Facts and Dreams

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BOOKS FEBRUARY 23, 2012

Facts and Dreams

Fictions of the Cosmos: Science and Literature in the Seventeenth Century
Frédérique Aït-Touati | translated by Susan Emanuel
University of Chicago Press, 261 pp., $45

Here is one of the Proverbs of Hell: “What is now proved was once, only imagin’d.” When William Blake inscribed these devilish words in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he meant to tweak the claims of science. Imagination always came first, while facts and evidence bobbed in its wake. From Blake’s point of view, the proverb laments a fatal historical shift from “only” as all-encompassing to “only” as “merely.” At one time human beings viewed the world as a reflection of their own desires and visions, but now they disbelieve whatever cannot be proved; the Book of Nature has taken the place of the Bible. The scientific revolution brings out the devil in Blake. He wants to write a new bible, to loosen the iron grip of reason and put imagination back on its throne.

Are imagination and science really at war? To some extent the so-called conflict seems bogus. A benevolent reading of Blake’s proverb might reduce it to common sense, or to a maxim that any scientist might follow in applying for a grant to test an idea. No idea, no funding; no imagined Higgs boson, no CERN. In this respect the hypothetical construct that drives attempts to prove or disprove it is not the opposite of science but its prime mover. Imagination and proof couple together as tightly as mind and body, or as Blake’s visions and the books that he makes with his hands. Great scientists are visionaries, too.

And yet the conjunction disturbs many people. During the seventeenth century, when modern notions of science first began to take form, polemics against the power of imagination rose often to fever pitch. Pascal thought that imagination, the “mistress of error and falsehood,” tragically ruled the world, seducing the wise and foolish alike with empty shows that prevailed over reason and substance; and he and Descartes accused each other of succumbing to it. In a famous passage of The Assayer, Galileo ridiculed an enemy for believing that natural philosophy—or what we now call science—“is a book of fiction created by some writer, like the Iliad or Orlando Furioso, books in which the least important thing is whether what is written there is true.” On the contrary, “philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze. But it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering about in a dark labyrinth.” Precise calculation trumps the most elegant fable.

Most seventeenth-century scientists joined the attack. One standard view of the scientific revolution, repeated in many textbooks, explains what happened in terms of three related breaks from older traditions: the disenchantment of nature, the mathematization of nature, the mechanization of nature. What all have in common is what they all oppose, the image of nature as somehow responsive to human concerns. Nature, the new philosophers argue, has nothing to do with just-so stories or myths; it follows objective and verifiable laws. In this dispensation, flora and fauna were not created solely to serve or mimic mankind, the heavens go round without controlling our fates, and bodies, like clocks, keep ticking without ulterior purposes of their own. Previous ages had wanted to know why things existed; now the main question became how they worked. Ever since then the question of how has held sway in science. Lab rats are told to check their imaginations at the door and stick to solid data. Science and literature occupy different parts of the campus.

Somewhere between them lies the history of science. As an academic discipline, it hardly existed in this country before the mid-twentieth century, and those who built the field tended to be uneasily aware that explaining the science and getting it right was more important than making up stories about it. Even professors of literature accepted the priority of science. The title of Newton Demands the Muse (1946), borrowed by Marjorie Nicolson from an eighteenth-century poem, expresses the pecking order: first Newton demonstrated effects of light in the Opticks, then poets (and painters) were prompted, or forced, to illustrate what he had proved. Nicolson, a dominant scholar in her time, certainly did love poetry, and she was dismayed by what it had lost when nature was disenchanted. But imagination had long since ceded to science its task of defining and comprehending the world. At best, the literary historian could help historians of science to chronicle the enormous changes that radical, rational ways of thinking had brought about not only in technology but also in human self-understanding. The mathematization and mechanization of nature were no longer theories, at least in the West; they were plausible pictures of things as they are.

In recent decades, however, scholars have been much less respectful, let alone awed by the “truth claims” of science. “Science studies,” a field that sprang up in the 1970s, explicitly challenged the notion that any “pure science” could be exempt from social, cultural, and historical forces. Like any other human activity, instead, scientific knowledge had been constructed, not plucked directly from the air or from the nature of things. All beliefs were contingent and had to be set in a context. Nor did the replacement of one set of ideas by another point to a steady line of progress, any more than a change of regimes or musical styles always results in something better. The winners might write the history, at least for a while, but they too would be eventually overthrown, as surely as the Newtonian universe yielded to space-time, quanta, and strings. Perhaps the scientific revolution itself was an empty phrase, or an effort to confer an aura of inevitability on one faction in a continuing and ragged process.

