“It appeared to me that there were two paths to the truth, and I decided to follow both of them,” – Georges Lemaître.
The Two Cultures
From the Babylonians to the Greeks to the Mayans, the practises of science and literature existed in some form or another at the centre of every ancient civilisation. They represented to them what they continue to do to us today: the most fundamental desire of our species to know the world around us, and to share that knowledge with others. Tens of thousands of years came and went while spending little time at all drawing distinction between these disciplines – ones today we perceive as being repellent strangers to one another – as often they were one single entity. Ancient aborigine civilisations considered the stars the campfires of passed spirits, spawning many a story that were undoubtedly shared around more terrestrial campfires, from generation to generation, through spoken word rather than ink and parchment.
Somewhere down the line, between then and now, the entity broke in two.
C.P. Snow believed that certain attitudes prevalent in these separated halves – those which he referred to in his 1959 essay as ‘The Two Cultures’ – were causing a communicative barrier, one that was resulting in developmental setbacks on both sides of the divide. Snow, who described himself “by training a scientist, by vocation a writer”, as a successful author and chemist, had experience on both sides of this barrier. He had previously explained in a newspaper article how, in a general sense, “neither culture knows the virtues of the other; often it seems they deliberately do not want to know.”
The scientific and so-called ‘traditional’ cultures had, Snow claimed, developed contrasting outlooks on the world, thus different principles and values to drive their work forward. Scientists were forward thinking, innovative, and sure of themselves to a much greater extent than their literary counterparts, whose self-absorbed mindset reflected a failing grasp of social power. At the same time, however, the ‘traditional’ culture’s “moral vanity” served somewhat as an advantage; it was the same snobbery with which the aristocracy that made up most of its ranks assured themselves of their divine right of rank. At the time of the essay’s publication, Snow proposed that the separation between the two cultures kept science from achieving this same – in essence – superiority complex and progressing in a way that the people of the time so desperately required.
Were ‘The Two Cultures’ really so predestined to be at petty odds with one another? The opening quote from Lemaître, who devised the Big Bang theory, summarises the ability of a person to set aside the superficial differences in two apparently distinct belief systems when pursuing a greater goal. Although the ‘two paths’ in his case were that of physics and Catholicism, the parallels between religion and literature as more spiritual, subjective alternatives to science are clear. Though Lemaître kept his two paths distinct from one another, his quote echoes Snow’s criticism of the two cultures’ discrediting of each other’s practices; there is no one true road to the truth, but multiple, and cooperation between the two could help reach this truth faster.
Snow’s cultures may evidently have their differences, but they likewise have a vast array of similarities. A subject that has fascinated scientists and writers alike for thousands of years is space and the universe, and the extent to which the development of their relationship has shaped the presentation of the cosmos in literature can be analysed by exploring both the significance of space in select examples of poetry and prose, and why a writer or poet (or even a scientist!) may choose to include such imagery in their work.
I: The Relationship Between the Cultures
The Benefits of Poetic Licence to a Scientist
As with many elusive fundamental particles, how science and literature relate to one another is best observed when they interact. Both are highly influential pillars of human culture, so this interaction – whether it be mutually hostile or mutually beneficial – is perhaps rather inevitable. An example of the latter appeared around the middle of the 16th Century, when a succession of breakthroughs and complete reinvention of the scientific method took place, beginning with the publication of astronomer Nicholas Copernicus’ 1543 work De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (‘On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres’).
‘The Scientific Revolution’, as it became known four centuries later, saw advancements take place from the base work of Greek philosophers, including the separation of science as a distinct practice from philosophy, and the growing popularity of inductive approaches to analysing data – which focused on not allowing previous assumptions to cloud judgement and instead observing with an open mind. Rapid accumulation of knowledge was taking place in such a way that had not occurred before this time.
The Revolution preceded and partly coincided with the Enlightenment Period, a movement which promoted the use of reason and assisted the progression of ideas such as liberty and tolerance, all of which allowed scientists, to a certain extent, greater freedom to explore a wider range of hypotheses. This freedom was rather limited, however; the church sought swift retaliation against the publication of De Revolutionibus… and similar works that presented the theory of heliocentrism on the grounds of blasphemy, but despite backlash (and censorship, and house arrest), astronomers were not discouraged from supporting Copernicus, with discoveries by Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler giving the theory increasing credibility.
