Over at Books & Culture, Karl W. Giberson reviews The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, edited by (in Gilberson’s phrase) “that arch-villain Richard Dawkins.” Gilberson is being cheeky, and he notes that, in this volume, Dawkins’ love for science and skill as a writer and editor shines through. Gilberson notes that Dawkins “is exceptional in being a member of Britain’s most élite scientific and literary societies, the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Literature.”
The review is worth reading. I, for one, love a good piece of science writing. But Gilberson raises a good question:
Literature—plays, essays, screenplays for movies, novels, nonfiction—has to be about something. “Literature” has no natural content any more than sentences have natural meaning. So why isn’t there more “science” in literature? Science transforms both our world and our worldview, and yet a solid work of literature is more likely to be about an alcoholic than a scientist.
‘Twas not always so. I still remember vividly being introduced – really introduced – to John Donne and his great poem, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” which was written to his pregnant wife as he was about to leave for an overseas journey. The time being 1611, and both travel and childbirth being much more dangerous then than now, Donne and his wife had little assurance of seeing each other again. (Indeed, their child was born stillborn while Donne was gone.) Donne’s imagery to comfort his wife was taken directly from science and engineering: metallurgy, draftsmanship, geometry.
Our two souls, therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do.
And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.