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Lectio praecursoria – Juuso Aarnio

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 5, 2009

Emotions Issue

© 2009 Juuso Aarnio


 Lectio praecursoria

May 6 2008

Juuso Aarnio



Mr Custos, Madam Opponent, ladies and gentlemen! As the famous American palaeontologist and popularizer of science Stephen Jay Gould once noted, ‘Science is an integral part of culture. It’s not this foreign thing, done by an arcane priesthood.’ Thanks to the groundbreaking work of critics and researchers, such as my honourable opponent, the study of the complex relationship between the so-called two cultures of science and literature now provides numerous fascinating opportunities for people in various fields, making us aware of the various ways in which different disciplines affect each other. This work has enabled us to progress beyond the debate from which the term two cultures is familiar to many of us: the Two Cultures debate between the novelist and scientist C. P. Snow and the literary critic F. R. Leavis in the 1960s, which was sparked off by the famous lecture given by the former in Cambridge in 1959 called ‘The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution’. In short, Snow claimed that the world of science was opposed to the conservative thinking of the humanities, with little communication going on between the two. He aimed his main criticism at literary intellectuals, who in his opinion failed to recognize the role of science as a fundamental force in society, thus implying that the natural sciences were less valuable than literature and the arts in the eyes of the country’s literary intellectuals. Now, almost fifty years later, the discussion is fortunately much less based on such simplistic dichotomies, as many have become aware of the fact that in spite of their differences, the two continue to encounter and comment on similar issues. We may thus learn to view science and literature as dynamic and interactive rather than static and isolated disciplines – as professor Waugh has observed, ‘one virtue of studying their relations as an aspect of intellectual history is that it encourages us to recognize the fluidity of their boundaries and relational identities’. As a proponent of this kind of approach, I hope that the ideas presented in my own doctoral thesis contribute to the vast body of previous knowledge and, perhaps, inspire others to embark on a similar intellectual journey.

It is difficult and perhaps unnecessary to try to trace the origin of my own journey, but suffice it to say that my master’s thesis, in which I studied William S. Burroughs’s cut-up writing as an avant-garde means of combating the overwhelming sense of thermodynamic destruction evident in the cinematic imagery of his stories, represents its uncertain and naïve initial stage – for instance, at that time I did not even know that there actually exists a specific field of study called science and literature. (I guess some things should never be confessed, but if you want to confess something, why not do it at your doctoral defence.) Well, anyway, during that time I became convinced that like literature, science can be analysed as a text, using the same methods of textual analysis, even though I take the view that it is wrong to insist that science is just another text, as some critics did during the early days of the field.

So, in my doctoral thesis I approached the natural sciences and literature as cultural discourses – sorry to use such an overused term – that often encounter similar problems when representing and describing things, even though their methods differ from each other. My aim was to show that the two often respond to the same problems and consequently participate in the discussion about the meaning of science to humankind. I decided to focus on popular science writing and literature using scientific ideas because in both genres the question about the meaning of science is such a marked feature. Although popular science writing constitutes a massive genre, too little research has been done on it, especially if we take into account its significant role in the communication of scientific ideas – perhaps this is partly due to the idea that popular science is somehow merely a simplified form of the more technical expositions, such as the scientific paper, report, article, or textbook. Popularisations are nevertheless better equipped to communicate the culturally significant aspects of science: the thrill of discovery, the uniqueness and rarity of findings and theories, and the meaning of scientific ideas for human life. Hence, rather than associating the attribute popular with something that is qualitatively inferior, I want to suggest that we would be well advised to see such writing not only as a means of educating the masses in an entertaining manner but also as a valid means of producing new knowledge by linking scientific theories to the questions of human life in meaningful ways.

At the same time, as much as the aim of popular science writing to tell its stories through strong narratives contributes to the shaping of the cultural value and meaning of science, it has long been evident that the process of signification is by no means restricted to non-fiction, with especially contemporary literature showing a considerable awareness of recent developments in the natural sciences. Excluding the genre of science fiction, which explicitly incorporates scientific ideas into its body, we can observe how notable novelists and dramatists such as Thomas Pynchon, John Fowles, Don DeLillo, Martin Amis, Jeanette Winterson, Richard Powers, Tom Stoppard, and Michael Frayn have either employed scientific ideas as important thematic and structural elements in their work or implicitly responded to questions raised by science. In addition, a more recent yet equally interesting trend is professional scientists’ exploration of the human aspects of science through means provided by fiction, as the books of Carl Djerassi and Alan Lightman illustrate.

As regards the methodology of analysis in my thesis, I felt that the study of rhetoric in popular science would offer a nice contrast to the discussion on how science is represented in literature – after all, the main function of rhetoric is to persuade, and in this regard popular science writing is above all a genre of persuasion. Now, it is possible to persuade in many ways, but I found out that popular science often employs certain linguistic structures to do it. As I realized that these structures correspond to the figures of speech identified by classical rhetoric, it felt that it would be natural to refer to them by their traditional names. All in all, I argued that the use of figurative language plays a significant role in popular science writing, as it helps create a close link between content and form, the latter not only stylistically supporting the former but also frequently epitomizing the philosophy behind what is said and establishing various kinds of argumentative logic. I also thought that since many previous studies tended to focus only on the use of metaphor in scientific arguments, I would extend the scope of such studies by examining a much larger number of figures. Having said this, I want to point out that I do not mean to suggest that the rhetoric of popular science writing is largely reducible to its figurative language; I merely showed that such an element has a significant role in arguments aimed at non-specialist audiences. In the same way, I do not want to suggest that the links between literature and science should be sought by perusing only the relationship between rhetoric and literary representation. Rather, my purpose was to study only one of many possible links, charting the numerous instances in which it emerges.