Though Galileo arguably made greater contributions to the field of astrophysics (appropriately becoming nicknamed “the father of modern physics”), Kepler’s specific use of what we may now refer to as poetic license to evade accusations of blasphemy is crucial to understanding not only the influence contemporary scientific ideas had on themes of fiction, but the role the literary form played in allowing scientific theory to progress. Kepler’s work as an astronomer mainly focused, like Copernicus’, on the movement of celestial bodies and their positioning relative to the Earth and to the Sun. He improved Copernicus’ original model of the Solar System, proposing that the planets instead moved in elliptical orbits around the Sun as opposed to circular ones, as well as explaining the inverse square law of light intensity – which stated that the intensity of light (as photons were yet to be discovered) hitting a specific point was inversely proportional to the distance between the point and the source of the light squared.
An idea that particularly interested Kepler was how the sky may appear to the astronomer observing from a point beyond Earth, namely our own moon. Using Copernican theory, he proposed that the experience of observing the stars from both bodies would be relatively similar, and expanded on this hypothesis in a student dissertation. His professor quickly disregarded his theory – as he expectedly would, according to the belief at the time that all celestial bodies (the moon included) orbited the stationary Earth at great speeds – a belief known as geocentrism.
For sixteen years, the dissertation was shelved, but Kepler did not abandon his theory all together. Instead, he rewrote it, retaining the general theme of portraying astronomical practices from an extra-terrestrial perspective (hence reinforcing the theory of a non-geocentric system), but altering the format to a work of fiction that conveyed the events of the story in a dream-like state. The former entirely academic paper became Somnium (‘Dream’ in Latin): a story about an Icelandic boy and his witch mother who are transported by a daemon to the moon, where they encounter an intelligent species adapted to the lunar terrain (ideas of alien life were considered equally as shocking and in themselves blasphemous. Kepler cites Lucian as a source of inspiration for Somnium, so it is possible his ‘moon-people’ were based on those proposed by the satirist in True History).
By presenting the ideas in the novel as beyond reality, Kepler could avoid censorship and openly explore ideas he would have otherwise been prevented from even touching upon. Somnium is an example of literature providing a platform from which scientists can explore and publish theories in a hypothetical setting, therefore avoiding scrutiny from powerful influences (i.e. the church). It wasn’t just proof of the literary form supporting scientific endeavor, however, but equally the basis of a whole new branch of literature that has become one of the most popular in modern times.
American scientist Carl Sagan and author Isaac Asimov claim Somnium to be the first work of science fiction, though the title is often disputed. Nonetheless, its mere consideration indicates Somnium greatly influenced the genre, providing the base for an entirely new branch of fiction that remains popular to this day. Literature provides sanctuary to astronomy, and, in turn, astronomy leaves its mark in the world of literature.
Romanticism vs. Enlightenment
The two cultures didn’t always coexist as harmoniously as during the Scientific Revolution – in fact, the early 19th century gave way to what could be considered their greatest divide since they were first established. The Age of Enlightenment championed reason and the strive to understand the physical properties of the world, and of ourselves. This was, however, not without ideological opposition. Romanticism gained momentum in the late 18th Century, and by the 19th Century had become a heavily influential movement on art, music, and literature.
Those that followed it believed that to consolidate the human experience by way of measurement and calculation not only destroyed its innate beauty and wonder, but misunderstood what it meant to experience the world in the first place. The poets were perhaps the most outspoken on this subject: in his 1817 work Biographica Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge stated that “the imagination [is] the living power and prime agent of all human perception” – our mind, so the Romantics claimed, existed as an infinite spirit that defied categorisation.
Though Coleridge’s opium-induced philosophies were perhaps more succinct in describing Romanticism’s general purpose, it is a particular poem by John Keats that captures the criticism that the movement held for, as the poet claimed, “the purveyor of dull realities”. It was one which saw the magical, and thus scientifically ‘impossible’, eponymous protagonist of Lamia destroyed by “the touch of cold philosophy”, whereby any attempt to rationalise her existence would paradoxically render it bereft. Much of Keats’ philosophy surrounded this idea – one of experience over understanding – and in a letter he explained it by using the analogy of a lake:
“The point of diving in a lake,” he wrote, “is not immediately to swim to the shore; it’s to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought”.
