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Is Science Very Unlike Literature?

A scientific journal proposes a novel idea that was once not known to humanity. I’ve had the privilege of feeling the connection to words written
science and literature
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Apparently science and literature are  polar opposites. While science tries to define the world in terms of the density of objects and phenomena; literature does so through human emotions. Though the two seem dissimilar, I also feel they complement each other in certain ways. It’s true that the feelings of intense emotions are usually related with literature but we can’t deny that both science and literature aim to discover the true nature of things and to give complexities a place in this world. Writers build on each other’s ideas the same way scientists draw on old discoveries to make new ones. Ultimately the process of discovery is simple: we have to advance our humanity by facing up to all kinds of truth. 

One might question why I choose to relate science and literature? 

But why not? 

Both make the world a better place to live in; so why not? 

Literature and science need not be dichotomous. In other words, they share something essential in common.

A book is good when your heart beats faster as you turn the pages. 

A scientific journal proposes a novel idea that was once not known to humanity. I’ve had the privilege of feeling the connection to words written almost a hundred years ago, reaching out from the depths to touch a 21st century me. It’s a piece of literary work. Both make your heart beat faster. Writers build on each other’s ideas the same way scientists draw on the works of earlier, older scientists and their discoveries. Literature and science go hand in hand in both establishing these truths and breaking illusions that we otherwise would have been incognizant of.

As 20th century physicist Arthur Eddington asserts, “reality is a child which cannot survive without its nurse illusion.” 

Imagination is the very foundation of all innovations, and empirical evidence along with creativity engender scientific creations. Literature has served as the medium for not only premonitions but also inspirations in the field of science and technology. Let me give a series of examples to establish this.

Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park had generated the picture of a modern world endowed with breakthrough technology in the field of genetic engineering and simplified chaos theory in terms of its real-world applicability. H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine is a classic novel that sets foot into the genre of speculative evolution and future history besides being one of the foremost examples of the dying earth subgenre. Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s works on space during the post-war years had described radio signals for long-distance communication much before they had become a commonality. Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake speculates a dystopian future, a popular sub-genre for science-fiction writers, which revolves around ethical issues that are likely to be faced in a post-apocalyptic machinery. Cinema alongside literature too, has played a remarkable role in cementing the overlap between art and science – its depiction of blackholes and wormholes were later determined to be astonishingly accurate according to later research. In his book La-Science Fiction, Henri Baudin has argued in favour of literature in the propagation of science to penetrate the non-professional demographic. The transition of scientific research into popular science is notable amongst the works of eminent scientists like Stephen Hawkings, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan.  

The way science constructs reality is through assertions, all of which have the potential to be falsified and disproved. Within this framework we function and construct a tenable reality. However, literature aims to do the same: by giving readers the surface story; one that is seemingly simple. 

Science constructs reality is through assertions

Let me clarify this by taking an example of a table. A table, like any solid object, has two possible renderings. It can be a solid object made of particles, or a constantly vibrating entity comprising waves. When a group of friends sits around the same table for dinner do we perceive matters the other way ? Do we choose to perceive the surface meaning as the truth by virtue of its functionality?  The group of friends have deep dark secrets that they continue to harbour with only their superficial thoughts being echoed across. Suddenly the table becomes a vibrating entity. What do we want to see as reality? And does it matter? Both science and literature pose these questions, and each is the metaphor for the other in this quest.

Another important aspect  is the moralistic aspect that literature brings to us. We often see literature as a means to derive lessons in life through various case studies of human behavior. Though fictional, we see fragments of ourselves in fiction . On the other hand, we see science as the cold, heartless pursuit of knowledge, separate from culture. It’s often argued, specially after second World War  that a scientist must see nature not distinct from himself  but as something he cannot “create”, “select” and “destroy”. In other words, in discovery comes responsibility. Literature continues to pose questions over the validity of scientific pursuit, especially if it comes at great costs. 

The vast literature on the horrors of war is a grand example of the perils of scientific advancement. Should scientific discoveries such as dynamite, toxic gases or nuclear energy be freely harnessed without any moralistic implications? Science keeps literature preoccupied with the modern conversation, but literature, on the other hand, keeps science grounded in the long-standing notions of what it means to be a good person, to heal rather than hurt. Science and literature may be different in their purpose, but by no means is this irreconcilable. Rather, it is a matter of one complementing the other.

A broad understanding of both literature and the sciences is necessary. Choosing one does not mean letting go of the other, because doing that would be decapitating our worldviews. In fact an even tighter embrace is more productive and recognition of both is crucial. I feel instead of eager specialization one should take a step back and see the complementary forces that shape this world.  Science gives literature form, whilst literature gives science meaning. Literature may after all be the great metaphor for science.

Literature teaches to think, imagine and dream. Great scientists are Thinkers, Dreamers, Philosophers. That’s the reason they are way ahead of Doers. And the world belongs to  dreamers not doers. 

Image courtesy: Pxhere

Kolkata based publisher, social activist and educationist.

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