Modernists and critical mass

CULTURAL BABBAGE: Technology, Time and Invention eds Francis Spufford and Jenny Uglow Faber pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
If we reverse-engineer Cultural Babbage (that is, examine the outcome and try to divine its purpose), its subject-matter and readership both become unclear. Francis Spufford, wrapping up this collection of essays, reckons they have been about the mental shadows cast into culture by science and technology in the 19th and 20th centuries. Jenny Uglow, kicking if off, advertises a collection wrapped around Babbage's Difference Engine, a Victorian precursor of modern computers that remained unbuilt during its inventor's lifetime, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's alternative history, The Difference Engine, and Ada Lovelace's image of Babbage's original engine as weaving algebraic patterns just as looms wove textiles. In other words, we are dancing in a space defined by technology, society, narrative and metaphor.

Science feeds through into culture at various levels. At the lowest level, literature may simply adopt or co-opt words. As Lavinia Greenlaw notes in her contribution, scientific vocabulary regularly ends up in popular writing, often to the fury of "proper" scientists who think their work is being traduced. Physicists, for example, complain about "quantum leap" being taken to mean a very large jump, whereas in fact it refers to a very small one. "Critical mass" and "black holes" have made the same journey.

Greenlaw is robust about literature's appropriation of science: "poets do not claim to be writing scientific papers in scientific language - to them, science is material, not craft." And she counters that although poetry can misinterpret science, it can also interpret it, using its tools of metaphor and allusion to represent difficult ideas comprehensibly.

But science can also affect the literary sensibility. Gillian Beer, discussing the ways in which public fascination with science was reflected in the writings of the modernists, notably Virginia Woolf, captures literary culture's double-edged relationship with science, at once antipathetic and vital. In the 1930s, as radio became a widespread medium, it changed the relationship of writers with their imagined audiences. "The idea of the reader," says Beer, "had become unsettled, both socially and formally."

Her essay maps the ways in which the literary modernists, although temperamentally opposed to science and, in large measure, to the democratic and meritocratic ideals associated with it, nevertheless found their writing inevitably suffused with the popular science of the day. Virginia Woolf, for example, read about non-linear space just before finishing The Waves with a soliloquy that exemplifies non-linear narrative; Orlando ponders science turned back into magic. And the very term "modernist", as Beer notes, was originally applied not to the Bloomsbury group but to Einstein.

The traffic, however, is not all one-way. As well as science having an effect on literary culture, literary culture can impede science and scientific enquiry. Tom Paulin looks at Edmund Burke's persecution of the dissenting scientist Joseph Priestley. This, thinks Paulin, was the start of the problem; science became identified with Dissent, with cold, rational, mechanical, profoundly un-English thinking. Priestley packed and left for America; Burke's legacy is with us still.

Neil Belton's chapter juxtaposes Thomas and Aldous Huxley, using the latter's wry, aesthetic mockery of his grandfather as a symbol of British establishment snobbery about scientific knowledge and practice, the extension forward of Burke's victory. True, the Establishment has always been snooty about science, ignoring it in peacetime and relying on it to pull rabbits out of hats in wartime. But state enthusiasm for science is something that scientists should shun as vigorously as state indifference: anyone who thinks the City suffers from short-termism has met too few politicians.

In any case, the British relationship with science has been more ambivalent than Belton's schema makes it sound. British enthusiasm for science has always ebbed and flowed, as the essays show. Burke may have driven Priestley out of England, but he could not stop the Industrial Revolution. Babbage complained that early Victorian fascination with technology was soon swept away by crazes for tawdry fairground attractions. Aldous Huxley may have patronised his grandfather, but during the same period, as Gillian Beer demonstrates, public fascination with science was intense.

There are good reasons, though, for being sceptical about science. Not because it is aesthetically objectionable, but because it often affects society in unpredictable and partly damaging ways, and because the scientific method is, after all, no more than a series of successively more accurate hypotheses, all of which have to be open to informed challenge. Science is more robust to scepticism than to credulity.

The other contributors amble loosely through the territory. Two follow Babbage himself and look at his machine and his fascination with automata; two discuss great American inventors. There are essays on the transparency of glass, on microphotography, on science and poetry, on fingerprinting, genetic and otherwise, on what Thomas Paine would have thought of the Internet.

With this range of subjects comes a range of styles. Any reader who needs Jon Katz's breezy potted biography of Paine will struggle with Isobel Armstrong's delicate, opaque meditation on transparency and Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poetry. Straightforward narrative mingles with polemic and steampunk lit-crit.

Spufford, discussing the Science Museum's reconstruction (or, more strictly, construction) of Babbage's Difference Engine, juxtaposes its "accessibly fist-sized" individual cogs with the "silvery sine waves" written in metal across the machine as a whole. The accessibly essay-length cogs of Cultural Babbage are fine, mostly; but the waves that run through the book as a whole contain less signal than noise.