Scientists of the literary world

Daniel Villar marvels at those who bridge the divide between disciplines

People in the humanities often seem to be allergic to the sciences. There are brilliant students who, in spite of their impressive knowledge of 13th century Polish agricultural economics or the battle tactics used by the Assyrians against Hittites in the Battle of Nihriya, cannot tell you the difference between translation and transcription, or what the three laws of thermodynamics are.

Not that scientists don’t also show an ignorance of the humanities—there are some scientists who know almost nothing beyond their field. But for the most part it is the scientists who learn history and literature, and the arts that let sciences get on with their thing. And this is partly due to the volume of information which prevents any one individual from being knowledgeable in many fields. However not all individuals stick to that dichotomy. There are polymaths out there, such as Jared Diamond or Joseph Needham, who have achieved great work in sciences and humanities.

But those polymaths aren’t the subject of this article. Instead, it is those whose public careers seem to have nothing to do with the sciences, yet who studied science at university. When you begin looking, there are a number of surprising literary intellectuals, who could also be described as scientists.

Perhaps the most surprising of these is Christ Church’s W.H. Auden. Yes, the poet who wrote: “The automobile, the aeroplane / Are useful gadgets, but profane” wanted nothing but to be an engineer as a teenager. He came to Oxford on a scholarship for the degree I am studying, biology. Sadly for biology, Auden had already fallen in love with words, and in his second year switched to English. Auden was barely a scientist—he took a year of biology at the university level. But he kept his love of science, his luddite views notwithstanding, and of the natural world, which occasionally, very briefly, leaps into his poetry.

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Trotsky isn’t often thought of as a literary intellectual, but his book Literature and Revolution is still considered one of the foundational texts of Marxist literary criticism. And even most of Trotsky’s political works, on the theory and practice of Marxism, falls squarely within what C.P. Snow would have called the literary camp of the two cultures. Yet Trotsky himself had no formal training in history or literature, Instead, he was a mathematician, and not a bad one either. His biographer, Isaac Deutscher, said Trotsky was the brightest in his course on pure mathematics in the University of Odessa, and one of his classmates after the revolution thought he could have been one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century had he not been a revolutionary. Trotsky never became a great mathematician, but the rigour of mathematics stayed with him his whole life. Even in his most abstract works of politics you can see a mathematician’s rigorous mind at work, trying to make everything correct and consistent.

Vladimir Nabokov is the most scientific of these three figures. Before gaining notoriety for writing Lolita, Nabokov was curator of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. Nabokov described a number of new species of Lepidoptera, and was renowned worldwide as the leading expert on Polyommatini. Ironically though, this most scientific of the literary intellectuals had the least scientific influence on his written work. Though he wrote Lolita on the evenings of his butterfly collecting expeditions, he never let the insects influence the romance of Humbert Humbert and Lolita. Instead the same personality drove both works: the emphasis on the particular which is essential for a taxonomist is what made Nabokov a great novelist, with a taste for particularities in words.

Science is not literature, and literature is not science: the two cultures will be entrenched for awhile to come. But sometimes, individuals, who in their work may be firmly in one camp, can straddle the divide as individuals. Auden the biologist, Trotsky the mathematician and Nabokov the entomologist show how one can start off a scientist and end up a novelist, poet or political theorist of the first degree. So remember that next time you’re in a pub complaining how scientists are boring—you may be talking to a poet or historian in the making.