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The Relationship between Literature and Science in John Banville’s Scientific Tetralogy


Sidia Fiorato

Starting from the debate between the two cultures, the book analyzes the relationship between literature and science in the last years of the twentieth century in the light of scientific theories which universally underline both their indeterminacy and their lack of universal values (Relativity Theory, Quantum Mechanics, the Uncertainty Principle, Chaos Theory). Scientific theories are echoed in literary texts but also a reverse influence from literature to science has taken place. In his scientific tetralogy John Banville analyzes the figures of those scientists who contributed to a paradigm shift in the world view from the early modernity to the present. His interest is not exclusively focused on epistemology but rather on the creative mind of the scientist. Science appears to follow the same epiphanic creative process as literature in its understanding of, and theorizing upon, an enigmatic sort of reality.


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4. CONCLUSIONS As Banville asserts, the aim of science is to explain the world; however Today the dream of certainty, of arriving at a simple, elegant, and above all concrete answer, has had to be abandoned. Experiments now produce not "yes" or "no", but a sort of drift of probabilities. There seem to be no conclusions. We arrive at what looks like a fundamental point — the quark is isolated, DNA is mapped — but at once the seeming unit begins dividing and subdividing. In science, as in all human affairs, everything ramifies.' Banville's tetralogy was written around the same time of the development of chaos theory and was influenced by its new understanding of nature: order and disorder do not form a stable dichotomy, but order is hidden within chaotic or nonlinear systems or arises out of entropic disorder. The novels focus on the creation of ordering systems against disorder (in Doctor Copernicus and Kepler), and on the reconciliation with disorder, with the inexplicable `ordinary' (The Newton Letter), and on the acceptance of chance (Mefisto). The scientific discoveries and speculations which have affected the socio-cultural sphere permeate and are re-imagined in Banville's narrative works, "For the scientist, the significance of indeterminacy will consist in the nature of the limitations it imposes. For the artist, the interest will be aesthetic."2 Banville's tetralogy explores a first connection between fiction and scientific theory in the need to construct a workable but knowingly false framework, the appearance of creativity in disorder; it underlines the...

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