Will trade literature for science?
November 2, 2009 9:35 AM   Subscribe

Which books can a physicist and a liberal arts type trade to gain a deeper appreciation of literature and science, respectively? Ideally, these would be books we could both read and enjoy.

When we met, he was working on his PhD in particle theory and I was studying English literature. Worlds collide, sparks fly, and some four years later, he's Mr. Doctor McPhysics and I'm Little Miss Publishing-Noob. We're still happily together, but I still don't “get” science as much as I'd like, and I'd really like to find some great works of literature that he could enjoy too.

I didn't really take any hard science or math in college, and the science education in my high school was abysmal, so my education is rather lopsided. I have the basics and the odd bits and pieces I've picked up over the years (usually high-level physics), so I'd really love to find some really good, non-technical science books to supplement my unsteady diet of sci fi novels and pop sci articles.

As for Mr. Doctor McP, thanks to philosopher parents, he grew up much better read than many people I know now, but given that he spends the majority of his time slogging through academic papers, when he picks up a novel, he tends to gravitate to the lighter side of things (Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, etc.). That is totally understandable and swell (I loved those series too!), but I'd also love to share a bit more of the adult literary world with him.

Please hope me with this meeting of minds!
posted by Diagonalize to Education (40 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly, I think Carl Sagan's Cosmos could be great for either of you. For you, you'd get a glimpse into the ways very technical science can be really beautiful and globally important. For him, he'd get a chance to see a scientist who is very much in love with language and storytelling.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:41 AM on November 2, 2009

Dammit, I mean Contact, obviously.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:42 AM on November 2, 2009

For your husband: would you accept a "cheat sheet" in book form? A few years back was the first of the "1000 [blanks] you must [blank] before you die" books, and I picked up a couple of them. The "books you must read" one is actually pretty fun -- it's not just a list, each book has got a fairly decent little thumbnail summary and a review, and sometimes they go into "why this was significant" (i.e., the publishing furor surrounding ULYSSES gets discussed in that section). It's kind of interesting to browse through in its own right, and you can get some good reading list ideas that way.

For you: the cartoonist Larry Gonick's "cartoon guides" are surprisingly informative, plus they're cartoons! I've heard of his cartoon guides being used as supplemental reading in some college courses, they're that good. I'm a huge fan of his history ones, which are very exhaustive and well-written.

I know he's got a Cartoon Guide to Physics; there are ones for various fields in math as well. (And one for sex too, which is all kinds of fun.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:42 AM on November 2, 2009

I recommend that you introduce Dr. McPhysics to Iain M. Banks, particularly his Culture novels. Banks writes some seriously fun rollicking science fiction adventures. And the best part is that, once Dr. McP has chewed up all of those, you can innocently suggest that he might also enjoy some of Mr. Banks non-sci-fi offerings, which are themselves quite well regarded entries in mainstream modern literature.

And as for yourself, Dr. McP might scoff a little bit at their layman's terms nature, but I've quite enjoyed Paul Davies' science books. Particularly About Time.
posted by 256 at 9:47 AM on November 2, 2009

Oh, and if poetry's on the curriculum, definitely get him to read Nabokov's "Pale Fire" (in quotation marks because I mean the poem, not the entire novel). It's engrossing, beautifully-written (Nabokov, after all), and really a very easy and not intimidating read.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:57 AM on November 2, 2009

oh, and I obviously meant contemporary literature, not modern literature.
posted by 256 at 9:57 AM on November 2, 2009

On the meta-level perhaps, but how about C.P. Snow's famous lecture, The Two Cultures?
posted by galaksit at 10:01 AM on November 2, 2009

As a literature major, I liked reading Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Not about physics per se, but a lot about scientific theory and the process of scientific discoveries. It's not literary, and is more of a philosophy text, but I found it pretty fascinating when I first read it.

You can also try reading A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. It's not as accessible as I was led to believe, but it seems to be a popular book to have on the bookshelf.

As for literature for the science guy, maybe Rikki Ducornet's Phosphor in Dreamland? It's a short book about fantastical science. Totally literary, but touches science (the properties of capturing light).
posted by jabberjaw at 10:04 AM on November 2, 2009

I highly recommend Richard Powers' Gold Bug Variations, which is a beautifully written narrative of love, loss, and a fictionalized account of the race to discover the structure of DNA.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:06 AM on November 2, 2009

Daniel Boorstin's entire series (The Creators, The Discoverers, The Seekers)

Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything
posted by vito90 at 10:15 AM on November 2, 2009

Gravity's Rainbow?
posted by milarepa at 10:16 AM on November 2, 2009

I agree that the Gonick "Cartoon Guides" are superb. I specifically recommend the Physics and Genetics books as being especially worthwhile.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:24 AM on November 2, 2009

