First physics, then metaphysics

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  • Published 20110301
  • ISBN: 9781921656996
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

THE EARTHQUAKE THAT rocked the Mediterranean during the summer of 1999 was quick and devastating. Lasting thirty-seven seconds and measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale, the consequences were far-reaching. In north western Turkey an unofficial estimate of up to 40,000 died instantly under rubble or were buried alive. Over 100,000 were left homeless. Mass graves became the norm with every morgue filled to overflowing. Civic authorities even commandeered ice-hockey rinks to refrigerate numerous corpses. Threats of disease of plague proportions threatened to inundate the country, yet this tragedy also brought out the best between Turks and their natural adversary, the Greeks. The two nations initiated ‘Earthquake Diplomacy’ exchanging first aid personnel and rescue teams, alongside financial support when seismic quakes affected suburban Athens a month later.

One notorious case was revealed in the investigation and characterised Turkey’s antiquated building laws that preserved its Byzantine legacy, and allowed conmen to take advantage of them. A builder was put on trial for lax building material used in his constructions, but sought to deflect blame by claiming he wasn’t a builder, ‘but a poet’. His defence was thrown out of court. A badly erected building can kill you. A badly composed poem – generally speaking – won’t.

The crude binaries evident in his defence should make us reflect, because that type of thinking is happening here too. It’s a mode of thinking of Manichean precision. ThAustralian’s concerted attempts to cast doubt on climate science recently quoted Tim Flannery. ‘The nation’s conscience reveals he is guided by literature rather than the scientific method’ the national newspaper reported in September 2010 with undisguised glee, before picking apart evidence of anthropogenic climate change. Prizing ‘science’ over ‘literature’ is a useful media ploy that prefers ‘hard facts’ to ‘creativity’. The image of the man of science reading Tolstoy in his bath to reach his eureka smears every bookish don trapped in the Ivory Tower, oblivious to the real world. Flannery on the release of his book Here on Earth (Text, 2010), was pointing to the limits of reductionist science, urging science to examine the wider ecological consequences novels are capable of portraying. The inter-connections literature knits together to form a narrative is an ideal metaphor of ‘the web of connections’ that Flannery highlights, a web that analytic science pulls apart. Making sense of ‘the complex theatre of life’ needs more than scientific theories, models and statistics. Humans, animals, insects, oceans and atmosphere are in Flannery’s view linked in a mysterious yet binding process – to separate them other isolates the fragment from the whole. Evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins agree. Science fits pieces together in a puzzle, fragments cohere to create the big picture.

The division between science and the humanities, the ‘builders’ and ‘poets’, has played itself out in the New South Wales HSC curriculum. Policy-makers and educators fear churning out narrow-minded students who specialise too early to know the difference between these two fields, strictly demarcated, and means we’ll end up with graduates inept in both fields. It seems nothing has changed since 1959 when CP Snow’s The Two Cultures was published.

Snow set up his polarities with Manichaean zeal. The educated mind should know his Shakespeare, Snow opines, as much as the Laws of Thermodynamics. Yet between the Bloomsbury bohemian and the Oxford nerd, there is a gulf of incomprehension, if not antipathy. Snow exemplified the west’s anxiety of being left behind in science, giving the USSR an edge whose pool of talent was greater due to the progressive inclusion of women in male-dominated domains: primarily engineering and rocket science. Snow wrote about a time when science was deemed universal, authoritarian and absolute. A book-infused culture before the global glut of media and information overload.

Believing the humanities failed to express the tenor of the times, Snow makes the outlandish assertion: ‘It is bizarre how very little of twentieth century science has been assimilated into twentieth century art.’ Snow posed his litmus test – what do these ‘natural Luddites’ known as the ‘literary intellectual’ know of the Second Law of Thermodynamics? (And why did they hijack the word ‘intellectual’, rendering the scientist mere technician?)


SNOW MIGHT WELL have asked Samuel Beckett that question. Waiting for Godot (1953) and Endgame (1956) entrenched themselves as innovative dramas in Snow’s contested era, and could be viewed as brilliant distillations of entropy. Beckett wore his understanding of thermodynamics lightly. The world of appearances and things had to be used in order to reach hidden truths. It was more convincing to show the absurdity of existence through a pair of tramps, weathered boots, or the delay of a neat solution, than the deus ex machina of Greek tragedy (elaborate stagecraft was in fact the special effects of the ancient world). Beckett’s fastidious logic revealed truths behind the veneer of reality, one that exalts empiricism and positivism at the expense of inner states of being. ‘First physics, then metaphysics’ was the Irishman’s succinct methodology.

