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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 377-378

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Book Review

The Nuclear Muse: Literature, Physics, and the First Atomic Bombs

The Nuclear Muse: Literature, Physics, and the First Atomic Bombs. By John Canaday. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000. Pp. xviii+303. $60/$22.95.

In The Nuclear Muse, John Canaday, poet, teacher, tutor, and student of science, using techniques of literary analysis (close reading of texts with a touch of Derrida), tries to demonstrate that science (specifically physics) and literature share "crucial common ground" (p. xiii). In so doing, Canaday joins the ranks of sociologists, historians, and anthropologists (Bruno Latour, Sharon Traweek, Hugh Gusterson, among others) who have donned literary lab coats and peered into the universe beneath the microscope. Canaday's approach, much like Gusterson's, is to examine a number of "texts" produced by physicists: Niels Bohr's "The Quantum Postulate," his notable attempt to describe the unintelligible paradox of complementarity; the Blegdamsvej Faust, a humorous rewriting and performance of the Faust myth by physicists at the end of a 1932 conference in Copenhagen; The Los Alamos Primer, lectures used to train newcomers to Los Alamos; and Leo Szilard's 1961 novella, The Voice of the Dolphins. Canaday also scrutinizes Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban's remarkable futuristic novel about England after a nuclear holocaust.

The strength of Canaday's book lies in the encapsulated history of modern physics he presents to make his case for a connection between fiction and physics. He explains abstract and complex ideas with an enviable degree of clarity. Yet too often he employs a kind of verbal legerdemain. For example, his deconstruction of the word primer (The Los Alamos Primer) involves hidden meanings--insiders at the lab versus outsiders--and "metaphorical connotations" that Canaday himself admits might "strike many readers as strange or extraneous" (p. 115). Canaday later uses the term "fiction" to indicate "an imaginary structure made of words or actions that do not exist in the 'real' world in the particular form in which the fiction depicts them" (p. 124). Defined that way, anything could be fiction. Canaday, of course, wants his definition to apply to the world of quantum mechanics, where evidence of the senses is notably missing. Einstein's [End Page 377] "thought experiments," which "narrate situations that could never exist," are also fictions (p. 125). One wonders how such rubbery definitions advance a connection between literature and physics.

After analyzing these works, and discussing, with precision and intelligence, other events in twentieth-century physics, Canaday concludes, somewhat cautiously, that "one cannot understand the real difference between science and literature without also understanding their similarities" (p. 251). He then adds an envoi. "I have been working . . . not to disprove the reigning belief in the differences between science and literature, but to sharpen and refine our understanding of their relationship through an exploration of the circular pattern of interaction between physics and literature manifest in the development of the first atomic bombs" (p. 251). Unfortunately for Canaday, circular patterns do not make for strong arguments. That physicists must use metaphors, and the occasional literary allusion, to describe the world revealed to them by their various instruments, is a pleasing and perhaps interesting notion, one that Freud would approve. It is not an insight that should launch any intellectual ships.

This is not to say it is fruitless to sift through the writings of physicists, or to examine such writings in the light of other disciplines--even some that, like literature, seem to lack an apparent connection to the work of the scientist. The problem is what can be done with these siftings, what we can make them mean. In the 1959 Rede Lectures, C. P. Snow, British novelist, physicist, and parliamentary secretary, employed the phrase "two cultures" to describe the chasm that separated literary and scientific cultures. He was not optimistic about building bridges between them. In 1990, Leo Marx, confirming the suspicions of his MIT colleagues, wrote that the two-culture divide was "much more deeply rooted, and cognitively more consequential" than even Snow...


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