Trade Coming of Age in the Milky Way for Lolita.
posted by kiltedtaco at 10:26 AM on November 2, 2009

Science meets literature = Thomas Pynchon

Read "Against the Day" together, have him explain the math references to you while you do literary exegesis.
posted by themel at 10:29 AM on November 2, 2009

Feynman's QED.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:33 AM on November 2, 2009

I don't want to sound too contrarian, but introducing a non-literature person to Thomas Pyncheon might be enough to make that person hate literature forever.
posted by jabberjaw at 10:36 AM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you haven't seen it, you might be interested in this excellent thread, which does a good job of conveying why some people love science why other people just don't "get" the appeal of science at all. There are some fantastic comments in there.

As rare as it is for "humanities people" to appreciate science, getting "science-only people" to appreciate literature (if they don't already) seems even harder. I think it's because you have to find human beings intrinsically interesting—which, surprisingly, some people don't (especially if they're the type who just loves solving problems).

I can't think of any books off the top of my head, but I'll tell you what worked for me. I really like literature, but I used to be a "science person", which I attribute to English classes in school: we would read novels and say things about the characters, symbols and metaphors, etc., but nobody said why it was supposed to matter. Who cares why some imaginary person acts in a certain way, or what a certain symbol means? To people who don't already care, this is totally mysterious. Why would anyone see a made-up story as anything more than entertainment?

What made me start caring about literature was philosophy, which is somewhere between literature and science. I got into philosophy through math--it was logical problem-solving like science, but it was fundamentally about human beings. Even the most technical philosophy, which looks a lot like science on the surface, is only worth doing because people are confused about how to live their lives. I didn't know this at first, but it became more and more apparent over time. Eventually, I realized that human problems really were amenable to careful reasoning, that you could say things about them that wouldn't just sound nice, but would matter. Finally, I realized that's what literature does too, in a different way: the reason people get all serious about novels is that novels provide raw material for thinking about issues in real life, which are worth getting serious about.

So I don't know if Dr. McPhysics has already read some philosophy because of his parents, but if he hasn't, maybe he should try. If he has, maybe try giving him some more "literary" philosophy (Plato, Kierkegaard...) or literature with a clear message or theme that he cares about. Approaching literature from the direction of entertainment seems wrong to me, because it hides what "serious" literature is really for. Obviously, it's great if literature is entertaining, but he won't get why it's better than Harry Potter if you choose it only for that reason.
posted by k. at 10:40 AM on November 2, 2009

As She Climbed Across the Table was written for the two of you!
She's a particle physicist, he's a liberal arts type...sparks fly...well, seems like you know the story (or do you?... dum dum dum).
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:42 AM on November 2, 2009

Also: Gold Bug Variations (literary novel with a lot of science in it, if you think science might help make the literature part more palatable)
posted by k. at 10:47 AM on November 2, 2009

Every year, I pick up the new book of the series "Best American Science Writing" and I skip around and read the chapters (articles) that interest me. You might like this, too, and you could use it to find your favorite science niche and go from there.

I would also recommend to you any books by Michael Pollan, where he traces the history of botany of food items. It's not physics, but his work is easy and fun to read.

Also, I am seconding anything by Carl Sagan. I loved "The Dragons of Eden." Or get his video series "Cosmos" - I know you asked for books, but this series knocked my socks off. AND it is physics!

As for your guy, how about "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay"? It has comic books, war, social history, and it is well-regarded. I couldn't put it down.
posted by Knowyournuts at 10:51 AM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Not that I've anything personal against Pynchon, but I get the feeling that slinging Gravity's Rainbow or its like at a guy who would usually rather curl up with a nice description of Quidditch seems like a good way to scare him off of reading literature for years.

I'd rather give him an interesting and engaging book that has nothing at all to do with science than a very dense, postmodern, science-based tome. He already has plenty of science in his life, but I don't know that heavy literary theory is the best counter to that. I guess I'm hoping to find some well-written literature that would appeal to his more rational and analytic brain, rather than being directly science-related. He's also read lots and lots of philosophy, so there's no lack there. He's not at all dismissive of literature, just as I am not dismissive of science; we're just not as well-versed as we could be.