Regardless, Snow believed the sciences and the arts remained at arm’s length. ‘What is Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba?’ was Shakespeare’s rejoinder years before to the same dilemma. But is that divide true? Has there been a creative apartheid at work between these disciplines? Or are both mere Siamese twins boxing themselves to a pulp?


TO RE-ENGAGE WITH this debate, it’s worth stepping back to a less divisive time. In Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder (HarperCollins, 2008), the English historian who has written perceptively about the romantic poets, relates the fluid encounters between nineteenth century science and poetry. The template was forged in the meeting in Tuscany between the astronomer Galileo and the poet Milton in 1638, which inspired Milton to compose his epic Paradise Lost (1665). Milton integrated Galileo’s observation of ‘new lands seen in her spotty globe’, consolidating Galileo’s heretical idea that not everything revolved around the earth. If Jupiter’s moons revolved around Jupiter it was a direct challenge to the geo­centric universe, promoted by Aristotle and the Catholic Church. A shift in consciousness occurred – the earth was pushed from a privileged position centre-stage in the cosmos.

Indeed Milton’s magisterial epic was an original because it integrated religious symbolism, classical mythology and scientific observation into a compelling drama. Its effect on the scientifically inclined was profound. Charles Darwin took it for reading on his voyage to the Galapagos. The poem would also inspire William Herschel to build bigger telescopes and minutely pinpoint craters, valleys and dormant seas on the moon. Herschel’s observations saw further than Galileo’s rudimentary lens, locating a distant planet at the outer edge of our solar system. Herschel dedicated this to his King but ‘Georgium Sidus was quickly replaced by Uranus. Herschel’s fitting epitaph was apt: ‘he o’er leapt the parapet of the stars’ peering into the then unknown.’ Physics became the path to metaphysics, no less.

As Holmes tells it in his superbly written book, Lord Byron was captivated by scientific discovery and therefore promptly paid Herschel a visit in 1811. Byron’s esteem for Newtonian science is an instance of the combined quest for scientist and poet alike, to better understand the workings of the universe free of dogma. Holmes asserts a baton of influence was therefore carried from generation to generation. From telescope to microscope, from stars to cells. Science was running a narrative of progress. Poetry, keen to incorporate its imagery, was by its side.

The Enlightenment came with a twin, ‘the dreaming inwardness of Romanticism’, whereby scientists and poets were both explorers journeying to the unknown of new continents. Joseph Banks cataloguing botany, tribes and customs in Tahiti alongside Darwin’s fascination for beetles, finches and tortoises in the Galapagos Islands, bookend this era. Scientific discoveries were not off-limits to the romantic poets. Nor were there territorial disputes guarding ‘truth’. Wonder, optimism, the quest for new truths that ditched obsolete thinking. Scientist and poet were in awe of new perceptions.

Contrast this to a round-table discussion that the Guardian ran last year titled ‘Do Great Minds Think Alike?‘ The four horsemen of contemporary science (Richard Dawkins, David Attenborough, Stephen Hawking and Brian Cox) were quizzed of their ideas. The naturalist David Attenborough confessed to a profound scientific conversion worthy of a religious experience when he dived as child into a coral reef. Attenborough beheld ‘a world of unrevealed complexity’ which set off a great career. Yet Attenborough felt the need to belittle literature with this sneer: ‘I don’t read fiction.’ What is Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba?

And it’s not clear what opinion theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking holds of fiction, but his reliance on substituting ‘God’ for the laws of physics suggests he’s read at least one book.

Snow’s Manichaeism signifies hostility between scientists and writers. Attenborough consolidates that animosity. Did the littérateur hijack the word ‘intellectual’ rendering the scientist mere technician? Or are scientists guilty of hubris for believing they could ‘o’er leap the parapet of the stars?’ Are there more things to heaven and earth than dreamt of in their philosophy? Psychology? Poetry? Art? Mystery? Where do they fit into the scientific framework?


MAX FRISCH’S NOVEL Homo Faber (1957), became the excellent film Voyager (1991) starring Sam Sheppard. It portrayed the limitations of the scientific mind. The engineer’s faith in concrete, metal, the ship he travels on, the dam he constructs and the turbines that power them – is undone by the workings of Greek tragedy. Frisch’s fiction was an early indictment in placing too much faith in science and technology to the detriment of life’s messy chaos. Faber – the forger of his own destiny – ends up like Oedipus, fated to commit incest. In Frisch’s world view, chance and improbability are sometimes equal factors as calculation and rationality, since life is often the serpent in the scientist’s garden.