Such arguments sent a taint of relativism into the precincts of science, and scientists usually gagged at the smell. That reflex continues. Not long ago I heard a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist cut off a question in mid sentence because he caught a whiff of science studies. He would not listen. The only thing he cared for, he said, was the truth.

Meanwhile, for many literary scholars, the gulf between imagination and science has narrowed. One reason may be that reality itself, as cosmologists now perceive it, has come to seem increasingly surreal. At a time when the universe where we live appears to be stuffed with black holes and invisible matter, and an infinite number of other universes might coexist or overlap with ours, the fictions of poets and novelists look timidly down to earth. A similar strain runs through the visions conjured up by information technology and by the life sciences, which promise to shake old certainties about consciousness, life, and what it means to be human. Science fiction can hardly compete.

Yet the blurring of lines between science and fiction opens more room for imagination to play. The days when science fiction seemed a specialized genre, largely confined to pulp magazines, have passed into an absorption by the academy and the mainstream, when many writers and critics refuse to distinguish it from any other kind of story (see 1Q84). That did not use to be the case. A great deal of effort once went into separating “hard” science fiction—scientifically well-grounded, and often written by scientists themselves—from the “soft” variety which was scientifically unsound or cockeyed, and often written by uninformed adolescents like me. Both these kinds, in turn, were opposed to “fantasy,” where imagination liked to turn reality on its head. Vigorous critics fiercely guarded the fort of brute and stubborn facts against any inroads of treacherous “pseudoscience.”

One crack in the wall broke out in 1950, when the science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard published an article called “Dianetics: A new science of the mind,” in Astounding Science Fiction. Subsequently that science, which many people thought all too astounding, morphed into a religion whose name, Scientology, heralds an exquisite confusion of realms. The confusion has spread ever since. For those who actually practice some science, the threat of bad science, fake science, mercenary science, and politically popular anti-science remains a dark shadow that must be defied at every moment in every way. For those who observe scientific work from a distance, however, it can seem the product of one school of thought or one rhetorical mode, without any special privilege or lock on the truth; and what it now takes as authentic knowledge might always be re-imagined.

Perhaps the divide between fiction and fact (or “science”) was never completely stable. Some writers—Johannes Kepler, Francis Bacon, John Wilkins, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle—easily crossed it, even as they helped to shape modern ideas of science. Such crossings are the starting point of Frédérique Aït-Touati’s book. In principle, the book carries through a project theorized by Michel Serres, the French philosopher of science, who has long insisted that the history of science and the history of literature cannot be separated. Authors and books participate in both, and specialists whose categories place dead writers in sealed compartments “retroactively create tedious imbeciles,” according to Serres. “The famous problem of the relationship between science and literature is merely an invention. There are bars between them, but we ourselves have put them there, and they are so light and fragile that banishing them requires only a flick of the finger.”

Aït-Touati flicks her finger and dismantles the bars. Though some of the texts she studies, like Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, clearly obey conventions of science, and others, like Margaret Cavendish’s Description of a New Blazing World, are fiction through and through, the book arranges a conversation between them. The cosmos provides a compelling site for such exchanges. Imagination reigns supreme there, because it shapes the worlds astronomers explore. Unlike the tangible worlds discovered by travelers, anatomists, and natural historians, Copernicus’s new solar system was at first only conjectured, and far from proven (as the pope warned Galileo). In such wide spaces there is plenty of room for fiction. Techniques of narration and genres such as voyage literature help to make the new astronomy plausible, Aït-Touati contends. Still more, they induce a state of mind in which science and literature reinforce one another, so that both gain fresh strength.

The partnership begins with voyages to the moon. Here the star text is Kepler’s Somnium, or Dream, a dense and curious book that he worked on for most of his life, from 1593, when he wrote a dissertation about the moon, to 1609, when he incorporated a lunar geography into an allegorical trip to the moon (daemons carry the speaker there), and on to 1630, the year he died, when he readied the book for the press. (It would be published four years later.) The final form of the Dream is unique. A short, mysterious narrative attributes the lunar voyage to “Duracotus,” whose history includes details from Kepler’s own life—a mother adept at witchcraft, an apprenticeship with Tycho Brahe. But the bulk of the work consists of copious notes, five times the length of the story, as well as a “Selenographical Appendix” that supports the description of the moon with telescopic observations.

