own work and totally detached from the realities of everyday life. We can even find the view that scientists are emotional cripples unable to forge satisfactory relationships in the character of Arthur Miles in The Search by C. P. Snow. When attracted to a girl, Miles reflects: "The only thing outside myself has been my work. Is this girl going to upset that?" And Sherlock Holmes, known for his scientific knowledge, is portrayed as a coldly distant observer. Recall his remark to Watson: "What the deuce is it to me if you say we go round the sun? If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or my work."

Aldous Huxley is thus very unusual as his novels not only had science in them but dealt with the scientific issues of the day. Moreover he regarded as arrogant fools those literary men who ignored science and were ignorant of the work of Einstein or Heisenberg. Instead, he thought that the literary artists bore responsibility for maintaining a dialogue between literature and science. But even such a champion as Huxley, who was very influenced by the developments in physics in the 1920s, believed that relativity and quantum mechanics had completely undermined the concepts of reality and causality.

Fortunately for us, there is an outstanding literature of science that has been written by scientists themselves that goes back to Huxley, Darwin and Lyell. The modern representatives give the lie to the image of the illiterate scientist. Publishers are now only too well aware that popular science, written by both practicing scientists as well as science journalists, is a very hot area – just consider the success of writers like Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Bill Bryson and Steve Jones. Given that science is now suddenly chic and exciting, and it is no longer fashionable to boast of one’s ignorance or indifference, we should hope for the day when the humble novel finally catches up.

Other articles by Lewis Wolpert