Science as Culture

(In support of a Books Ireland review, circa April 2008)

Roy H W Johnston

Both of these publications address the problem of how to get public recognition of the importance of science in the cultural spectrum; the second globally, the first in some depth, historically in Ireland.

The Mollan publication is in two heavy volumes, in the form of a 'Who was Who' in Irish science over the past 4 centuries or so. It deserves to be in all of the many academic libraries in the world where there is serious support for an 'Irish Studies' community, in support of the claim of science to be seen as part of the Irish cultural spectrum(1).

The collection of essays edited by Philip Coleman is global in scope; it arose from a series of lectures organised in Trinity College by John Hegarty the Provost in 2005, to coincide with the Dublin meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science(2). Most contributors are TCD-based; the exceptions are noted.

[Philip Coleman (ed); On Literature and Science: Essays, Reflections, Provocations; Four Courts Press, 2007; ISBN 978-1-84682-071-7; 272pp hb; €55.]

The editor introduces the idea of beauty in mathematics and science, as seen by pactitioners, when overviewing the contents. Helen Conrad-O'Briain analyses Chaucer's Franklyn's Tale in terms of science fiction. John Scattergood goes in some depth into horology as seen in literature, via Donne, Pepys and others. Amanda Piesse explores the anatomy of the human body, as seen by Shakespeare, Donne and others, with the aid of Vesalius and Galen. Andrew J Power looks at Hamlet's mental state in the context of the treatments available at the time.

Kate Hepplethwaite, who has worked on Bram Stoker, surveys the English scene in the 1850s, when the arrival of the hippopotamus, along the evolution, had public impact via Kingsley, Dickens and others. Stephen Matterson, a specialist in American literature, evaluates Poe as a source of science fiction, noting his prescient suggestion of the identity of matter and energy. Darryl Jones links HG Wells' apocalyptic vision with the decline and fall of the British Empire, mentioning in passing George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and others.

Benjamin Keatinge, currently in Macedonia, takes a critical CP Snow-like look at 'surrealism, psychiatry and the science of the irrational' via Dada. Ross Skelton takes a look at logic via Louis MacNeice. with the aid of The Unconscious as Infinite Sets by the Chilean author Blanco. The editor as author reflects on the role of the individual as an'experiment' as reflected in American short fiction, with the aid of Scott Fitzgerald, Poe (again) and Hawthorne. Peter Middleton (Southamption) reflects on whether poetry can be scientific, with the aid of Allen Fisher's Brixton Fractals.

There is a second (smaller) part of the book dedicated to authors with a science background. In this I must commend Iggy McGovern (physics) for introducting us to Tartaglia's poem in which he concealed his solution of the cubic equation, illustrating the idea of poem as cypher. We are also introduced to Miroslav Holub, WR Hamilton, Kurt Vonnegut and others with copious footnotes giving references via URL; this I suggest is a glimpse of the future of scholarship, with internet publication in hypertext. Randolph Healy (mathematics), in a memoir covering how he managed improbably to discover himself in this mode, focuses on the importance of uncertainty. There are poems contributed by Allen Fisher, Dylan Harris, Maurice Scully and Kit Fryatt.

The foregoing, I hope, should arouse the curiosity of a few more of the increasing number of bridge-builders who do not accept CP Snow's cultural dichotomy.

Notes and References

1. I have edited this separately into its own hypertext page, as a result of an opportunity to fulfil a request from the Editor of the American Institute of Physics history newsletter for a note on Irish sources for physicists and astronomers of global historic significance. A further opportunity has arisen with the Irish Literary Supplement (Boston College, Autumn 2008), and this 'virtual' document serves to support both print versions with additional detail.

2. The previous such meeting was in 1957; there had been one in Belfast in 1952. For an essay on the history of Irish BA meetings, see a paper published in the Crane Bag in 1983 by the present writer.

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(c) Copyright on the electronic versions of papers as published in these Proceedings is with Dr Roy Johnston 2003; copyright on contents of papers remains with the authors, and possibly with their publishers if published eleswhere.