What can literature help historians of science to understand? What sort of questions do literary sources raise or answer? Are literary works appropriate primary sources in all situations, and what precautions should be taken while using them? Would more training in literature aid in opening up the discipline of the history of science to more literature-intensive studies, and how would this be beneficial?
These questions are rather intensive and has many parts involved in it, but I feel very closely connected to the subject, and thus, I feel the need to try and investigate it further.
One of my two majors as an undergraduate was English, specifically with a concentration in Victorian literature, however, my love for literature existed long before I declared my second major at the end of my sophomore year at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Much like the rest of the reading public, stories of fiction, in all facets, captivate my imagination and provide hours of entertainment and thought-provoking contemplation. Because of my background of studying literature, I have long thought that literature provides multitudes of information about a culture and ideas circulating around within that culture. To many who are interested in the study of literature, there is something worthy of gleaning from words written as fiction, because stories are one, to me, one huge aspects of what defines humanity. However, that may just be my own personal bias about the importance of the study of literature, coming from my own intensive background in the subject.
It was my background in literary studies that drew me to this question, as well as an interest in combining my past experience with my new field of study: history of science. This interest in taking a literary approach to the study of history first appeared, for myself, in the research and writing of my undergraduate thesis. I was working to explore arguments in nineteenth-century Britain, surrounding changes in the field of geometry, trying to find out why the British were so apprehensive to drop Euclidean geometry in favor of hyperbolic geometry, as the Continent had already done. This investigation led me to the Church of England, which seemed to be a primary player in the conservative mathematics of the British during this period, as well as into the realm of Victorian literature.
Charles Dodgson (who wrote under the pen name, Lewis Carroll) went to university and trained in mathematics, an interest which remained with him for the rest of his life. His most famous pieces, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass both include many conservative critiques of modern algebra, intertwined into what has been marketed as children’s stories. He also wrote a dialogue on hyperbolic geometry, Euclid and his Modern Rivals, which directly addressed many of the grievances that conservative British mathematicians had about hyperbolic geometry, in a fictional format. Another excellent example, just from my thesis, of literature informing the history is that of Flatland by Edwin Abbott, which is both a fictional form of social commentary on Victorian society, as well as a commentary on hyperbolic geometry. Both pieces of literature are speaking, with authority, on mathematics, while also being pieces of fiction.
This is just an example from my own studies, and it cannot stand to represent the leanings of the field of history of science. However, it seemed to be important for me to set the stage about my interest in this question and my background surrounding it. I personally feel that historians of science stand only to gain from the use of literature in their studies. Literature, written at the time of an event or person’s life, which either directly or indirectly addresses it, or sets the stage of the culture of that time, to me, is a primary source document. Because of my background and my training, I cannot help but to see the validity of the use of literature in the history of science. However, I have also come to understand that the field does not usually study popular science, or the public’s relationship with science, and can see why the question about the purpose of literature in the field could be called into question. Thus, I felt the need to see what some arguments for the use of literature and literary studies could be, both from historians of science, and from literary scholars, who have a vested interest in the study of literature, and its overlap with history.
From what I have discovered, there are two very important roles which literature, and literary analysis can play in the study of history of science. The first is that literature can work to offer a certain type of cultural slice, and a social communication, which other primary source documents may not offer. Writers inhabit a different cultural context than scientists do, especially in recent history, and often discuss large swaths of the population. They are also, often, members of a scientifically illiterate public, meaning that they may have some knowledge of science but are not trained as researchers. Thus, when writers grapple with new scientific lines of inquiry, they can show ways which the larger public is also trying to come to terms with new scientific ideas. The second useful contribution is that of the field of literary analysis itself, which some believe can offer useful tools to historians of science, which they may not have had access to before. Literary analysis is another lens of analysis for historians of science to utilize, which differs from historical approaches, and could widen the purview of historians of science, not only to new types of sources, but new ways of approaching the source material which they are already using.