It is almost as if Keats is suggesting aesthetic value possesses a sort of quantum nature (or something similar – it was still more than a hundred years before Schrödinger, among many others, would propose their theories) – that, once it has been observed (as Apollonius’ eye “went through [Lamia] utterly”) or measured, beauty can only exist in one form, a form defined by its physical measurements and devoid of the mystery that captivates the human imagination. To explain quarks to Keats would be an extraordinary experience – that the most fundamental aspects of material being elude direct observation as his Lamia tried and failed to do, and that three of them, at least at one point in time, were called Charm, Truth, and Beauty.
Snow explains in his essay that the divide between the Two Cultures could sometimes spill into “hostility and dislike” – and though this is descriptive of his contemporaries it is nonetheless applicable to Keats. The attitude prevalent towards scientific practise (influenced perhaps by attitudes towards the Enlightenment movement in general) in the Romantic movement can also be linked to The Two Cultures in that “non-scientists have a rooted impression that scientists are […] unaware of man’s condition” – as if only literature can grapple with the emotional or moral aspects of humanity. The presumption therefore exists that science’s objectiveness blinds those who practise it to experience, emotion, and sensation which cannot be adequately categorised or explained by calculation, a claim mildly reflective of the ‘Mary’s Room’ thought experiment.
In this experiment, the question is posed that if Mary, a woman who has spent her entire life in a colourless room becoming an expert on the physical and biological processes of colour sight, is suddenly presented with the image of a bright red apple on her monochrome computer screen, has she learned anything new? The conclusion one is meant to arrive at is yes, because “non-physical properties […] can only be discovered through conscious experience” – an ability Romanticism claimed was pivotal to the human condition. Science’s supposed failure to recognise this has lead them to appear out of touch and open to scrutiny, not least so in satirical literature.
II: The Portrayal of Space in Literature
The Purpose of the Cosmos
Literature in all its forms relies on imagery and symbolism to convey themes, provide depth to narratives, or develop the author’s desired atmosphere. Celestial bodies have served as strong and distinct symbols in writing for as long as humans have looked up at them: the moon, as a common example, is considered a symbol of fertility and womanhood – often associated with Diana, the Roman Goddess of the hunt and childbirth. Such symbols came into being, most likely, because people believed the bodies to be incarnations of the Gods, or otherwise controlled and influenced by them; though civilisations such as the ancient Babylonians and Greeks are today regarded as the pioneers of scientific method, they nonetheless formed a significant dependence upon divine intervention to explain many of the phenomena that they observed.
This merging of mythology and scientific fact was not exempt from scrutiny, even by contemporary scholars. A prominent critic of what he describes as authors outright “lying” to their public, was Assyrian author Lucian. A Greek-speaking satirist, Lucian was noted for his wit and mocking tone prevalent in much of his writing. This time his scrutiny had turned to the works of infamous philosophers – he found particular interest in the publications of Homer, Ctesias, and Herodotus, among others.
While the latter Greeks were historians (though at this time such a profession, like philosophy, often merged many fields including astronomy), Homer was somewhat more of an enigma – a semi legendary figure responsible for some of the most famous tales in Ancient Greece, or a collective term for many similar authors writing around the same period. Regardless, Lucian’s critical fiction True History (or A True Story) attacked aspects of The Odyssey, paralleling it with the hard-scientific realism of themes discussed in the works of Thucydides. True History depicts Lucian and a troupe of accompanying heroes sailing across the ocean until they are caught up in a whirlwind and deposited on the moon, where they are engaged in a full-scale battle between the lunar and solar races, before falling back to Earth where they become trapped inside a giant whale.