I guess I should have been clearer about what I "get" about science. I did see the thread about people who don't "get" science, but that wasn't how I meant it. I love science and get very frustrated with people who are wary or dismissive of math and science. I definitely "get" science in that sense, but I don't have a strong enough background in it to feel fully comfortable with some of the very complicated concepts that get thrown around in my day to day life. When you spend a lot of time around physicists, surprise surprise, they talk a lot about physics, and when you're the only non-physicist at the table, it can be a little overwhelming sometimes.
posted by Diagonalize at 10:54 AM on November 2, 2009

Response by poster: On preview, exactly what jabberjaw said.
posted by Diagonalize at 10:56 AM on November 2, 2009

Nthing Richard Powers. Galatea 2.2 would be another top pick.
posted by Skot at 11:05 AM on November 2, 2009

For you, I'd recommend Feynman's "The Character of Physical Law." it is a simple and elegant depiction of what science is about; I, at least, find it kind of beautiful. I'll also second "Coming of Age in the Milky Way," by Timothy Ferris -- I gave it to my (literature-loving) mother once, and she responded by going out and buying the rest of Ferris's books, so something in it seemed to click.

For him, maybe you can think about giving him "literature of ideas" sorts of books -- i.e. works in which an idea or premise or puzzle is central (or at least as important as all the other elements of character, plot, etc). He might really like some of David Foster Wallace's work, for instance. Or, if you're looking for shorter fiction, maybe something by George Saunders?

I say these as a physicist/astronomer who likes to read non-scientific stuff, so ymmv. (I love pretty much everything by DFW or Saunders, and a bunch of my physicist friends do too.) Oooh, and I've given out copies of "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" to a few scientist-friends, and all of them claimed to have liked it, so maybe throw that in the mix too? Ditto for "John Henry Days," by Colson Whitehead.

have fun!
posted by chalkbored at 11:11 AM on November 2, 2009

You could start him with some Vonnegut--maybe Cat's Cradle, which has just enough science.
posted by Kafkaesque at 11:11 AM on November 2, 2009

Strongly seconding OHenryPacey's recommendation of As She Climbed Across the Table. I, a literature person myself, once gave that book to my physicist ex-boyfriend, and he quite literally stayed up all night reading it the day I gave it to him. Then he went out and bought more of Lethem's books.
posted by dizziest at 11:14 AM on November 2, 2009

I enjoyed Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which is mathy and sort of computer sciencey.

I think it's harder to make lit recommendations for scientists than the other way around--there's just so much to pick from, it's all a matter of personal taste. My science major boyfriend loves Middlemarch but there's nothing particularly sciencey about it. Are there any literary works you can think of that your fella has enjoyed?

I would like to second the recommendation of Pale Fire, it's kind of analytical and fun and it doesn't have as much as the tough vocab/obscure allusions as Lolita. Speak, Memory is pretty good too.
posted by phoenixy at 11:14 AM on November 2, 2009

Response by poster: He was actually the one who properly introduced me to Vonnegut, but otherwise, great call, Kafkaesque.

I went cherry-picking from his childhood bookshelf awhile back and snagged an armload of Vonnegut, some Lord of the Rings, and The Bell Jar, of all things. He was also a theater geek in a former life, so I know he's read at least a little Stoppard. I don't think he's ever really been that into science fiction, although some of his favorite books as a kid had a strong fantasy aspect to them (The Phantom Tollbooth, The Chronicles of Narnia, etc). We're both big on puzzles, so I think chalkbored probably has a good bead on some of the things that might appeal to him.
posted by Diagonalize at 11:30 AM on November 2, 2009

As a physicist with interested and intelligent parents who never really took many science classes, I gave them a copy of The Flying Circus of Physics, by one of the co-authors of a ubiquitous intro physics textbook. It's now on permanent "by the toilet" display at the house... I think they liked it? It's a bunch of brain-teaser type physics problems - not solving a problem using math, but figuring out "why does Y happen when you do X?" from physics-based concepts. It doesn't teach physics, as such, and it's not about modern string theory and quantum mechanics concepts; it's about things like why the sound of your spoon clinking against your mug changes pitch while you stir sugar into your coffee.

To help him out, I'd suggest short stories. I'm an avid reader, but not a literature buff, and I have a tendency to skim-read way too fast, which is okay, Harry Potter doesn't mind. But Real Literature throws me off because there are too many words I can't skip, so I get confused when I skim over them anyway. Or I'm used to reading for content, and artful descriptive scenes don't always trigger as "content" to my reading style. Short stories are easier to digest, and I can slow down my expectations with the reminder that every word is actually important, and keep those horses under control for that fairly small number of pages.
posted by aimedwander at 11:46 AM on November 2, 2009

I have the perfect book for you. Uncle Tungsten, by Oliver Sacks. Seriously, I cannot overstate the awesomeness of this book.

The book is Sacks' reflection on his childhood, which occurred in a house full of doctors and scientists, but also one in which plays were acted out and (as I recall) the parents met in college in an Ibsen society. It's a family life I can barely even imagine.

