Art and Science Meet With Novel Results
October 18, 2003
By EMILY EAKIN
"Radiant Cool" has the makings of a gripping noir thriller:
a missing body, a tough-talking female sleuth and a
mustachioed Russian agent mixed up in a shadowy plot to
take over the world. But the novel, by Dan Lloyd, a
neurophilosopher at Trinity College in Hartford, is also a
serious work of scholarship, the unlikely vehicle for an
abstruse new theory of consciousness.
Lured in by the sinister atmospherics (a possible murder
victim turns up on Page 1) and clipped, Sam Spade narration
("He was a fool and a moron, but I never wanted to see him
dead"), readers soon find themselves enrolled in a heady
tutorial on Husserl, phenomenology, neural networks and
Mr. Lloyd says that embedding his theory of consciousness
in a novel was essential for making his scholarly case.
"I'm trying to show the way that consciousness is personal
and idiosyncratic and especially bound up with time," he
said. "If you put those factors together, you end up with a
novel as a way to express those ideas." ("Radiant Cool,"
which will be published by M.I.T. Press in December, has a
100-page appendix explaining the theory in technical terms,
in case scholars fail to grasp the literary version.)
Of course, Mr. Lloyd is not alone in using literary
techniques to convey difficult scientific ideas. Michael
Frayn's play "Copenhagen" (1998) made high drama of atomic
physics, just as David Auburn's "Proof" (2000)
and Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" (1993) did of advanced
mathematics. At the Sundance Film Festival this year
"Dopamine," a romantic comedy
about computer programmers and artificial intelligence, won
the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's first $20,000 prize for
the best feature film about science and technology. And
this month Norton inaugurates Great Discoveries, a series
about scientific breakthroughs, with two books, including
the technical but stylish "Everything and More: A Compact
History of Infinity" by the novelist David Foster Wallace.
But if the hard sciences are having a cultural moment, Mr.
Lloyd represents its latest unlikely turn: from artists
dabbling in the sciences to scientists dabbling in the
arts. Increasingly scientists themselves are trying to turn
what they know into art - or at least literature.
"I think there is a growing trend," said Alan P. Lightman,
a former astrophysicist who is now an adjunct professor of
humanities at M.I.T. and, as the author of "Einstein's
Dreams" (1993), a best-selling novel about relativity, a
pioneer in what he called "this recent stuff by people
really using fictional devices to write about science in
very imaginative ways."
Take "Faster Than the Speed of Light" by Job
o Magueijo, a
young theoretical physicist at Imperial College in London.
The book caused a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic
last winter, less because of the author's heretical claim
(so far untestable) that the speed of light may not always
be constant than his brash, tell-all style (including tales
of all-night beach raves, wanton drunkenness and nasty
academic intrigue) that made the book a first for a popular
physics primer: a delicious page-turner.
"This is almost certainly the first time in print that
anyone has referred to Einstein as a `lucky bastard,' "
marveled the reviewer for The Daily Telegraph in London.
Mr. Magueijo's book aspired to the novelistic, but other
scientists have gone further down the literary path. In
addition to Mr. Lloyd's novel, this fall M.I.T. Press is
publishing "Turing (A Novel about Computation)" by Christos
H. Papadimitriou, a professor of computer science at the
University of California at Berkeley. In May, Joseph Henry
Press published "The One True Platonic Heaven," a novel
about quantum logic featuring Einstein, Kurt GK
Robert Oppenheimer and John von Neumann, by John L. Casti,
a mathematician affiliated with the Sante Fe Institute and
the Technical University in Vienna.
The book is Mr. Casti's second experiment in what he calls
"scientific fiction" after "The Cambridge Quintet" (1998),
about an imaginary dinner party attended by five real-life
scientists including the physicist Erwin SchrK
is also "Properties of Light" (2000), a critically
acclaimed romance about quantum mechanics by Rebecca
Goldstein, a professor of philosophy at Trinity College.
Mr. Lightman, perhaps the best known author of the lot,
argues that "what's happening now is somewhat of a return
to a more holistic approach to human inquiry."