The story ends rather abruptly, with Lucian promising a sequel to continue the heroes’ adventures – a promise upon which he never apparently delivered. What sets Lucian’s parody aside from the texts he parodies, so he states in his introduction, is the fact he is not claiming any of it to be true (unlike, for example, Ctesias, who claimed to be upholding the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth throughout his mythological retellings). He says the title highlights the text as the most honest myth ever written – in that it is the only one to reinforce the fictional nature of the story. Lucian’s ‘disclaimer’ preceding True History stresses the events in the story “do not in fact exist and could not ever exist at all”, and that readers “must not believe a word [he] say[s]”.
A first in many fields, True History is just one example demonstrating how Lucian, and many similar authors and satirists, were beginning to demand distinct separation between truth and myth, a step they believed essential to the progression of philosophy and science. Astronomical themes appeared to be of particular interest because of how much was left open to interpretation – and how much could so easily be explained with fantastical tales rather than living in acceptance of the fact there was simply so much they didn’t know.
No proof existed to say there wasn’t a woman-less race of moon people wherein the children grew inside the calves of men, and it likely wouldn’t exist until more advanced methods of observation (or, eventually, exploration) were developed to find the moon a barren, meteor-scarred wasteland. It was that precise uncertainty that fuelled the role of literature filling in the gaps in people’s scientific knowledge with wonder and speculation. Indeed, such speculation likely existed before the symbols of written language were in common use, but literature has allowed these ideas to be communicated, not only in academic circles, but among common people, too.
This criticism of contemporary scientific method reappeared in the 19th Century, with post-Romantic poet Edgar Allan Poe’s attacks on the culture’s obsession with realism and tight-lipped seriousness. Poe did often take a more humorous approach to his criticism of scientific culture compared to Keats’ passionate letters to his peers. A key example of such an approach is his 1835 short story The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaal, which once again focuses on the presentation of astrophysics and, as with Lucian and Kepler, centres around a journey to the moon.
The story describes the arrival of a strange, small man in a hot-air balloon he constructed from newspaper in the town of Rotterdam in the Netherlands – where he drops a letter describing a visit to the moon he carried out to pay off his debts. With a premise as absurd as this, it is not hard to believe Pfaal’s story is a hoax – somewhat of an April Fool’s joke if the date Pfaal supposedly took off for the moon (1st of April) is considered. Likewise, the balloon is said to be shaped like a “fool’s cap” and characters are given names such as “Professor Rubadub”, further emphasising the light-hearted and purposefully unbelievable context given to the story by Poe.
Though it could be argued it was written solely for humorous purposes, Hans Pfaal outlines a theme that would become pivotal to science fiction in the coming decades: the interweaving of imagination and calculation, or “the dialectic relationship between ludic playfulness and scientific seriousness”. Through this lens, Hans Pfaal becomes a comment on the ludicrous nature of scientific proposals when they first arise, and the almost ironic juxtaposition between this and the air of “seriousness” that scientific circles strive to uphold (particularly where astronomy is considered, as often theories and discoveries alike demand more open thinking than in other fields because they are so unlike our own, earthly experiences. Propose the theories of ‘nuclear pasta’ and ‘WIMPs’ to somebody not well-versed in astrophysics, and you’re not bound to be taken very seriously).
Regardless of whether Hans Pfaal was intended as a satirical piece or simply a bit of fun, Poe’s presentation of its central topic – a trip to the moon – is perhaps most interesting, as it reveals the attitudes towards such practices were changing. As previously mentioned, all the texts discussed to this point have revolved around lunar exploration. This is not a wide sample size, so it would be inaccurate to conclude all or even most mentions of space in literature presented themselves in the form of visiting the moon – however the surge in the use of this theme during the Scientific Revolution, such as in Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone and Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, reflects an interest in the mysteries of the lunar terrain. Many such authors of this period cited the exciting new discoveries being made by the likes of Kepler about the moon and the further Solar System as their primary inspiration – thus was born a brand of proto-science fiction that fuelled future generations passion for astronomical discovery.