It is important to note, that while it is true that historians of science can look to literature in order to make some connections about a culture and a society at a certain time, what is written by an author needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Since most literature is a fictionalized account from the mind of the author, even if it is written from observations and accounts of real life, it is still a piece of fiction. Thus, taking the cultural slice of from the perspective of one author would not be an accurate portrait, so historians of science should be looking to multiple authors in order to get a better picture of larger cultural themes within literature. Having addressed that issue, historians of science who chose to use literature in order to come to an understanding about the culture, and how the public grapples with science through literature, will find that literature works very well to explore those themes. In “Astronomy, Science Fiction and Popular Culture: 1277 to 2001 (and Beyond)” Guy Consolmagno speaks directly to the use of storytelling and fiction in helping a larger public come to terms with scientific ideas and grapple with concepts which would seem out of reach based on their education. “Once an idea gets turned into a story, people pay attention long enough to listen. They feel comfortable evaluating the idea by the comparing the story to their own lives. And they remember it. One remembers images from Dante more than one remembers the arguments of Aquinas.”
This idea that the public feels more of a connection to well-written fictionalized accounts of science, as opposed to reading the research of scientists directly is apparent in everyday life, even today. So it should come as no surprise to historians of science, that a reading public would work through their apprehensions about science through literature, and come to an understanding about science, through literature, rather than through the direct written work of scientists. There is a strong interaction between science-fiction stories, the science behind them, and the popular culture from which these stories emerge, so much so that it would seem that works of science fiction act two-fold. In one way, science-fiction acts as a step in between scientists and the public, giving the public access to scientific ideas in a more manageable medium. In another way, science-fiction acts as a means of the public communicating their ideas about science to the scientists, generating a new pool of ideas and investigations.
While methods which historians of science have traditionally taken as a means of analyzing sources are by no means invalid approaches, with work to include more narratives from traditionally marginalized groups, and expand the meaning of what a legitimate source is, the methods of analysis thus need to change in relation to these changes. The study of literature has been moving to include more diverse narratives and sources for decades longer than the history of science, and thus historians of science can work to borrow from literary analysis. Meaning and communication are both so important to the study of the humanities, and these are both things which literary studies can offer to the history of science. Literary studies is a method of questioning conceptual meaning, as opposed to history of science, which works to develop concepts. Questioning the meaning to those concepts and analyzing their origins is a key step to understanding, which historians of science seem not to be doing, while literary studies is. According to John Holmes in his piece “Literature and Science vs History of Science,” there are very key differences between the way that historians of science approach the boundary between literature and science, and the way literature and science scholars approach that boundary. While it is his assertion that those who study literature and science adopt some of the methodology of historians of science, from his description of what the study of literature and science has to offer, I believe that historians of science should consider closely the work which those who study literature do.
Holmes states, “History of science is a discipline which traces in meticulous and precise detail the practices of individual scientists, the intricacies of particular debates, the politics of institutions, and the emergence of ideas. The detail which historians of science require for the recovery of these aspects of past science is not necessarily available to scholars working on the interface between literature and science.” While it would seem that I am advocating for more lenient restrictions on the evidence which historians of science use, I believe more that literary studies allows for a more open interpretation on the part of those studying literature than history of science does, which may be why historians of science are apprehensive about including literature as a primary source for history. Literature is a medium which does not have definite claims, unlike much of the source material which historians of science are investigating, however that is not necessarily a bad thing. Open interpretations are important to the study of literature, according to Holmes, because they allow for the writing to remain a living discussion of culture and questions. Presentism is bad in the study of the history of science, and while I do not want to advocate for a Whiggish approach to history, those involved in literary studies have tapped into the fear of presentism and turned it on its head. They openly acknowledge that they are reading a piece of literature at a present moment, with present perspectives, realizing that they are bringing their own particular set of baggage to their study of the literature. Those who study literature are part of a current culture that may be returning to these pieces and they are open to recognizing this within their writing, and believe that this is how literature should be studied, a lesson which historians of science could take from a literary perspective.
So to the question about the use of literature as a primary source and the use of literary analysis in the study of the history of science, the answers I can give come in the form of what literature professors see as the use of literature. Very few historians of science approach literature, and discuss the benefits of literary analysis within the field. It would seem that there are many things for historians of science to learn from literary studies, as well as the wealth of information which seems to exist within literature. It is unfortunate that literature, and science in culture, are not taken more seriously as avenues worth pursuing in the history of science.
 Guy Consolmagno. “Astronomy, Science Fiction and Popular Culture: 1277 to 2001 (and Beyond).” Leonardo 29, No. 2 (1996): 127
 John Holmes. “Literature and Science vs History of Science.” Journal of Literature and Science 5, No. 2 (2012): 67
 John Holmes. “Literature and Science vs History of Science.” Journal of Literature and Science 5, No. 2 (2012): 70
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