'Science's Literary Turn' Panel at ASLE

deadline for submissions: 
December 15, 2018
full name / name of organization: 
Katherine Buse, UC Davis & Priscilla Wald, Duke University
contact email: 

Science's Literary Turn 

A panel at the thirteenth ASLE Biennial Conference: Paradise On Fire

June 26-30, 2019
University Of California, Davis
Davis, CA

Organizers: Katherine Buse (kebuse@ucdavis.edu), UC Davis, and Priscilla Wald (pwald@duke.edu), Duke University 

Fifty-six years ago, Rachel Carson wrote the first chapter of Silent Spring as a “fable for tomorrow.” Though the book is a work of science communication, its opening is a fictional narrative, leveraging techniques from myth, fairytale, and fantasy to depict an uncanny ecological blight falling on an unnamed town in America. Elements of the fantastic are shot through the rest of the book in the form of metaphor and storyline, creating a mythic or fabular infrastructure for the book’s ecological message. Carson is not an outlier: just over two decades later, James Lovelock, a prominent environmental scientist famous for developing the Gaia hypothesis, published an article subtitled, “the parable of Daisyworld,” invoking a literary mode to help classify his argument. In the piece, Lovelock claimed that his computational model, which explored the idea that a living planet can work as a self-regulating whole, was “not trying to model the Earth, but rather a fictional world.” In different ways, these environmental scientists—Carson a marine biologist and Lovelock a chemist and Earth scientist—drew on literary techniques and genres in order to convey unfamiliar scientific ideas.

As environmental crisis deepens, the environmental humanities have increasingly converged with science studies in hopes of activating useful methods for making sense of a world that has never been modern. This panel asks, when do scientists turn to the literary as part of their scientific work? What role do fiction, myth, poetry, and genre play in the practice and communication of science? ASLE’s 2019 theme evokes the contemporary reality of California’s tinderbox, terraformed landscape, but in doing so reminds us that a “Paradise on Fire” is already mythic, stylized, and aestheticized, even when it has real world consequences. This panel considers the kinds of mythmaking being done by the scientists who supply evidence for, exacerbations of, and/or solutions to, current ecological issues. At a smaller scale than the mythic, we are also interested in papers concerning the poetics, stylistics, plotting, or characterization found within scientific work. We define environmental science broadly, to encompass all of the (so-called) ‘natural’ sciences, from microbiology to astrophysics. While there are any number of examples of literary techniques used to communicate science to the public, less attention has been paid to the ways in which the literary is more than just packaging, supporting the development of scientific concepts, communities, methods, or models. We are interested in considering the profound role of the literary—and of literary criticism and the humanities broadly—through an attention to this increasingly common turn in environmental scientific writing.

This panel will be composed of two or three papers and two respondents, through which we hope to intensify discussion. The organizers are accordingly seeking both presenters and respondents. Please submit your 250-word abstract (if you would like to present a paper) and a short bio (both respondents and presenters) by December 15th here: https://asle.submittable.com/submit/126709/sciences-literary-turn