Some writers have never shied away from exploring the ramifications of science. Italo Calvino aptly titled his collection of essays The Literature Machine (Vintage, 1997). A mechanistic view applied to literary endeavour may seem troubling. But by taking Beckett’s axiom to heart, Calvino’s writing showcases how much fiction can feed off science. Calvino praised Galileo for his ‘expressive, imaginative and even lyrical use of language’ and took his cues directly from there. In Gore Vidal’s 1985 obituary, the American claimed Calvino was a quasi-scientist, making the connection that Galileo applied the scientific methods of his day to arrive at truth whereas Calvino ‘uses his imagination’. And what a supple imagination it is!

The Complete Cosmicomics (Penguin, 2009) is Calvino at his most inspired. A scientific hypothesis sets the stage for a comic narrative. His omniscient narrator ‘Qfwfq’ is a locus point where everything was at one point (matter concentrated at the ‘big bang’?) Here, space and time become a singular entity, given a voice. Calvino’s stories become ‘narrative illustrations of an intellectual apperception, an idea or theory, even a conceit’ suggests the science-fiction writer Ursula K Le Guin. Calvino puts the comic back into the cosmos and nothing is off limits: cosmology, evolution, the birth of colour, the consciousness of a shell. Calvino pursues ideas with geometric logic. His equations are not numerical but prosaic.

‘Light Years’ is just one brilliant distillation marrying scientific fact to comic description. One night looking into the stars with a telescope the protagonist spots a sign – I Saw You – which leads to all sorts of paranoia, cover-ups and misunderstanding with celestial bodies light years away. Checking his diary a billion years before ‘to see what I was doing that day’ highlights the vanity of the individual trying to hide an incident from the cosmos by putting his best face forward to the signatories of the sign. Even a cosmic panopticon is prone to misunderstanding the workings of humans, and the fallibility of signs extends far beyond.

Interestingly, arch humanist Calvino refuses to call the sign-giver ‘God’, unlike Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time (1988), echoing Einstein’s ‘knowing the mind of God’ as shorthand for the laws of physics. Hawking may be a scientific genius but he’s a poor theologian, and even poorer writer. The use of metaphor needs greater creativity than merely rehashing religious symbols, especially when Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents are always seeking to wedge science into its ideology. Reason enough for science communication to better utilise the strengths of the writer. The builder sometimes needs the services of the poet.

Calvino did not act alone. The chemist Primo Levi was employed as a technical director at paint factory in Turin because ‘it kept me in touch with the world of things’. Surrounded by paints, dyes, chemicals, lead-based solutions, synthetic rubber, corrosive gases – the banalities most writers steer clear of – Levi makes imaginative parallels. People often have properties of metals, such as the young friend who has an iron will. But the reverse is also true. Metals have human characteristics. ‘Some elements such as iron and copper were easy and direct, incapable of concealment; others such as bismuth and cadmium were deceptive and elusive’. Zinc is considered boring, not glamorous since it isnʹt essential whereas argon – an inert gas – reflects his family’s indifference and inertia. Levi’s uncle, ‘fossilized in his qualities’, places a human face to argon. Rejected in love, his uncle’s inertia proved profound. ‘He took to his bed. He stayed there for twenty-two years.’

Levi admitted the importance of his scientific training to his writing career: ‘For me chemistry represented an indefinite cloud of future possibilities.’ When an experiment Levi conducts explodes and shatters the laboratory, he undergoes a surge of power, unleashing a force of nature not too dissimilar to Oppenheimer’s atomic explosions in the Nevada desert. The scientist’s ability to wreak destruction places them equal to a god of destruction, like the Hindu deity Kali.

Writing about carbon is worth reading in a time when we know its catastrophic contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. Levi’s story of an atom of carbon provides it with a consciousness uniquely its own. Time doesn’t exist except for variations in temperature, given its proximity to the earth’s surface in the form of limestone. Enduring a monotony reminiscent of the Catholic hell, its progress to air via a chimney, and it subsequent journey as CO2 and its importance to photosynthesis, creates an adventure as thrilling as anything Ulysses encountered in the Mediterranean. Levi states ‘Mendeleev’s Periodic Table was sheer poetry’ using his imaginative re-telling to successfully convey that to the reader. The Periodic Table (1975) was awarded the best science book ever written by the London Royal Institute in 2006 because Levi’s melancholy humanism seemed the perfect tone to match scientific facts. He’s less comic than Calvino whose protean abilities gave consciousness to particles, molluscs and even crystals. Both writers saw parallels between disciplines and were able to give them voice, form, expression. Not a bad feat when you consider how poorly communicated science can be (scientific research papers are rarely read by the general public, and are rarely read past the abstract by scientists in the field).

