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Topics in Science and Literature

ENGL 493.601
instructor(s):
R 4:30-7:10

From the 16th through the 18th centuries, the pursuit of "science" resonated on the stage, in the coffee house, at court, and on the printed page. In early modern Europe, science had not yet become the exclusive preserve of professionals, nor had it been completely encoded in languages and symbols accessible only to the few. Science included everything from alchemy and natural magic to the observations of Galileo and the theorems of Newton. It was the golden age of amateurism, when experimental contributions could be made by Everyman and when the natural world could be persuasively catalogued by landed squires and rural vicars.

Science found a ubiquitous niche in imaginative literature. The telescope and the microscope revealed new worlds and new landscapes; the prospect of an infinite universe was both frightening and liberating; the alchemist's quest provided tropes and metaphors of life and experience; and the image of the scientist was the subject of both ridicule and admiration. Science provided new vocabularies of experience, new perspectives on man and his place in nature, and new dreams of the future.

This course will consider some of the many ways in which science and the issues it raised informed the imaginative literature of the period. Readings will consist exclusively of primary sources and included selections from authors such as Ben Jonson, Francis Bacon, Robert Burton, John Donne, Tommasso Campanella, Thomas Sprat, Margaret Cavendish, Bernard de Fontenelle, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Butler, Voltaire, Gilbert White, and Erasmus Darwin, among others.

The course is open to upper division undergraduates and to graduate students. Some background in the history of science is desirable but not required. Two papers and an oral report will be required for a grade in the course.