No, But Seriously

I am interested in the way scientific language changes with the passing of time. A sincere science* text, which is by nature written towards objectivity, has no more purpose when its objective ideals are proven to be incorrect. In its way, it becomes a kind of language poetry. Its uselessness becomes like the “uselessness” of literature.

You know what I mean: crazy 17th century biology books earnestly featuring seven-headed hydra, or charmingly innacurate old maps with dragon faces at their edges. Those are almost art pieces, or cultural monuments. “Popular Science” books from the 1950’s and 1960’s, are also good in this way, because they seem aware of themselves as both literary and educational objects. I think their charm is in how recently, comparatively speaking, they were written. They sound almost logical, but still brutishly, mawkishly, misinformed. Read now, these books are practically elegies for an era of scientific optimism and postwar American certainty that I find shattering. They are archaic and tender. Sometimes when you read real earnest Marine Biology texts by people like Rachel Carson, it’s like meeting little curators and scientists puffing out their chests. You want to pat them on the head, in this one way.

Old science books also have a really interesting way of using to taxonomy to cathect “our” (ie, Humankind’s) distance from the world into The Discipline We Call Science. The slime and dust of the world is notably absent, replaced by a sincere hammering-in of our role as guardsmen of a fallible world. As if we weren’t part of it.

I think a similar gesture is made in most monster and horror movies from the same era as the American “Popular Science” boom: again, a cathexis or fetishization of our fear of nature into one incomprehensible beast. Be it a complex of academic jargon or a monster come from the depths, the fear is the same. King Kong is just a giant manifestation of our revulsion at the exotic. Godzilla is our guilt about nuclear warfare.

I like the way that these texts — both the science books and the movies — were so brazen in their time and seem so small now. Even the most seemingly well-founded scientific claims made in the 1950’s, now proven wrong, are like unrequited love letters to a perfect and rational world which doesn’t exist and probably never existed. Science books are love poetry books.

Yet, regardless, this kind of language’s poetics are always unintentional, which puts a damper on my ribald aestheticization of it. And there are great limitations to objective prose. It only allows through the smallest of pores any mention of this illogical world. It cannot describe the grit of sand nor the breadth of emotional reaction to life. The problem lies in an inescapable tautology: to fully understand a scientific, taxonomic, objective conception of the natural world is to be so steeped in scientific idiom that poetics become impossible.

This is a loss, of course. At the same time, I think that there is a great joy in the destruction of the boundaries we’re steeped in. It is evident to me that there is no boundary between ourselves and the world, because this boundary (long called Science) is as variable and flawed as the idea of boundaries themselves. Where does it end, you know?

* The words “science” and “sincere” are really damned close. Are my glasses broken or am I right?


  1. #1 rita
    January 10, 2006

    hey that shark vid was rad. i’ll lay off the hotdogs and dinosaurs for now.

  2. #2 Adrian
    January 10, 2006

    but I’d say nothing’s more poetic than the most heady stuff of the ‘hardest’ science: the branes of string theory; the hazy ambiguity of electrons. Hell, there are probably a dozen chapbooks titled “Dark Matter”. Just because their work is full of jargon and peer-reviewd papers doesn’t mean that scientists aren’t grasping at truth with as much elegant flailing as poets. And both are just as successful, when it comes down to it (not at all). Cool blog, by the way.

  3. #3 e*rock
    January 13, 2006

    kinda of related, but its also funny how the politics of the scientists can effect the “truth”. like if you have an idea outside of the regular accepted ideas you won’t get funding to follow through to prove it, to become part of the mainstream consciousness. not just like “the world is flat” but this stuff even happens today which seems weird.

  4. #4 Andrew V Peterson
    January 21, 2006

    I would like to think your assertion of an “inescapable tautology” is somewhat dubious, and that while Absolute Truth may not exist, there is still truth, and falsity, and those Pop Science magazines from the ’50s are still more “true” than a seven-headed hydra.

    What is interesting is that this type of idea, in the humanities, is seen as “reactionary” or “formalist.”

    So, it’s funny. Scientists don’t get funding if they believe in art, and arts/humanities scholars don’t get funding if they believe in science.

    Of course, all of this is changing–>

  5. #5 Claire
    January 22, 2006

    Sure. Or maybe give it a couple of hundred years and Popular Science will seem as mawkish as a hydra. In any case, our truths are heavily dependent on the era in which we live.

    I don’t mean to be so absolutist. There are definitely some incredible conjunctions, especially in the humanities and the arts, where it seems a scientific aesthetic has become in vogue. Eduardo Kac is a good example, but even people like Damien Hirst do it.

  6. #6 Andrew V Peterson
    January 24, 2006


  7. #7 solenoid
    July 9, 2006

    There is a lot of interest in cryptozoology in the arts recently. Bates college in Maine is having a big lecture series about it, with accompanying art show.

    Cryptozoology falls into what is called “fringe science” where a lot of speculative things are studied, and while many are the concepts of bonafide kooks, Gallileo was basically considered a fringe science proponent by supporting the Copernican idea that the sun was at the center of the solar system, not the earth. He was banished for being so silly.

    A few months ago, a huge black panther-like feline was killed in Australia by a hunter who’d been hunting in his area for 50 years. For over 100 years, there have been stories of “big cats” in the woods in parts of Australia and it was chalked up in the cryptozoology indexes as yet another fictional-sighted animal like the bigfoot, yeti, basilisk, etc. Australia had no history of large feline species at all, no hair or droppings or animals ever found.

    Now, in 2006 they are examining the DNA to figure out where it descended from.

New comments have been disabled.