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Scientists and Entropy: Lessons from Literature

By Michele Arduengo, Ph.D., Promega Corporation But as for Rappaccini, it is said of him that he cares infinitely more for science than for mankindHe would sacrifice human life, his own among the rest, or whatever else was dearest to him for the sake of adding so much as a grain of mustard seed to the great heap of his accumulated knowledge. (from Rappaccini's Daughter, Nathaniel Hawthorne) In the 1800s Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote several stories about scientists whose scientific pursuits, conducted in relative isolation, resulted in tragedy and death. Robert Louis Stevensons infamous Mr. Hyde was the creation of a scientist, Dr. Jekyll, who had isolated himself from his colleagues. And perhaps most famously, Mary Shelleys, monstrous creation, Frankenstein, illustrated fearful consequences of scientists working in isolation, single-mindedly, on one thing to the exclusion of all else. Over the centuries, writers and other artists have portrayed scientists as entropic creatures obsessed with a single pursuit. The work of these fictional researchers is mysterious and not understandable by the average person, even though that person may be intelligent and initially curious and fascinated by science.

The Theme of Entropy in Literature

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that a system will undergo energy conversions to less organized forms (entropy), if no external energy is supplied. Literature, brims with entropic themes. Hawthorne, in his Custom House sketch, describes the bedraggled state of the former port of Salem. In The Maypole of Merrymount, he describes the entropy of an entire community that has cut itself off from the rest of the world. The entropy of a single person, cut off from meaningful interactions with others, is also dramatically portrayed in Melvilles Bartleby the Scrivener. Many entropic characters in literature are scientists. Hawthornes stories Rappaccinis Daughter, Dr. Heideggers Experiment, and The Birthmark, all contain scientists who pursue their science in an isolated manner. But, Hawthorne is not the only writer to explore the persona of the entropic scientist; the same characteristics are seen in Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein. Entropic characters do not interact with their peers or society. In Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the first evidence of isolation is revealed in the initial descriptions of Hydes residence as having no window and a door which was equipped with neither bell nor knocker. The reader quickly learns of Jekylls estrangement from his colleague Dr. Lanyon when Lanyon reveals that it is more than ten years since Henry Jekyll became to fanciful for me. Toward the end of the novel, Jekylls seclusion is discussed, and for a brief period of time, during which Jekyll came out of his seclusion and renewed relations with his friends he is described as doing good and being busy, much in the open air. During the very end of his life, Jekyll writes in his letter to his lawyer, I mean henceforth to lead a life of extreme seclusion so that he may go his own dark way. In The Birthmark, Hawthorne describes the isolation of Alymers laboratories. When the experiment to remove Georgianas birthmark is performed, it is carried out in a secluded abode. In Rappaccinis Daughter, the garden where Rappaccini grows his poisonous flowers

is accessible only from a secret entrance through a maze of tunnels and passages. Like Jekyll, Rappaccini has also fallen out of favor with his colleagues and is isolated from his peers. The entropy that results from the isolation of the scientific characters in these stories is revealed in many ways. The scientists homes and labs are almost always in states of decay. Hawthorne magically captures the dilapidated state of Dr. Heideggers study: It was a dim, old-fashioned chamber, festooned with cobwebs and besprinkled with antique dust. Rappaccinis garden contained a crumbling fountain at its center. These out-of-touch scientists are inevitably pursuing something mysterious and infathomable. In Dr. Heideggers study, Hawthorne describes the curious ponderous folio volume, bound in black leather with massive silver claspsa hard to open, heavy book. Hawthorne continues by noting that there were no letters on the book, so that nobody knew the title or contents. Only the scientist knows the books contents. The story continues and reveals that Dr. Heideggers guests also had little understanding of the science, even when they are invited to see an experiment: When the doctors four guests heard him talk of his proposed experiment, they anticipated nothing more wonderful than the murder of a mouse in an air-pump, or the examination of a cobweb by the microscope, or some other similar non-sense. In The Birthmark, Alymers notebooks are described as many dark old tomes, and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is filled with references to several sealed letters that indicate mystery and secrecy. In addition to being separated from their peers, in enviroments decaying and secret, these scientists share a third quality: their single-minded, obsessed pursuit of science. The word singular is used numerous times in reference to the scientists and their goals. One prominent example occurs in Hawthornes description of Rappaccinis countenance as a face singularly marked with intellect and cultivation. A second example is found in Jekylls confession: but the temptation of a discovery so singular and profound at last overcame the suggestions of alarm. Hawthorne provides a particularly vivid description of the obsessed scientist in his introduction to The Birthmark: It was not unusual for the love of science to rival the love of woman in its depth and absorbing energyThe higher intellect, the imagination, the spirit and even the heart might all find their congenial aliment in pursuits, which as some of their ardent votaries believed, would ascend from one step of powerful intelligence to another until the philosopher should lay his hand on the secret of creationHe [Alymer] had devoted himself, however too unreservedly to scientific studies ever to be weaned from them by an second passion.