Kepler’s notes decode the allegory. For instance, when Duracotus says that the recent death of his mother freed him to write, a gloss explains that it is not safe for Science to reveal the truth about the motion of the earth so long as Ignorance, his mother, survives among men. (Kepler is too discreet to mention the death of his own scandalous mother.) But most of the commentary is devoted to astronomical issues, as well as to facts that support the author’s witty inventions. No other book of the time brings the moon so close. It is as if Kepler had been there.

That simulation of a real journey, where precise and detailed information lends weight to fabulous ancient trips to the moon and brings their fantasies home, provides Aït-Touati with her theme. Fiction enables Kepler to go where no one has gone, but at the same time his thought-experiment in physics gives fiction a new and powerful material basis. “Therefore Kepler’s astronomic revolution is just as much a poetic revolution. The lunar fable he invents is not merely a metaphorical flight toward a new heaven of knowledge, nor is it the fabulous site of a satire or a utopia. Instead, it is the extension of the domain of physics to all the stars ‘floating’ in the space of the sky like so many islands, of which the Moon is the paradigm.”

One might put this another way. Among the great astronomers, Kepler was one of the first, if not the first, to insist that his calculations had to record the actual paths of physical bodies—stars, planets, the sun, the moon, and the earth—as they moved through the sky. The mathematical acuity of Ptolemy and Copernicus had labored, with different results, to “save the phenomena”; that is, to develop models that would account for heavenly permutations and allow dependable calendars and predictions of what would happen. Did they believe in epicycles and celestial spheres? The question is hardly relevant; what mattered was how well the models worked. But Kepler did want to believe that he described something up there, something real.

One reason that Kepler discovered an amazing new law, that the planets followed elliptical orbits—despite his metaphysical preference for circles—was that he pictured each planet guided by an angelic intelligence of its own; and surely those spirits could not be expected to master the intricacies of a global positioning system whirled round by epicycles. Heavenly motions had to make better sense. So Kepler set out to imagine a simpler path; and what he imagined soon proved to be a model of how the planets actually moved.

Yet this analysis leaves out a vital part of Kepler’s achievement: his dogged, often fanatical efforts to check out the data that would confirm or refute his precious ideas. Brilliant hypotheses came easily to him, in a flash, but he would spend years or decades cross-examining them. A famous example is the assignment that Tycho gave him, to work out the theory of Mars, which involved a “trivial” eight-minute gap between Ptolemy’s and Tycho’s calculations of Mars’s position. Kepler expected to solve the problem in weeks. Instead nine years passed, with at least seventy recalculations, before his New Astronomy, in 1609, delivered its elliptical answer: “Now, because they could not have been ignored, these eight minutes alone will have led the way to the reformation of all astronomy.”

Other projects took even longer to complete—or to abandon. Unlike other proud scientists, Kepler shares with readers his to-ing and fro-ing, his halting processes of thought, his discarded errors, his divine discontent. In this regard the Dream seems typical, not only because its fiction captures the reality of the moon but also because it cannot stop questioning, interpreting, and revising itself with notes and afterthoughts and free associations. Even after 37 years, what was once imagined still demands more and more proof.

That passion for proof tends to be slighted in Aït-Touati’s account. “Conjectural Machines,” the middle section of the book, contrasts the fictional poetics of Fontenelle’s popular Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds (1686), which introduced the cosmos gallantly to ladies, to the exacting logic of Christiaan Huygens’ Cosmotheoros (1698), whose hypotheses about the planets reject any trace of fiction. Here charm collides with rigor. Yet even this dramatic contrast slides into an opposition of two theoretical models: the hierarchical solar system of Fontenelle, where the prime place of Earth corresponds to the seat of a French monarch, and the absolute equality of planets in Huygens, which reflects Dutch egalitarianism. Each of these is a “figuration.” Despite Huygens’s resolve to prove, and not to imagine, his model, he too resorts to a kind of fiction. Like Duracotus or Cyrano, he travels mentally through space, bearing thought experiments that confirm his conjectures. A story built with the precision of a machine remains a story in spite of itself. Fictions of the cosmos, in this account, draw Huygens unwillingly in.

