Literature for…Science

At the small liberal arts college I attended, we used to joke about the physical divide between the Arts and Humanities students and the Sciences students. The main street running through campus neatly separated the buildings. Trying to cross the “Dinkel Divide” was risky, especially during the morning and afternoon commutes.

Although other schools may not have the same physical representation of the divide, the sentiments tend to be similar. General education classes for the sciences major include the dreaded literature class, and many arts and humanities majors live in fear of natural and physical sciences requirements.

Not everyone shares this sense of mutual exclusion. The book Math and the Mona Lisa by Bulent Atalay is an interesting discourse rooted in the work of one of the most famous interdisciplinary scholars, Leonardo da Vinci.

Students may recognize the value of broad-based knowledge, or they may simply enjoy literature or science outside their choice of careers, but I think it is fair to say that many students and scholars on each side of the divide fail to see the applicability of study in the other discipline.

Because I am a staunch advocate of the liberal arts and the interconnectedness of all subjects (see the root meaning of the word “encyclopedia” – en-kyklo-paideia, or education in a circular manner), I like to think about ways that the study of literature could hone skills scientists could cross-apply to their own fields.

One possibility is the similarities between the scientific experiments designed by scientists and the social experiments designed by writers. Some novels, particularly those with a political or moral core, begin by asking the reader a question. The story is, in essence, the data of the experiment, from which readers must formulate their own conclusions.

Like characters in literature, facts in science – particularly in controversial areas – are subject to interpretation and manipulation.  Recognizing the craft of storytelling in literature is one way to learn, a) recognition of crafted arguments in science, and b) awareness that individuals can use data to support their own viewpoint.        

Robert Oppenheimer

As technology improves and moves forward at an ever-increasing rate, pure science and its applications can no longer be entirely separate.  (See Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle or the writings of Robert Oppenheimer for more thoughts on this subject).  

Ethical questions that scientists now face are, in their simplest forms, not new. Tampering with nature. Choosing one life over another. The greater good. Authors like Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) and N. Hawthorne (“The Birthmark“) dealt with these questions.  So have writers and thinkers all the way back to Hippocrates.  

As modern scientists are called more and more into the spotlight for ethical decision-making, it is important for them to consider the foundations of ethics, so that when a difficult quandary arises, they will have a basis for the choices they are required to make.  Literature is one way to open these valuable discussions.

So how can these crossover skills be emphasized?  

One way to make the ties between literature and science more apparent is to apply a scientific template to a literary product.  Students could take a novel like Frankenstein or Cat’s Cradle with a definite purpose or theme and write it up as a “lab report.”  With what question is the author concerned?  What is his/her hypothesis?  What data are provided by characters and events in the book?  What conclusions does the author want you to derive?  Do other data – history, science, other peoples’ life stories – support these conclusions?

As I said in a previous post, if this topic swerves from traditional literary criticism, bear in mind that the skills or principles are the same, just framed in different vocabulary.  In order to learn the skills, the student may need to complete more traditional analysis of literature.  In order to instill the drive and enthusiasm, the teacher may need to be willing to speak in terms the student can appreciate.

…Incidentally, science for English majors would be the subject for another post altogether, and one I am not qualified to pursue. I would love to hear the thoughts of those who are…

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