The Literary Result of the Entropic Scientist

The literary results of the scientists' pursuits are to corrupt innocence, create monsters and destroy lifedeath being the ultimate expression of entropy. Rappaccinis Daughter describes the corruption of the innocent hobby of gardening: It was strangely frightful to the young mans imagination to see this air of insecurity in a person cultivating a garden, that most simple and innocent of human toils.

In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Lanyons health immediately deteriorates upon Jekylls revelation of his terrible achievement. Alymers innocent bride is destroyed by his own medicines. The products of the scientists experiments are described as monstrous offspring of mans depraved fancy (from Rappaccinis Daughter). These are dire and depressing consequences. Fortunately, they are also fictional. However, these literary lessons about entropic scientists can inform our modern pursuit of science.

The Image of the Scientist Today

Hawthorne created his infamous Rappacini in the 19th century, yet today science and scientists still suffer from the same image problem. Modern literature and art reflects this same theme of entropy resulting from the isolation of science with such books and movies as Jurassic Park and The Fly. The general public including most legislators, judges, and executives is largely scientifically illiterate. Science is perceived as being too hard to understand, not worth the investment of thought. At the same time, todays society often credits science with being both savior and devil in one breath. We want a pill to cure obesity, but we dont want side effects or to hear about the high costs of clinical research. Science can create hope through repairing damaged environments, fighting diseases, and improving food production and nutrition. Science can also be scary, pushing nonscientists into ethical quandaries where two things that we have always thought of as right conflict with each other. For instance, the prevailing viewpoint in Western thought today is that using science to save the life of a terminally ill child is good and right. But, what if that science involves selecting a sibling embryo that carries the genetic information necessary to save the child? The news media is quick to create hype and catchy sound bites about scientific events, but rarely do they explain the science accurately. But, only part of this "miss-mass communication" can be placed on the journalists' shoulders. Explaining science outside the narrow professional society that a scientist inhabits takes time and effort---energy; so, scientists are often reticent about talking serious science to nonscientists. But energy is exactly what is required to counteract entropy. Perhaps the stereotype of the entropic scientist is not entirely undeserved. Scientists do tend to publish in difficult to read, passively voiced, jargon-filled articles, sometimes managing to make the most exciting news staggeringly uninteresting. Stephen Jay Gould laments the unwillingness of modern scientists to make the effort to communicate clearly. Because we live in a Philistine nation filled with Goliaths, and because science feeds at a public trough, we all give lip service to the need for clear and supportive popular presentation of our work. Why then do we downgrade the professional reputation of colleagues who can covey the power and beauty of science to the hearts and minds of a fascinated, if generally uniformed public? (1997. Science 275, 559). Nature magazine even carried an editorial entitled Clear as Mud that discussed the inaccessibility of scientific information, not only to the public but also to educated scientists of different disciplines (Knight, J. 2003. Nature 423, 3768). Some of the most valuable scientists in history are those who have put forth the extra effort to communicate science to a science-phobic society: Carl Sagan, Stephen J. Gould, Jane Goodall, Rachel Carson. Even Galileos dialogue tried to provide a more palatable forum

for understanding his reasons for proposing that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Yet, these scientists were criticized by their scientific colleagues and even society in general.

So, What Can Scientists Do?

First, write well. When scientists write, we should write to enhance reader understanding, not to make ourselves sound smart. This means the scientist has to consider the audience first. Scientists will have to define jargon when it is necessary, and avoid jargon when it is not. Bloated language, passive sentences and noun-centered writing must equate with poor writing, when we teach budding scientists to write or evaluate their professional writing. Dissertations should not be judged on thud factor, but instead on whether or not the writing reflects clear, critical thinking. Second, we need seize the teachable moments. Scientists need to go the extra mile to explain what they do. This takes energy, and there is a fine line between being patronizing and encouraging the curious mind. When scientists communicate to nonscientists, they need to make sure that the nonscientist realizes that science makes sense and can be understood. Encourage nonscientists to invest a little in understanding the world around them. Third, we need to support and value our teachers, elementary through college. Teachers need to be comfortable tackling scientific questions about how the world works. Teachers need to understand what criteria define critical thinking. Teachers need to be encouraged to ask scientific questions without being intimidated. Only when the teachers are comfortable with science, can their students be encouraged to explore, ask questions, and develop their own creative and original thoughts. And, teachers at all levels need to be rewarded for the extra energy required to create a learning environment that fosters curiosity and helps to develop critical reasoning skills. When we write about science in a way that engages our readers, when we involve all who are interested in meaningful scientific conversations, and when when create learning environments that develop thinkers, energy will flow freely between scientists and nonscientists. With this exchange of energy between systems, entropy will not be an issue.