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Back when I was in Junior College (JC), I was the only student who did both H2 Physics and Literature for my A-Levels. I did well for both subjects in Secondary School so I naturally applied for them in JC. As you can already tell, it was not a popular subject combination. People had a lot to say about it, that physics and literature were both polar opposites; that physics tried to define the world in solid objects and phenomena whilst literature did so through human emotions. There was nothing similar, nothing complementary about them. It was ludicrous to study them with the same pen because when I went to university I’d have to give up on one of these inclinations anyway.
But university came around and I spent the start of my second year doing a short course on black holes. Subsequently, I did a module on the life and works of Virginia Woolf, an esteemed English writer who seemed to have nothing to do with physics. Her hard-hitting works circumvented plot and rationality and delved straight into the core of human emotion. I was enthralled. You know a book is good when your heart beats faster as you turn the pages. I’ve had the privilege of feeling the connection to words written almost a hundred years ago, reaching out from the depths to touch a 21st century me. Never once did I feel violated.
But all that is not the point of my writing this. The feelings of intense emotions and comfort aren’t something unheard of when one deals with literature. It’s a big part of why I choose to do what I do; if not to analyze text then to come up with some of my own. It makes the world a better place, so why not? What I want to draw your attention to is the possibility that literature and physics need not be dichotomous. In other words, they share something essential in common.
First off, the language of science did in fact influence much of Woolf’s work. A lot of what she wanted to tell her readers was already being suggested in the scientific work of her time. According to Gillian Beer, author of Physics, Sound and Substance: Later Woolf, the 1920s-30s was the time of fascinating scientific discoveries in physics, with the wave-particle theory capturing the imagination of the masses. These novel theories did not escape Woolf, who herself was well read in these matters. Her works soon became heavily influenced by the progress of physics, her fascination with the dual nature of things only strengthened by the theories of science. In her novel The Waves, the dual nature of objects (and in turn, reality) is readily brought up in her obsession with the “fixity of tables”, how she asks them, “Are you hard?” The preoccupation with “apparently solid objects” melds with other ideas such as androgyny, roles in society, and the overarching idea that no thing is ever one thing. I will touch on these later. But what is being said is simple: that science and literature can progress hand in hand. This was something that I was never made aware of in my years of education.
How this manifests may very well be that science and literature share a similar process. They both aim to discover the true nature of things, to give complexities a place in this world. In the same way Woolf urges readers to see beyond the illusion of dressing up, a scientific journal proposes a novel idea that was once not known to humanity. What we choose to do with this information is still up to us. Writers build on each other’s ideas the same way scientists draw on old discoveries to make new ones. Ultimately the process of discovery is simple: we have to advance our humanity by facing up to all kinds of truth. A table is not necessary solid as we understand it; our clothes aren’t necessarily solely for warmth. Literature and science go hand in hand in both establishing these truths and breaking illusions that we otherwise would have been incognizant of.
Literature may after all be the great metaphor for science. As 20th century physicist Arthur Eddington asserts, “reality is a child which cannot survive without its nurse illusion.” The way science constructs reality is through assertions, all of which have the potential to be falsified and disproved. Within this framework we function and construct a tenable reality. However, new theories continue to pop up: chaos theory erupts in our time; string theory threatens equally to challenge the perceived order. The potential for what we perceive to be rendered implausible or incomplete is always around the corner. Beer argues that poetry and literature aim to do the same: by giving readers the surface story; one that is seemingly simple. But through devices such as “assonance, overlap between words, iteration and internal rhyme,” we are privy to what the work really wants to say. The work, like any solid object, has two possible renderings, if not more. It can be a solid object made of particles, or a constantly vibrating entity comprising of waves. Do we choose to perceive the surface meaning as the truth by virtue of its functionality? A table functions as a solid, a group of friends around a dinner table is simply a social gathering, nothing more, nothing less. Or do we perceive matters the other way, to take their underlying meanings as truth? Suddenly, a table is a vibrating entity. The group of friends suddenly have deep dark secrets that they continue to harbour with only their superficial thoughts being echoed across. What do we want to see as reality? And does it matter? Both science and literature pose these questions, and each is the metaphor for the other in this quest.
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Last and most important, is the moralistic aspect that literature brings to the table. Often we see literature as a didactic tool, a means to derive lessons in life through various case studies of human behavior. Though fictional, we see fragments of ourselves in fiction and we are instantly reflective of our own actions. On the other hand, we see science as the cold, heartless pursuit of knowledge, or as Beer puts it, “autonomous, separate from culture, untouched by it”. Is there no way to reconcile these two agendas? Beer argues that “the scientist must see nature not as ‘entirely distinct from himself”, but as something he can “create”, “select” and “destroy”. In other words: in discovery comes responsibility. Literature continues to pose questions over the validity of scientific pursuit, especially if it comes at great costs. The vast literature on the horrors of war is a grand example of the perils of scientific advancement. Should scientific discoveries such as dynamite, toxic gases or nuclear energy be freely harnessed without any moralistic implications? We see in Woolf’s work that science keeps literature preoccupied with the modern conversation, but literature, on the other hand, keeps science grounded in the long-standing notions of what it means to be a good person, to heal rather than hurt. Science and literature may be different in their purpose, but by no means is this irreconcilable. Rather, it is a matter of one complementing the other.
Through all my years of education, a broad understanding of both literature and the sciences was then necessary, and even productive. From how I see things, choosing one did not mean letting go of the other, because doing that would be decapitating to our worldviews. In fact it meant an even tighter embrace, where the recognition that one affects the other is crucial. This is what my time in university has taught me, that instead of eager specialization one should take a step back and see the complementary forces that shape this world. And I see it now for what it is: science gives literature form, whilst literature gives science meaning.
The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org