New Commission on Science and Literature

Earlier this month I went to the conference of the new Commission on Science and Literature at the National Hellenic Research Foundation in Athens. The Commission – or CoSciLit – is part of the Division of the History of Science and Technology (DHST) of the International Union for History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IUHPST). As Chair of the British Society for Literature and Science (BSLS), I had been asked to support the foundation of CoSciLit. Its aim is to provide an international forum for research into literature and science, and to demonstrate to scientists and historians of science how important literature is to thinking about what science means, now and over time. Literature is a key source for the history of science. At the same time, it is and has always been the perfect device for refracting the apparently clear light of science into a multitude of different colours, shades and wavelengths.

I was looking forward to the conference very much. It lived up to my expectations. The range of papers was tremendous. I listened to talks by literary scholars from Britain, America and France, scientists and historians of science from Greece, Germany and Austria, and the poet and physicist Iggy McGovern from Ireland. Topics included dinosaurs in American frontier fiction, eighteenth-century satires on the Royal Society, Emily Dickinson’s response to Charles Darwin, mesmerism in nineteenth-century Greece, sexology in civil war Spain, and contradictions in the physics of Jules Verne’s Around the Moon. My own talk was on evolution in modernist epic poems by Ezra Pound, David Jones and Ronald Duncan. It was fascinating to hear so many different examples of literature engaging with science, and of literary analysis shedding light on the science itself. I was especially glad to have the chance to see this from the perspectives of scientists themselves, and from so many different countries. Perhaps the biggest lesson I learnt from the conference as a whole was that science maybe international, but it is conducted in different national contexts, which shape what science is done, what discoveries are made, and how they are seen.

On the last day of the conference I was appointed along with the organizers, George Vlahakis and Kostas Tampakis, to a small committee charged with putting in place a constitution for the Commission and holding the first elections to its official executive committee next year. We’ve also been asked to start planning CoSciLit’s future, including another conference in a couple of years, and its involvement in the next of the DHST’s huge fourth-yearly congresses in Rio de Janeiro in 2017. (The last one was last year in – less excitingly, but very appropriately – Manchester.) I am looking forward very much to working with George and Kostas to help build on the foundations they have laid, and to get more literary scholars, scientists and historians from around the world involved in the rich discussions they have begun with their excellent conference.

If you’d like to find out more about the plans for CoSciLit as they develop, and more widely about work being done and conferences being held on literature and science, take a look at the websites for CoSciLit and the BSLS.