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Conference Review

Beyond Two Cultures, King’s College London, December 11th, 2009

This stimulating one-day conference at King’s marked the fiftieth anniversary of C. P. Snow’s Rede lecture on the ‘two cultures’ in 1959. Incorporating three panels with participants from a broad range of disciplines was both ambitious and commendable. The conference aimed to look ‘beyond’ the nature of Snow’s original distinction and explore manifestations of the current relationship between science and the arts in the twenty-first century.

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Report by Stella Pratt-Smith

The third annual conference of the British Society of Literature and Science was hosted at Keele University and organised by Sharon Ruston and her team with just the right combination of exceptional efficiency and friendliness. Within the gold and gilt Victorian splendour of Keele Hall’s Salvin Room, Helen Small (Pembroke College, Oxford) launched the conference with a discussion of ‘The Function of Antagonism’. Addressing the question of what impact science might have on the ‘unlovely combination of triviality and self-aggrandisement’ perceived in today’s humanities studies, she stressed the vital role of science, its methodology and certainty, with the humanising effects of the arts in evaluating everyday truth and values. In doing so, she set a tone of philosophical yet relevant and urgent enquiry for the subsequent panels and questions.

With an ambitious twenty panels taking place in less than three days, the range of topics, authors and perspectives presented was truly extraordinary. On the first day alone, in Panel 2, Jason Hall (University of Exeter) led a panel on mechanised versification, by which programmers and computers have probed fundamental poetic forms and processes. He was followed by Heidi Kunz (Randolph College, Lynchburg, VA) who publicized the hilariously purple prose of ground-breaking, American author Augusta Jane Evans and the ways in which she borrowed scientific rhetoric to promote new depictions of nineteenth-century womanhood. The interrelationship of nineteenth-century science and poetry was pursued further by Gregory Tate (Linacre College, Oxford), who explored Tennyson’s view of the mind’s basis as physiological, ‘a random arrow from the brain’, and how this outlook emerges ultimately as an argument for an unchanging soul.

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Report by Melanie Keene and Jane Darcy

In late March, delegates gathered for the third annual conference of the British Society for Literature and Science in the magnificent surroundings of Keele Hall. Following previous successful meetings in Glasgow and Birmingham, over sixty participants, including plenary speakers, PhD students, professors, and poets, joined together to hear presentations on topics from computer-generated poetry to ‘lice-men and logarithms’, earthquakes and fairy-land.

In the opening plenary, Helen Small (Pembroke College, Oxford) went to the heart of the matter, setting the agenda for the rest of the conference: are the humanities and sciences still distinctly two cultures? The problem in the humanities, she pointed out, is its perceived irrelevance: could the answer lie in a coherent methodology which equated truthfulness with sincerity and accuracy? She asked whether literature is capable of giving a systematic account of science, exploring the question with revealing readings of poems by the immunologist, Miroslav Holub, and Nobel chemist Roald Hoffman.

The speakers in panel 4 explored ways in which eighteenth-century discoveries in natural philosophy shaped a number of literary texts. Darren Wagner (Saskatchewan) explored notions of pre-formation in Gulliver’s Travels. Greg Lynall (Liverpool) put a persuasive case for Richard Bentley’s 1693 ‘physico-logical’ sermons attacking atheism as the motor for Swift’s satire in A Tale of a Tub. Sam George (Hertfordshire) considered the writings of women botanists that tempered the account of botanical promiscuity in Erasmus Darwin’s Loves of the Plants.

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