Here and elsewhere, Aït-Touati’s arguments are adroit and ingenious. Perhaps too ingenious sometimes, as when she superimposes the narrative shifts of the Dream—“six levels involving five intermediate stages”—on Kepler’s early brainstorm that the spacing of the six planets known in his time represents the interlocking of the five regular polyhedra: three-dimensional geometrical figures inscribed in the solar system by God. Maybe. Kepler did like to play formal games, as Aït-Touati says. But the evidence for this one is very thin; a critic might easily count six stages rather than five.

In any case, the argument supports a dubious conclusion: “It seems that poetics and cosmology, literary forms and forms of the world, are inseparable for Kepler.” That might be true for Dante or for Blake. Some poets do like to imagine that their creations and the universe respond to one another, and Kepler might also have wanted to think so. But he knew better. No matter how cleverly he dreamed up literary forms, the great book of the universe was written, as Galileo said, in the language of mathematics. Kepler mastered that language. What kept his name alive in the future would not be poetics but three geometrical laws: the motions of the planets mapped by elegant equations.

Fictions of the Cosmos does not find room for those laws. Instead it focuses on works that twist or blur the line between what is now proved and what was once only imagined. “The interest of the cosmological texts that we have analyzed is to abolish this false division of labor between literature and science, and to show how much the two retain modes of parallel truthfulness, even if they do not fuse with each other.” This is a very slippery proposition. Since parallels never meet, let alone fuse, the question of how much these modes of truthfulness share—or do not share—can never be settled without ifs and buts. Nor could any test conclusively prove or refute such a claim, which depends on definitions of terms like “truthfulness.”

Science can be distinguished from non-science, Karl Popper famously argued, not because it is truthful but rather because it makes falsifiable statements. No one can falsify Kepler’s Dream, but if Kepler’s laws could not be put to the test they would cease to be scientific. In this regard the division of labor between literature and science is not at all false. Good scientists do not release their ideas, however truthful those ideas may seem, until they have tried very hard to disprove them. Literature takes much easier leaps to the moon; Cyrano does not have to worry about what might go wrong.

The strength of Aït-Touati’s book, and also its limitation, is the resourceful way it turns each text into a project: an effort planned to reach a specific goal. Scientists and storytellers, however diverse their goals, are linked by that effort. Thus “the grand coherence of Hooke’s project” consists of “a poetics of proof” that converts abstractions, or things invisible to the naked eye, into visible images, while the project of his enemy Cavendish “is to reestablish a world founded on harmony and equilibrium and constructed around a single, central, and luminous figure of absolute authority.” Aït-Touati herself excels at constructing such figures. In these pages science, like fiction, takes on projects that aim at a grand coherence: a system of the world, a finished book.

In practice, however, most science tends to be much messier than that. Non-scientists often assume that science aims to be definitive, and they are offended when it hedges its bets—for instance, on forecasting climate changes. But Popper’s criterion, as many have noted, implies that no scientific work can ever be considered quite finished. Truth is eternal, we might like to think, but science, Blake thought, has much in common with “the idiot Questioner who is always questioning,/ But never capable of answering.” The pricks of falsification go on forever. By contrast, imagination can wrap things up, without the need to dither over proof. That might be the disadvantage of science, so endlessly open-ended. Yet open-endedness might also be its pride.

Robert Hooke, for instance, was a great projector, who bubbled over with inventive schemes and plans. As Curator of the Royal Society, he designed and carried out at least three experiments each week, and impressed the members so much that they commissioned Micrographia (1665), a book of wonders where magnified fleas and needles bring to light “a new visible world.” Hooke’s artistry is commanding; the titles of recent books lionize him as the Leonardo of London and England. Like Leonardo, he never stopped thinking up new machines, and he worked with his hands as well as his mind (as an architect, he helped rebuild London after the Great Fire of 1666). But also like Leonardo, he often left his projects hanging. Even the words projector and artist might bear negative connotations. Swift’s lampoon of the Royal Society, in Part 3 of Gulliver’s Travels, pokes fun at a projector who builds houses by starting at the roof and working downwards (the principle of the catenary or inverted chain had been formulated by Hooke), as well as at “the universal Artist” who, like Hooke, experiments on air. No grand coherence there.

