Preposterous Universe

Wednesday, February 02, 2005
Metaphors wanted

Here I go again, stepping well outside my sphere of competence. On two separate occasions in March I'll be giving talks on literature and science. The first time will be at a conference at the KITP in Santa Barbara on Science, Theatre, Audience, Reader: Theoretical Physics in Drama and Narrative. I'll be giving a short talk with the grandiose title of "From Experience to Metaphor by Way of Imagination: How Science Can Lead to Literature." (I'll also be participating in a panel discussion on writing cosmology and another one on Einstein, but those are actually in my domain of expertise.) Then on March 20th I'll be giving a Literary Lecture in association with the performance of Charlotte Jones' Humble Boy at Chicago's Remy Bumppo Theatre.

I do have a tiny idea of what I want to say. I'm not so interested in how we can actually talk about science in a literary setting, at least not in a way that tries to teach scientific concepts via works of fiction (although that is interesting in its own right). Instead, I'm thinking about how scientific ideas can be useful to literature as raw material for metaphors. The idea is that science, in looking at the world and trying to understand it, is driven to invent dramatic ideas (the uncertainty principle, curved spacetime, chaos theory) that imagination alone would never have hit upon. (To paraphrase Sidney Coleman, a thousand philosophers working for a thousand years would never have come up with quantum mechanics.) It's the interplay in science between theory and experiment that forces us to conclusions we would otherwise have never reached. In turn, these concepts can be used in literature as powerful metaphorical tools.

A simple example is The Congugation of the Paramecium. The poem looks at first to be very non-metaphorical, just a straightforward description of what happens. But there's that little bit in the middle about "when / the paramecium / desires renewal / strength another joy" -- that's not literal, you know. The paramecium doesn't actually desire another joy. But Rukeyser is elegantly using the exchange of bits of nucleus as a metaphor for human interaction. That kind of move is something that science can quite consistently offer to literature.

What I need is a better set of examples. So, anyone have any? Again, I'm not so much interested in direct discussion of science in a literary context, as examples of when scientific concepts are put to use metaphorically. Any suggestions are welcome. (Let's make this blog thing actually be useful.)

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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