The best thing about the book is the way it expresses the growth of scientific understanding within a single person. Simple concepts are learned first and become the foundation of new and more difficult concepts. This is all accompanied by a real sense of wonder and excitement. The book is neither "literary" nor particularly "scientific". It's just a personal reflection (from an admittedly exceptional person) on science (chemistry, in particular) from a child's perspective.
posted by lex mercatoria at 11:52 AM on November 2, 2009

Seconding As She Climbed Across The Table.
posted by nicwolff at 11:58 AM on November 2, 2009

Ooh. If he likes Stoppard, I'd definitely recommend Arcadia to both of you--amazing play with some light physics and math themes. Actually just about anything by Stoppard is great but Arcadia is one of his better plays.
posted by phoenixy at 12:12 PM on November 2, 2009

Response by poster: Arcadia is the play I know he's definitely read. We've both read it and enjoyed it a lot.
posted by Diagonalize at 12:27 PM on November 2, 2009

Perhaps start him out with short fiction, then; there are plenty of wonderful anthologies of short fiction out there. From reading a lot of short fiction, he may then begin to understand and appreciate certain eras, styles and authors. One recommendation is You've Got to Read This, in which authors choose the short story that influenced them.

And seconding George Saunders. CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is excellent literary short fiction.
posted by jabberjaw at 12:34 PM on November 2, 2009

For the physicist: one of my close friends, who's a particle physicist, love George Eliot novels-- big, deep, moral issues and questions in all her books. I'm a lit-y person, and I love George Eliot, too. I recommend Middlemarch. You can take turns reading it out loud to each other... :)

For the literati: you might try reading Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time, or any of Richard Feynman's memoir-ish books (Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman), or The God Particle by Leon Lederman.
posted by airguitar2 at 2:47 PM on November 2, 2009

For you, the nonscientist, I recommend Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything (think that's right, if not it's pretty close).

He's a wonderful writer and this book arose because he "knew" some science facts, but had no idea why he knew them, or why Science had come to believe them either. It's a very engaging read and covers a lot of scientific ground. It's not totally free of scientific errors (I used to give the chapter on atoms to my intro chem students, and Bryson repeats one very common, and very misguided, newbie error, to my chagrin), but it does a very good job of conveying the big picture. And with lots of great stories thrown in to put the info and the scientists in context.
posted by Sublimity at 2:57 PM on November 2, 2009

Well, I'm a liberal arts type myself, so what I'd recommend for you besides Bryson's Short History and Hawkings Brief History is Isaacson's biography of Einstein, which also includes some excellent discussions of physics theories on a layman's level, and Brian Greene's very well written The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory.

For your partner, I would suggest some of the basic works that underlie all lWestern literature like the Bible, King James version, and The Golden Bough, and Bullfinch's Mythology. And your favorite books, of course!
posted by bearwife at 3:46 PM on November 2, 2009

I like Alan Lightman as an author. His Einstein's Dreams is a fragmented book about how many ways time could be experienced in multiple universes. I think Feynman is great fun to read too.

And how about something like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Here is a book trailer for the sequel. Sense and sensibility and sea monsters.
posted by mearls at 4:47 PM on November 2, 2009

answering as an engineering student with a literary bent:

Definitely Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman. I also agree with the Richard Powers suggestions.

I appreciate books by Italo Calvino for how much it wakes up my analytical mind (particularly If on a winter's night a traveler), but wikipedia categorizes him as postmodern so others' mileages may vary.

Thomas Wharton is someone else to look into. I really loved how Salamander explores themes of literature and the book as a (meta?)physical object. I found his blog googling for his name just now. It might give you some insight about whether he's worth checking out.

David Mitchell and Haruki Murakami plays some fun tricks in their books (personal favourites: Cloud Atlas and Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World). Helen DeWitt (The Last Samurai - of no relation to the Tom Cruise movie) is lovely.

While I enjoyed Cosmos and most other things Sagan wrote, I really really really dislike Contact - it seemed to occupy the most uncomfortable place between pop sci fi and 'literary novel.' Around the same time I read some essay collections by Stephen Jay Gould and found those fulfilling in the areas Contact was not.

I thought The Origins of Species was surprisingly accessible, especially editions with the sketches and footnotes included.

Another idea is Flatland, if you two haven't already read it. Also, more suggestions on the 'geek'/sci-fi end are Microserfs, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Ray Bradbury, and On The Nature of Human Romantic Interaction.
posted by dustyasymptotes at 6:13 PM on November 2, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for everyone's input. I showed him this question, and it looks like we've got a lot of super reading material lined up now!
posted by Diagonalize at 9:57 PM on November 3, 2009

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