Most projects fail, in fact. “Between the idea/ And the reality/ Between the motion/ And the act/ Falls the Shadow.” T. S. Eliot knew that. But no one took it more to heart than Hooke: “no man is able to say that he will compleat this or that Inquiry, whatever it be, (The greatest Part of Invention being but a luckey hitt of chance, for the most part not in our own power, and like the wind, the Spirit of Invention bloweth where and when it listeth, and we scarce know whence it came, or whether ‘tis gone).”

Hooke addressed those words to the reader of An Attempt to prove the Motion of the Earth by Observations (1674), a lecture in which he staked his claim to immortality. Aït-Touati maintains that he completed his project. In a cogent analysis, she argues that Hooke was the first to prove Copernicus right, through a novel experiment: by means of instruments, especially his own superior telescope, he demonstrated the motion of the earth by observing “a sensible parallax of the Earths Orb to the fixt Star in the head of Draco.” Henceforth the truth of heliocentrism would depend on seeing what happened in the sky, and not on conjectures or disputations or texts. Like Archimedes, Hooke concludes that he has found a method for moving the earth. Instruments and the rules of mechanics point toward “the true perfection of Astronomy.”

Unfortunately, he promised far more than he could perform. Hooke’s Attempt is remembered not for its observations or method but for its spectacular conclusion, which asserts that he has “discovered some new Motions even in the Earth it self, which I shall hereafter more at large describe, when further tryals have more fully confirmed and completed these beginnings. At which time also I shall explain a System of the World differing in many particulars from any yet known.” Three “Suppositions” follow, which outline the principles of gravitational attraction. Hooke never carried out those further trials. But had his hints anticipated Newton’s theory?

He certainly came to think so. In 1689, two years after Newton’s Principia was published, Hooke prompted his friend John Aubrey to write a letter that credited him with the inverse-square law: “This is the greatest Discovery in Nature that ever was since the World’s Creation. It was never so much as hinted by any man before. I know you will doe him right.” But Anthony à Wood, who received the letter, kept it a secret; and Newton gave Hooke no credit at all. In the Principia itself, he had carefully removed any mention of him, despite their previous correspondence. Bright suppositions were merely shots in the dark, he insisted; only the hard work of mathematics could ever establish the truth.

Poor Hooke! Whatever the rights and wrongs of his claim, the experts and the public sided with Newton. No poetics of proof could match the proof of cold unpoetic mathematical laws. Newton could not abide fiction, and his published writings suppress any hint of what he imagined in private. That may be one reason why he was so adored. Hooke had been all too human, but readers discovered no human weakness in Newton, and even their inability to understand what he wrote seemed evidence of a pure and superior mind. The scientists of the future would learn to bridle their flights of fancy.

Fictions of the Cosmos makes a persuasive case for the intertwining of science and literature in the seventeenth century, but an equally persuasive case might be made that they began to rupture then. Eventually the stories of trips to the moon and extraterrestrial visions would fade away, because they had nowhere to go. Copernicanism offended common sense, according to Bacon, for whom the new astronomy was an abstract mathematical fiction, chimerical as castles in the air. Despite his regard and talent for literature, he feared its abuse: “I finde not any Science, that doth properly or fitly pertaine to the Imagination.”

Pascal was terrified when he envisioned himself amid “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces,” and he responded by condemning the seductive power of imagination. Similarly, the highly imaginative Descartes tried to shake off his visions and dreams. Most natural philosophers harbored the same sort of tension. Though Galileo preached the language of mathematics, he loved and emulated the language of Ariosto, and it was his gift for storytelling, as much as his astronomy, that got him in trouble. The marriage of science and literature might be inspiring, like the marriage of heaven and hell, but their furious bickering was bound to head them toward a divorce.

As children of that divorce, four centuries later, perhaps we still yearn for the parties to get back together. But each has made a happy life of its own. In science studies and science fiction, imagination prevails over proof, just as Blake’s devil might wish. In science itself, a modern devil might alter the proverb: What was once imagined is now, for the most part, disproved. Resistance to wishful thinking is a seventeenth-century legacy that scientists still respect. So irreconcilable differences divided science and literature then, as they continue to do. Yet sometimes we can hope, along with this book, that they will agree to stay friends.

Lawrence Lipking is writing a book, What Galileo Saw, that reimagines the Scientific Revolution.

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