Satire appears to be the main function of space and associated imagery in literature. This became especially prominent during the Romantic period, where the cosmos was not only used to make political statements (though this did not diminish, as is evident in Hans Pfaal), but to explore the role of beauty and aesthetics in human experience. As previously stated, Romanticism existed primarily to offer a counter philosophy to Enlightenment, and many of the artists involved in the movement expressed this as an opposition to the scientific practice that sought to “conquer all mysteries by rule and line”. However, there do exist examples of Romantic poetry finding inspiration in scientific theory – focusing on the beauty it created as opposed to that it ‘destroyed’.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his time, held radical and controversial views – ranging from staunch atheism to calls for great social reform (calls that would go on to heavily influence the likes of Karl Marx and Emily Pankhurst). Many of his poems conveyed these views with rich symbolism and imagery typical of Romanticism, with both the ideas themselves and the way in which they were weaved into poetry inspired by Shelley’s vast scientific knowledge. One such poem is his 1812 debut, Queen Mab, which conveys bold criticism of war, tyranny, and organised religion thinly veiled by the tale of a spirit lead through the afterlife by a fairy queen. Near the beginning of the poem (line 253) he describes how “innumerable systems rolled” past the fairy’s chariot as they made their journey through space, a quote he goes on to reference in his notes on Mab.
The concept of “the indefinite immensity of the universe” Shelley conveys through this line is one that reaffirmed his belief in a godless universe, as he goes on to claim that the “miserable tale” of the Bible is “irreconcilable with the knowledge of the stars,” and that “the works of [God’s] fingers have borne witness against him.” As was the case with Kepler’s Somnium, Shelley uses the literary form to speak out against the hegemony of the church (or organised religion generally), using a tale of space travel to argue against the idea that the creator of such a vast universe would concern themselves with a species that does not exist at the centre of it, but is in fact rather insignificant on such a scale.
Moreover, with the influence of Romanticism, Shelley is able to explore the beauty of space and the overwhelming feelings of awe and reconciliation with one’s own existence that are experienced when witnessing it (or the mathematics that shapes it). Contrary to the ideas put forward by Keats, Shelley appears to argue that the calculations made by astronomers do not destroy the wonder of the universe, but amplify it.
In many ways, Shelley is a deviant from the general trend shown by the stances of Lucian, Keats, and Poe regarding science’s role in humanity’s sensual experience of the world. They would suggest that, at times when the cultures of science and literature are at ideological odds with one another, space is merely a vehicle for mockery of scientists’ ‘absurd’ practices. Shelley’s fascination with the universe and how this reflects in his poetry echoes back to Snow’s claim that “neither culture knows the virtues of the other; often it seems they deliberately do not want to know” – proving that when one culture does take the time to learn the “virtues of the other”, the result is a rich and well-informed exploration into the incomparable beauty of the cosmos, one which may never had been truly fulfilled had the two cultures remained perfectly ignorant to each other’s true nature.
Space from a Postmodern Perspective
If Queen Mab reveals what can result from a single poet taking the time to truly understand the discoveries made by scientific endeavour, it is natural to wonder what may result when such discoveries become popularised in the eyes of the wider public. The 20th Century saw a great revolution in physics, particularly astrophysics, and during and following the ‘Space Race’ of the Sixties, ordinary people were becoming more and more invested in the nature of the world beyond our own. Moreover, towards the end of the century in particular, information on these topics was becoming increasingly accessible, with the rise of cosmologists-turned-presenters such as Carl Sagan and the release of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time – the bestselling book in history at the time.
One of the biggest focuses in cosmology during this period were the two big questions of creation and destruction: how did the universe begin, and how will it end? A number of theories were proposed, but one of particular significance was an older theory that considered the first two Laws of Thermodynamics. It was proposed in 1852 by Lord Kelvin, who outlined in his work the previous year that “heat is not a substance, but a dynamical form of mechanical effect, we perceive that there must be an equivalence between mechanical work and heat, as between cause and effect.”
In very basic terms, the heat death of the universe (or ‘The Big Freeze’) would see everything within it exist at the same temperature: a fraction of a degree above absolute zero. As every process in the universe as we know it requires some sort of temperature difference, this would result in a very cold and uneventful cosmos; the last stars would die with no new-borns to replace them, and no process that increases entropy would be sustained.