For most of the last century, such an idea would have been
unthinkable. The arts and the sciences were seen as
separate countries with hostile borders and few foreign
tourists. In the influential formulation of the physicist
C. P. Snow, they were "two cultures." And between them, he
argued in a famous 1959 lecture on the subject, lay "a gulf
of mutual incomprehension - sometimes (particularly among
the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of
The schism is also a peculiarly modern phenomenon. To the
ancient Greeks, the distinctions between literature and
science remained extremely fuzzy. Empedocles of Acragas
(circa 495-435 B.C.), for example, recorded his
speculations about the universe in a poem, "On Nature,"
while Heraclitus (circa 535-475 B.C.) packed his into
"There was not a sense of specialization," said Daniel
Mendelsohn, an author and classicist who is writing a book
about Archimedes for Norton's Great Discovery series. "The
earliest works that we would think of as science were
written in verse."
By the early modern period, however, the sciences and the
humanities had begun to take their distinctive -
oppositional - modern forms. There were occasional
exceptions. Mr. Lightman cites "Conversations on the
Plurality of Worlds," a work of scientific fiction from
1686 by Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, a nephew of
Corneille and a secretary at the French Royal Academy of
Sciences, as a rare example of disciplinary boundary
blurring. In it Fontenelle depicts a philosopher and a
marquise in a moonlit garden, deep in flirtatious
conversation as he explains the latest scientific
breakthrough: the Copernican solar system.
The 19th century also produced at least one notable work of
scientific fiction: "Flatland" (1884) by Edwin A. Abbott, a
British clergyman, Shakespeare scholar and math aficionado.
A whimsical lesson in basic geometry - and a witty sendup
of repressive, caste-bound Victorian England - the book
relates the adventures of A. Square, an unusually
reflective inhabitant of the strictly two-dimensional
Flatland who accidentally discovers Lineland (one
dimension), Spaceland (three dimensions) and Pointland (no
dimensions). He also muses on the likelihood of a fourth
dimension but is unable to find a world that embodies it.
In the 1940's the physicist George Gamow, a founder of the
Big Bang theory, made forays into literary science,
publishing two patiently instructive books about relativity
and the expanding universe featuring a bank clerk and
amateur science enthusiast named C. G. H. Tompkins. (His
initials stood for the three fundamental physical
constants: the velocity of light, c; the gravitational
constant G; and the quantum constant, h.) But for the most
part 20th-century scientists regarded writing for the
public - let alone writing with imaginative flourishes - as
vulgar and an abdication of professional responsibility.
Then, with a rush of ink beginning in the late 1960's, that
attitude changed. Prominent scientists including Stephen
Jay Gould, Lewis Thomas, Steven Weinberg, Carl Sagan and
James D. Watson began to publish essays and books aimed at
lay audiences. Many of their writings were extremely
influential, and some of the books, like Mr. Watson's
"Double Helix" became best
"There had been a strong taboo against scientists writing
for the general public," Mr. Lightman said. "These people,
who were all very respected scientists, greatly weakened
the taboo. They legitimized the activity and started a new
wave of science popularizations."
This first wave of popular science writing, Mr. Lightman
said, paved the way for today's provocative twist. When he
published "Einstein's Dream" 10 years ago, Mr. Lightman was
one of few experimenting with the genre. (Carl Djerassi,
the Stanford chemistry professor who synthesized the first
birth-control pill was another.) Now, as the field becomes
more crowded, the entries are becoming more diverse as
well. And while they may not all be as sophisticated as Mr.
Lightman's highly regarded novel, they are proof that
scientists are thinking about their fields - and how to
communicate their findings - in increasingly creative ways.
Mr. Papadimitriou, the Berkeley computer scientist, is
already at work on his second venture in scientific
fiction. "Are you ready for this?" he asked eagerly. "It's
called `Logicomix.' It's a graphic novel and mathematical
biography. It traces the story of the development of logic
throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and how it led to
computers. It's an incredibly sad human story because most
of the people involved ended up insane."