September 30, 2016KR BlogKR

Benjamin Kolp: “A Response to Jamie Zvirzdin’s ‘Observations of a Science Editor’”

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Science and Fiction: A Two-Way Street

Jamie Zvirzdin’s essay shows how, in scientific papers, literary tools like metaphor can help explain confusing scientific topics. Similarly, in fiction, metaphors from science can offer insight into human nature. It’s a two-way street, and when scientific fiction is at its best, traffic is flowing rapidly in both directions. Story illuminates science, science illuminates story, and we are all the brighter for it.

Take for example Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen, in which physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr are reunited in 1941. As they talk through the paradoxes of quantum mechanics, they imagine electrons and photons as people walking around a city. But Heisenberg and Bohr are also struggling to understand their own relationship, and their own history. Frayn plays the metaphor both ways, and in the back of the audience’s mind, physics and humanity blur. Is light a wave or a particle, or both? Are Bohr and Heisenberg friends and colleagues, or enemies in a world war, or both? If you know where an electron is now, can you ever know where it is going? Can two old friends looking back on the past ever agree on how they got here?

Or consider Einstein’s Dreams, the novel-in-vignettes by Alan Lightman, which imagines different possible natures of time that haunt Einstein’s sleep as he formulates his theory of relativity: a world where effect can precede cause, one where time will end on a certain day, one where time slows as you approach a certain point and would stop entirely if you could reach it. These dreams show not only how a scientist’s mind works, but how all of our minds work, because Lightman populates them with people—bakers and postal clerks, parents and schoolchildren—whose reactions to the different workings of time shed an optimistic light on human nature. In the world where time will soon end, people rush to do good deeds to make up for past sins. In the world with no past and present, artists thrive on unpredictability, people live in the moment, and “every kiss is a kiss of immediacy.” And people flock to the spot where time stops, in an attempt to preserve the beauty in their lives: parents keep their children young and happy, and lovers—as on Keats’s Grecian urn—freeze their romance while it’s new and pure. These are as much meditations on the workings of humanity as on the workings of time.

Finally, another play, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, which explores the tension between order and chaos in biology, landscape design, literature, and love at an English country house in both the early nineteenth century and the present day. Classical mechanics, entropy, and chaos theory are illuminated through well-known metaphors: atoms imagined as billiard balls, jam that cannot be stirred out of a bowl of pudding, goldfish in a pond as a simple population model. But it’s the chaos and order of humankind that is truly on stage. The characters are on one hand a blur of unpredictability, distracted by aesthetic and sexual whims. They raze flawless gardens in favor of the latest landscape style. They hide their identity, secretly pan each other’s poetry, and flee the country to escape their debts. They risk life and career for a fling in the gazebo (and in the boat-house, and in the library . . . ). But the time scale of Stoppard’s play allows us to see the order within the human chaos. Each generation has its own artistic aesthetic, its own philosophy of science, and its own precocious young geniuses to redefine both. The garden is plowed under and recreated. The house burns and is rebuilt. Despite the noise in the data, a reassuringly human pattern emerges, shaped by curiosity, passion, and beauty.

As we walk out of Stoppard and Frayn’s plays, or put down Lightman’s book, we experience a brief, euphoric clarity. In that moment, complicated scientific concepts seem simple, and human nature is laid beautifully, optimistically bare. The cat yawns on the bookshelf. The sunset lingers behind the theater. Our neurons crackle with the delicate juxtaposition of science and humanity, and for an instant it all makes perfect sense.

Comments from other contributors to the Poetics of Science online discussion:

L. Shapley Bassen: Splendid to find yet another kindred spirit in this excellent cyber-conference/conversation! We’ve read/seen the same things with similar reaction. I saw Stoppard’s Arcadia at Lincoln Center when it first ran . . . w/young Billy Crudup before he starred in other movies. I look forward to seeing the play again in my local RI regional theater this fall [we moved from NYC]. “Our neurons crackle with the delicate juxtaposition of science and humanity, and for an instant it all makes perfect sense.” Exactly! “Take for example Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen. . . . If you know where an electron is now, can you ever know where it is going?” About which I once wrote:

Physicists at the Beach

Quantum mechanics, not Newtonian physics, applies to subatomic particles. Both the position AND momentum of a particle cannot be known with absolute precision. Either can be known precisely, but then we know nothing about the other. This is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.


He is thirsty, observing
the woman lying on her side on the hot sand,
cheek upon brown arm, eyelids closed, jeweled with sweat.
Her hip is the curve the sky slides down blue,
and the bone beneath is the point all lines derive from.
It is therefore clear… there is no gravity,
only the curve of space, irresistible and slippery
as the sides of the well where all cool waters pool.


Newton arranged it neatly.
Discretion in all matters great and small.
Each fits in its space sweetly;
collision occurs predictably or not at all.

In your arms before the ocean,
More modern theories of motion
become real.
What I feel
is either the parting of waves
where you are in me.

Dawne Shand: So glad that someone else liked Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams. Now I have to go see Copenhagen and Arcadia. . . . Thanks for the excellent introduction to these plays and the reminder of the human, political, and scientific stakes they investigate.