Audra J. Wolfe, Department of History & Sociology of Science,
Though traditionally different enterprises, science and literature share many characteristics. In The Nuclear Muse, poet and playwright John Canaday sets out to use the techniques of literary criticism to demonstrate just how much the intellectual, social, and technical accomplishments of nuclear physics have depended upon the methods of literature. 'Literature' here encompasses figurative devices such as the metaphors and analogies of classical and quantum physics, the fiction of thought experiments, the narrative devices adopted by participants in the Manhattan Project, and fictional works centering on the bomb following its initial use. By 'physics', he means both the intellectual and social actions of the scientists involved in the quantum revolution and the production of the atomic bomb.
Although this introduction might imply that The Nuclear Muse echoes the work of scholars who have examined technologies of persuasion in scientific writing, Canaday's disciplinary background in literary criticism results in a fresh, insightful work more devoted to a close reading of culturally resonant texts than the rhetorical construction of individual experiments. Canaday is clearly in love with the English language, yet is simultaneously deeply disturbed by the ability of finely written prose to distract both authors and readers from moral truths. In the case of the atomic bomb, he argues that the literary representations of unknowable mass destruction—especially allusions to Biblical divine wrath—have helped justify the use of atomic weapons as actual and symbolic tools of destruction for both the public and the scientists who developed them. When scientists quoted God's statement, 'Let there be light', in describing the Trinity test, they appropriated the authority of an unquestionable biblical entity. By insisting that words were incapable of capturing the atomic experience, and then using literary and religious references to describe it anyway, the Los Alamites created a web of atomic knowledge far removed from the 'scientific facts' one might have expected from atomic physicists.
The quantum revolution had already familiarised atomic physicists with the rhetorical difficulties inherent in describing natural phenomena. Through close, extended readings of Plank's quantum of action, Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, and Bohr's Complementarity Principle, Canaday shows that physicists had developed a self-awareness about their uses of metaphors and analogies. Physics had ''struggled for centuries to maintain an unambiguous relationship between its laws and the natural world''; the realisation that two different metaphors—the wave and the particle—both could appropriately describe nature therefore sent shocks through the intellectual and philosophical world of the physicists (p. 70).
This part of the story will be hardly surprising to those familiar with the history and philosophy of twentieth-century physics. Canaday's most original contribution considers how scientists used literary forms and references to understand the implications of this new knowledge. Parody and fiction allowed the physicists to voice opinions and concerns more forcefully than would be socially acceptable in their scientific lives. Consider, for example, the Blegdamsvej Faust, a play based on Goethe's Faust written and performed at the 1932 Conference on Quantum Physics at the Institute of Theoretical Physics at Copenhagen. Younger scientists, sometimes quoting Goethe directly and other times writing their own verses, acted out parts portraying Neils Bohr as God, Paul Ehrenfest as Faust, and Wolfgang Pauli as Mephistopheles. Where some might see bad verse, Canaday finds an opportunity to explore tensions within the quantum physics community. He uses similar techniques to examine tropes of geographic exploration and conquering of new worlds, narrative devices found so often in the personal memoirs and scientific biographies of the Los Alamites.
Readers sympathetic to the enterprise of literary criticism will immediately appreciate the skilful insights conveyed through Canaday's fascinating analysis. Canaday himself, however, envisions a broader audience and is sensitive to the doubts some readers might harbour towards his approach. Indeed, his choices in selecting key texts occasionally seems arbitrary. Canaday's goal, however, is not to be comprehensive but to awaken his readers to the prevalence of literary forms and allusions in the scientific process—and at this, he succeeds. In the case of the Blegdamsvej Faust, he reminds readers that the physicists themselves devoted critical time at a specialised scientific meeting to writing and performing the play. The Los Alamites' use of literary elements when describing the atomic bomb similarly warrants special attention because these same descriptions strongly influenced atomic policy. The coded telegram that brought news of the successful Trinity test to President Truman at the Potsdam conference contained little other than literary allusions to the great religious traditions. Although Truman learned of his country's new weapon from the reports of scientists, the language used was hardly 'objective' or 'scientific'.
Canaday's respect for what he vaguely calls the 'the scientific tradition' leads him frequently to defend his application of the techniques of literary criticism to scientific documents. Similarly, the author carefully maintains a distinction between the goals and methods of science and literature. Whereas scientific authors attempt to create ''static representations'' that convey a stable meaning to many readers, literary authors attempt to achieve dynamic representations that ''cater to the eye of the beholder'' (p. 197). Canaday's positioning of The Nuclear Muse as a book-length 'experiment' in the application of literary theory to scientific texts is not a naïve attempt to win converts from the scientific community, but instead reflects the author's philosophy that literary critics and science studies scholars must self-consciously state their objectives and assumptions if they are to win the respect of the entire scholarly community (including scientists). Intended as a peace offering in the science wars, The Nuclear Muse is a perceptive study of how scientific authorities rely on metaphorical and symbolic description to speak to both popular and scientific audiences.