As regards literature, I suggested that figurative language constitutes a bridge to literature employing scientific ideas. While popular science employs figurative language to enhance its rhetorical and literary qualities, such literature uses ideas drawn from the natural sciences by its own techniques of representation, so that the rhetoric of popularized accounts is often evident in literary portrayals. For instance, Tom Stoppard’s play Hapgood uses the wave-particle duality familiar from quantum physics as a conceptual basis for the claim that human identity comprises conflicting qualities, thus reflecting the rhetoric of popular books such as Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, which builds much of its discussion about the paradoxical features of quantum physics on the use of figure known as synoeciosis that like its close relative, oxymoron, juxtaposes two seemingly opposite qualities in order to show their relatedness. It should be pointed out that in some cases the influence of science on literature does not need to be so explicit: Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow does not refer to chaos theory, but its plot, which paradoxically proceeds from the present moment towards the past, suggests that Amis through his structural experimentation poses the same kinds of questions about the link between time and human identity as popular writers such as Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers do in their Order out of Chaos. On the other hand, it is possible to argue that the narratives of popular science writing reflect the literary portrayals of science, thus testifying to the dynamic interaction of the two cultures. For instance, the robot stories of Isaac Asimov represent the relationship of humans and machines in ways that has – directly or indirectly – affected the rhetoric of popular science writing on artificial intelligence decades later.

Returning to the larger issue of the cultural meaning of the natural sciences, I showed that the comparative analysis of contemporary popular science writing and literature reveals how the two participate in the discussion about the meaning of certain basic concepts in our culture, such as identity, knowledge, and time. I suggested that in this way, it is possible to understand that they are elementary constituents in the process of signification through which scientific ideas as well as fundamental questions concerning human life are given their culturally determined meaning and relevance.

To sum up, the main conclusions presented in my thesis can be listed as follows:


  1. Popular science writing habitually employs a wide range of figures of speech, testifying to their crucial role in the art of persuasion.
  2. Through their form the figures of popular science often epitomize the philosophy or ideology of writers’ arguments, thus creating a strong link between form and content.
  3. In their role as epitomes such figures resonate with literary representations of science, which, like popular science writing, explore the human relevance of science by giving culturally determined meanings to scientific ideas. Conversely, it is possible to argue that literary representation sometimes resonates with the rhetoric of popular books, even though whether this happens as often is unclear – at least people who write fiction tend respond to science more explicitly.
  4. Rhetoric of popular science writers and representations of science in literature constitute two interlinked aspects of cultural science by contributing to the treatment of shared topics, such as identity, knowledge, and time.


I would like to conclude by noting what these conclusions should not be understood to suggest. They should not suggest that popular science writing and literature are totally similar in terms of their employment of rhetoric and representation. Even though their ways of using language often overlap in this respect, it is quite evident that there are important differences as well. For instance, figures of speech such as metonymy, synecdoche, and irony did not play as important a role as the other tropes did in the arguments of popular science writing. Further study could better account for their absence, but one might hazard the guess that irony would probably undermine the credibility of arguments and that there would appear no need to describe things either through association (metonymy) or on the basis of the part-whole relationship (synecdoche), since such descriptions might obscure the clarity of communication. (I should note, however, that although irony was not a prominent feature in the books I analysed, there are certain famous arguments in which it is an integral part, such as Galileo’s Dialogue on the Two Chief Systems of the World and Watson and Crick’s 1953 paper on the double helix of DNA, published in Nature.) In contrast, literature seems to make less selective use of figures. This might be explained by the fact that in literature dealing with scientific topics, writers often explain them to readers in the manner of popular science authors (that is, through exposition) – thus using the recurring tropes of popular science – while also using tropes characteristic of literature, such as irony, metonymy, and synecdoche. However, as this is a subject matter I did not endeavour to include in my discussion, further research is needed before any decisive conclusions can be drawn concerning such differences.

As regards the narrative devices of popular science and literature, the same kind of situation emerges. For instance, literature relies more on characterization in its representation of science than popular science writing does. Again, however, there are notable exceptions, such as James Gleick’s Chaos, which narrates the history of chaos theory mainly through vivid descriptions of the field’s seminal figures, thus employing the rhetorical figure of characterismus. Moreover, the range of narrative structures seems to be wider in literature, even though it is possible to identify different narrative structures in popular science, too. The latter often relies on philosophical commentary at the beginning and the end, with science supporting it in the middle with its authority. Sometimes the narrative structures resemble those of literature, as in the case of Richard Dawkins, who tells the story of the selfish gene through a structure suggesting a biblical story of original sin and consequent redemption. In other cases, scientific problems are like murder cases solved in detective fiction.

All in all, then, such similarities and differences are what ultimately make the interaction of science and literature so dynamic and fascinating, and I hope my readers will find out that my thesis was successful in capturing this aspect of the relationship between rhetoric and representation in contemporary popular science writing and literature.