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PORTRAYING SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERY: THE SITUATION AND THE STORY

Organizing Fellows: Carol Christ (Professor of English and President of the College) & Marjorie Senechal (Louise Wolff Kahn Professor in Mathematics and the History of Science and Technology)

The surprising popularity of books, plays, and films like Arcadia, Proof, Copenhagen, Einstein's Dreams, and A Beautiful Mind reveals a large and growing public for the great ideas of mathematics and science, and the human stories behind them; science as human culture, and the quest for scientific understanding as human creativity. Perhaps our society isn't so anti-intellectual, anti-science after all!

But do these works show that literature can build two-way bridges between the two cultures, bridges that people will actually cross? Or are these bridges illusions? When scientific discovery, and the discoverers, become subjects of novels, plays, films, and even operas, what happens to the science? "Everything should be as simple as possible, but not more so," Einstein is said to have said. But if a novel, play, film or opera is a science lesson in disguise, what happens to the literature? Does insistence on scientific accuracy in concept and detail compromise the literary imagination? What happens to science when the forms of art represent it and speak for it?

Adapting the terms drawn from Vivian Gornick’s book, The Situation and The Story, we find it useful to distinguish between the raw material of a scientific discovery, the science and scientists -- including the ideas, scientific context, practices and institutions, and the story the writer tells. The tension between the situation (the science and the scientists) and the story (the way the science and the scientists are portrayed) is the conundrum we wish to explore.

Consider the example of Dr. Atomic, an opera about the physicist Robert Oppenheimer, which premiered in San Francisco in 2005, to great acclaim. Though a work of fiction, most of the libretto was adapted verbatim from actual documents. But not all of it. The opening chorus sang:

Matter can be neither created nor destroyed
but only altered in form.
Energy can be neither created nor destroyed
but only altered in form.

The president of the American Physical Society, attending a rehearsal, protested vociferously: these statements contradict Einstein's equation, E = MC2! Without it, there could have been no atomic bomb, no Dr. Atomic, and no Dr. Atomic. The startled and chagrined librettists promised to rewrite the lines, but they didn't -- at least not by opening night. Should they have rewritten them? Even if, in their judgment, it would be to the detriment of the opera qua opera? Who grants poetic license, and how much, and why?

On first reflection, it would seem that non-fiction books about science would be free of this tension. After all, isn’t their purpose to provide clear and accurate exposition of their subjects? Yet non-fiction books -- such as Chaos, Incompleteness, and The Discoveries: Ten Breakthroughs in Twentieth Century Science -- also tell stories created out of raw materials, and thus reflect a set of choices. Moreover, writing for a non-scientific audience requires some simplification. Much as scientists lament the state of scientific literacy in our country, they are often highly critical of books attempting to educate the public about scientific ideas and the process of scientific discovery through such stories, claiming that their writers exaggerate or underplay key features, or get the science wrong.

In this short-term project we will explore the tensions between the situation and the story in portraying scientific discovery, through case studies and in-depth discussions with a panel of eminent scientists, writers, and scientist/writers. The format will be an intense weekend workshop, Friday afternoon through Saturday afternoon. The workshop will have both public and closed sessions. Faculty participants will be asked to read, in advance, selected chapters of pertinent books written by, or edited by, the panel speakers, and possibly additional chapters or articles.

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