The ‘Big Freeze’ became the subject of one particular novel of the 20th Century, one that combined the Laws of Thermodynamics and the characteristic nihilism of Postmodernism. Pamela Zoline’s 1967 work The Heat Death of the Universe focuses, through an objective yet highly detailed narrative, on middle class everywoman of American society Sarah Boyle. As with everything in the observable universe, Boyle exists in a closed system – which is presented as her kitchen at breakfast time, feeding her children cereal from a box that displays Tony the Tiger on one side and a Shakespeare mask on the other.
The reduction of the two to “equalised figures of everyday consumption” reflects the ‘equalisation’ of thermal energy that was theorised to occur at the end of the universe some 115 years earlier, but the parallels between Boyle’s system and that of the cosmos extends further through the novel. She is described to be surrounded by subtle disorder: dust, bobby pins, dog hair etc., all of which is ever-increasing and threatens to overwhelm Boyle despite her best efforts to keep her system in order through meticulous housework (an effort mirrored in the structure of the novel as reminiscent of a lab report – organised, detailed, and matter-of-fact). Eventually, Boyle gives in with a final surge of energy before entropy is reached, throwing the eggs she holds across the ruined kitchen but ultimately coming full circle and never escaping the system in which she exists.
Zoline’s hopeless cyclic narrative is a feature typical of the Postmodern movement to which ‘Heat Death’ belongs. Moreover, Postmodernism bases much of its theory around the inevitability of chaos, and the typical features of such literature – fragmented narrative, irony, pessimism, and the stream of consciousness – reflect this in their tendency to bring the protagonists back to the point at which they began the novel. Like Romanticism encapsulated science’s ability to both create and destroy beauty, Postmodernism makes use of the (sometimes overwhelming) nature of the universe to communicate our own feelings of suffocating meaninglessness.
Though it may seem rather morbid, Heat Death is an example of the motif of space adapting to fit the ideals of the respective movements prominent at the time. It is used less as a fixed symbol, and more as a vehicle for expressing emotions or concepts beyond the walls of our everyday lives; the group of science fiction works to which Heat Death belongs was described to “consistently seek to defamiliarise what is accepted as real and to make us question the most common assumption we have about human afflictions and desires”.
The Postmodern perspective of space, for a slightly more positive outlook, helps us better understand our own condition and finds parallels between the universe’s seemingly meaningless descent into chaos and our own sense of purpose, or lack thereof. Even in the bleakest sense, Heat Death is an indication of our deep connection to the cosmos evoked through literature, through which the darkest and most fundamental aspects of humanity can be explored in great depth.
To some extent, throughout history, the cosmos has remained immune to the ideological divides between science and literature, because both feel equally entitled to its exploration despite their attitudes towards the other. Literary culture believes the beauty of space can be appreciated despite science’s tendency to dismantle such things, and science can utilise the abstract elements of literature to protect cosmic theories against religious backlash.
It would be perhaps inaccurate to say the divide between the Two Cultures has been completely mended, some even claiming they are even further at odds in the modern day. Their need to cooperate is nonetheless crucial, and stretches far beyond the desire for scientifically accurate space-fiction. To understand the world around us – to ultimately progress as a species – a balance of objective and subjective perspectives is vital.
Astrophysics may provide the factual basis for discovery, but the speculation and creativity sparked by its inclusion in literature helps connect these discoveries to the human spirit. Despite their differences, “the notion that human beings are capable of moving from barbarism to civilisation by using their intellectual and moral capacities,” Robert Whelan states in an article marking 50 years since Snow’s lecture, “is an idea which ought to unite scientists and literary intellectuals alike.”
What space is used to symbolise varies according to the different societies in which the authors were writing, but a theme common throughout is representation of that which is much greater than ourselves. It can be used as a satirical tool – one to freely criticise the culture of science by using a setting beyond our own world, much like how Jacobean drama is set in European courts in order to scrutinise English nobility without accusations of lese-majesty – and as one for introspection, in which we can connect our own experiences to those of the universe itself.
Space in literature epitomises discovery, new horizons, and the hope of a better future, both within society and ourselves. Our fascination with the cosmos, our speculation of what lies beyond, is arguably what makes us human. Our imagination is indeed the “prime agent of all human perception” and never more so than when it is free to contemplate the universe.