English 4400N Science and Fiction — Not Science Fiction (2006)

English 4400N Science and Fiction–Not Science Fiction * Dr. Kiki Benzon * M 6:00-8:30

This course takes as its point of departure C.P. Snow’s famous lamentation for “the gulf of mutual incomprehension” between humanistic and scientific thinkers. On what basis does Snow claim this “gulf”? Why, furthermore, would the separation of science and the humanities be a lamentable state of affairs—culturally, aesthetically and epistemologically? In attempting to understand how art and science conflict, correspond, and reciprocally illuminate, we will investigate literary work that has, to some extent, bridged this disciplinary gap. While the bulk of our inquiry will focus upon twentieth-century fiction, we will begin by reading earlier texts, namely Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man (1897), which offer profound indictments of scientific practices that subordinate social or ethical concerns to the pursuit of “knowledge” about nature and the universe. Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein succumbs to the hubris of his Promethean ambition when his “human” creation destroys him, while Wells’s young scientist uses himself as the subject in his search for the key to invisibility, but is unable to reverse the results.

From these disconcerting, critical portrayals of scientific inquiry, we will move on to study several important “science novels” of the twentieth-century, paying particular attention to the scientific themes and theories that variously inform narrative structure and subject matter. The undermining of classical, Newtonian physics, for example, brought about by insights into quantum mechanics, chaotic systems and particle-wave duality, produced in the humanities analogous uncertainties about the coherence of the self; just as ideas of physical causality and mathematical solvability became suspect, so too did our sense of ontological coherence and cultural determination become tentative at best. Revolutions in science thus find “humanistic” expression in literary production of the age, where narrative structure and character identity retain a fractured or indeterminate quality.

The correspondence between scientific and literary systems is a central feature of Don DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star, which is about a fourteen year old child prodigy who tries to decipher a radio message from space; in an interview, DeLillo said, “I was trying to build a novel which was not only about mathematics to some extent but which itself would become a piece of mathematics. It would be a book which embodied pattern and order and harmony, which is one of the traditional goals of pure mathematics.” A similar “embodiment” of scientific principles is achieved in Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, a series of vignettes depicting dreams that Einstein could have had while trying to understand the mysteries of relativity, space, and time; conveying the imaginative force behind scientific innovation, each vignette contains a world that behaves according to a particular model or perception of time and space, inhabited by people who have evolved behaviors and philosophies as a consequence of this paradigm.

In Thomas McMahon, we encounter a figure of “double nationality” (le Lionnais’s term) in the sciences and literature. A professor of applied mathematics and biology at Harvard University, McMahon was enthralled by the resemblances between scientific and artistic creativity, and, during his doctoral work in aeronautic engineering at MIT, he pursued a minor in English Literature. Contrary to the evils of science in Shelley and Wells, McHahon’s depictions are largely optimistic: in his technologically rich Loving Little Egypt, a sight impaired man in the early twentieth century creates a virtual community through manipulating the telephone system. Like McMahon, whose characters include real scientific figures like Alexander Graham Bell, cyberpunk authors William Gibson and Bruce Sterling inject their pseudoscientific narratives with historical content: The Difference Engine imagines how the past might have been if mathematicians Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace had succeeded creating a computer.

Joseph Tabbi has called Richard Powers “possibly the one novelist of his thirty-something generation who is fully keyed to the implications of modern science.” In Galatea 2.2, “Powers,” a Humanist-in-Residence at a cognitive science centre, becomes ensnared in an artificial intelligence experiment with Lentz, a cognitive neurologist who believes that the brain’s networks could theoretically be simulated by computer. The novel interrogates our conceptions of consciousness, dramatizing the problems which arise when the model begins to model the modeler. Our final text, Tom Stoppard’s critically successful play, Arcadia, intertwines two temporally disconnected narratives: the first, set in 1809, involves teenage math genius Thomasina Coverly attempting (but failing) to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem (though she does discover fractal geometry and the eventual “heat death” of the universe from monotonic increasing nature of entropy!); in the second narrative, set in contemporary times, a mathematical biologist studying chaotic population dynamics lives in the same house that Thomasina had occupied almost 200 years earlier. Itself nonlinear in form, the play contains long discussions of topics of mathematical interest, such as Fermat’s Last Theorem and Newtonian determinism, iterated algorithms, the second law of thermodynamics, Fourier’s heat equation, and chaos theory.

Primary Texts: Don DeLillo, Ratner’s Star; Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, The Difference Engine; Alan Lightman Einstein’s Dreams; Thomas McMahon, Loving Little Egypt; Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2; Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; Tom Stopard, Arcadia.
Secondary Readings: Joseph Tabbi: Postmodern Sublime: Technology and American Writing from Mailer to Cyberpunk; N.K. Hayles, Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science; Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; Chaos Theory and the Humanities: A Synthesis Book (ed. Patrick Brady); Ben Goertzel, From Complexity to Creativity: Explorations in Evolutionary, Autopoietic, and Cognitive Dynamics; Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science; Susan Strehle, Fiction in the Quantum Universe; William Paulson, The Noise of Culture: Literary Text in a World of Information.

Evaluation: attendance/participation 10%; 2 quizzes 10% each; presentation 20%; final paper 50%

Presentation Topics
25 Sept. Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2: Autobiographical Fiction: Powers and “Powers” / “Two Cultures” at U.
Week 4: 2 Oct. Galatea 2.2: The Turing Test
16 Oct. N. Katherine Hayles:  “Narratives of Artificial Life” / “Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science” / William Paulson: “Literature, Complexity, Interdisciplinarity” / Joseph Tabbi: “A Media Theory of the Unconscious”
23 Oct. Thomas McMahon, Loving Little Egypt: Historiography: “Real” Fictional Characters / Vold’s network and the Internet
30 Oct. Carl Djerassi, Cantor’s Dilemma: Tribalism and Science Research / T.S. Eliot Intertexts and Djerassi’s Themes
6 Nov. Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams: Possible Worlds and the Nature of Fiction / Time, Time and, Also, Time (Not To Mention, Time)
20 Nov. Don DeLillo, Ratner’s Star: Billy Twillig: Child Prodigy as Protagonist / DeLillo’s Sciencespeak
27 Nov. Ratner’s Star: The Logicon Project: Objective and Group Dynamics / Cracking the Code, Cracking the Novel: What’s Going On at the End?
4 Dec. Tom Stoppard, Arcadia: Uncertainty / Time