Calvino was part of the OULIPO group featuring diverse writers like Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec. They were opening up possibilities of literature to marry into other fields ‘dedicated to mathematic-literary research’. It might seem surprising that mathematics could be an area of high literature, but it should be remembered that Italian by default, the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, wrote short stories as precise as mathematical equations. Indeed he was the godfather of a certain type of literature, with a liking for paradox, contradiction, dualities, infinity, the nature of time and space and the magic of numbers. Equations are not the sole preserve of the scientist. It’s therefore a creative approach to have mathematicians in the field analysing Borges, seeing equations masquerading as narratives. Information theory, combinatorics and topology have been uncovered in Borges’ florid prose. The question is how convincing is the narrative, how effective the communication? By the same principle that led Borges to state that all great literature ultimately become children’s literature, so all great science-fiction must become non-fiction. Jules Verne and ancient fabulist Lucian wrote of journeys to the moon. By 1969, Apollo 11’s journey had changed their science-fiction into fact.


TO UPDATE THE argument to our time, has there been a corresponding match of fiction to scientific fact? Black holes, string theory, quarks and pulsars are worthy of literary representation. Just two writers come to mind who have explored these topics. The Gut Symmetries (1998) was Jeannette Winterson’s attempt to deal with big questions such as time and quantum physics. She writes of passengers aboard the ship QE2 not unlike riding force itself (QED), relating a love affair to see ‘how everything fits together in the universe’. This being the ‘grand unifying theory’ that has preoccupied scientists from Einstein to Hawking (rather than the GUT, Einstein called it the TOE, theory of everything). Winterson privileges the instincts in the gut over the rationalisations of the mind in her fiction. Attraction and repulsion, the exchange of energy, the unifying and splitting of the elements is not unlike a love affair. Science provided Winterson with the material to shape a narrative. Like Flannery, she was aiming to tie together the web of interdependencies. Authors are often gods to their creations, imparting an unwritten logic to what appears random.

Tom Stoppard has also dealt with science in a playful manner. A juggler of ideas par excellence, Stoppard’s clever dramas are unafraid to deal with big themes. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1967) was famously criticised for being a poor man’s Waiting for Godot, but it has survived the test of time. Pushing Shakespeare’s minor players into the wings and telling their story from off-stage, was as symbolic as the earth de-centred by Galileo. A shift of consciousness was represented. In Arcadia (1993), Stoppard imitates his hero Beckett by engaging with chaos theory and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the law that deals with entropy, where all things lead to disorder since the centre cannot hold. By juxtaposing time periods, the early nineteenth to late twentieth century, Stoppard’s characters parallel such esoteric notions as the one that makes heat flow in one direction. What is seemingly random contains a hidden pattern. Chance and improbability that were elucidated in Homo Faber, are not necessarily opposed to fate.

Aside from these writers, not many have bothered with science. Might it be that the Age of Wonder has been replaced by the Age of Suspicion since Hiroshima? The shadow initially cast from Frankenstein has made itself felt in the literary imagination. Holmes sub-titles The Age of Wondewith a necessary proviso: How the Romantic Generation learnt the Beauty and Terror of SciencePerhaps we are more accustomed to the terror than the beauty? Today’s writers are too suspicious of the destructive effects of applied science. Whether it’s the military-industrial appropriation of science harnessed to technology, the fall-out from the Atomic Age, or the ever growing fear of genetic engineering, writers are not convinced of its beauty. A deeper problem lies in ‘scientism’ and the writer’s suspicion of objectivity, empiricism and positivism as the sole means to truth. Further, literature is not a PR agency for scientific discovery, nor are writers spending sleepless nights waiting for another eureka to ignite their imagination. But failure to address the ever widening ecological problems that require science for understanding (water management, food security, biodiversity and habitat loss) means writers are sleepwalking to irrelevancy if they fail to engage.

Can science regain its narrative of wonder, communicated to the layman? In times of climate change, the prospect of geo-engineering, the ultimate logic of scientific solutions, is one more assault on nature. Doomsday devices and Strangelove ideas of solar shades in space, or tampering with the global thermostat by emitting particles into the atmosphere, enable apocalyptic scenarios to predominate. Dystopia portrayals are perhaps truer to our times. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) was a work of fiction all too easily interpreted as a fable of our times. Even Beckett’s tramps in a depopulated wasteland resonate beyond the Atomic Age, because rather than believe we are masters of nature, we may yet become its refugees.

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