Using Lit to Discover Purpose in Science

Joseph Wright of Derby, "An Experiment upon a Bird in an Air Pump"

Joseph Wright of Derby, “An Experiment upon a Bird in an Air Pump”


“Introduction to Literature” has a special place in my heart. Most of my students are non-English majors fulfilling their Arts requirement, and, as the course has a nature theme and counts towards the Environmental Studies major, I tend to get a lot of biology, biochemistry, and chemistry majors.

I love the moment when literature becomes more than a requirement for them as they realize that it speaks to some of their greatest concerns. Today, with permission, I share two essays from this past semester.

Stephen Trimnell, an African American biology major who hopes one day to be a doctor, was inspired by Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality. A graduating senior, Stephen used his essay to look back over his career in the sciences and found himself relating to how the “celestial light” of Wordsworth’s childhood fades into “the light of common day” as he grows up.

Stephen looks back to the excitement that prompted him to embark upon a career in the sciences:

I remember as a child watching the National Geographic channel with my father. From bugs to birds, I was in awe of how these creatures move, breathe and live, how complex and intricate their bodies were inside and out, and how the synergy of every organ made the sum of their parts greater than the whole. I experienced a shift in my paradigm when I considered my own species. I thought to myself, if the intricacies of these lesser creatures evokes my intellectual curiosity, how much more the intricacies of the human body? From that moment on, I set out to learn how the human body works. I had so many questions.

Stephen then describes a Wordsworthian descent:

School, however, has given me a mixed relationship with science. Amidst the hectic regurgitation of textbook information on exams to the long readings of dense material, I tend to forget my original inspiration. When this happens, the wonder that is the flame dims. As the dark shroud of self-doubt looms over me, I get discouraged and wonder if I am even on the right path.

Or as Wordsworth puts it,

It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more. 

And further on:

The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream? 

At this point in the essay, Stephen turns to another Wordsworth poem. The following (lightly edited) excerpt indicates a senior who is ready to move on from college:

But what caused him to lose his flame in the first place? In “The Tables Turned,” Wordsworth reveals the source of this phenomenon:

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;

Why all this toil and trouble?

Books only equip you with information; they do not exactly show how to use it. Wordsworth tells us that if we toil too much in getting our information out of books, we will age faster—or as Wordsworth says, “grow double.”

Part of the problem lies in our preference for receiving information out of our textbooks instead of from real world experience. When the poet tells us to “Come forth into the light of things, /Let Nature be your teacher,” he is beckoning us to actually experience the knowledge we are learning and to apply it, not just read it. He states this clearly when he asserts,

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Stephen hasn’t entirely lost his childhood sense of wonder, however. Intimations helps him connect his current research with his early excitement:

Fortunately, adults do not entirely lose their sense of wonder. Whether that sense of wonder be in math, history or whatever, we adults have “embers,” and we will never lose our connection with the light. For this light,         

Nor Man nor Boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!

So I will “grieve not, rather find, strength in what remains behind.” Wordsworth tells me to sing and give thanks for the pieces of flame I am able to salvage. If I become lost in textbook readings and exams and my focus strays from the wonder that led me this far, I will look towards my embers. I will not underestimate their power. When I look back at the remains of our flame, I too can be empowered. I too can tell the shroud of self-doubt looming over our head “no more.” Whenever I get discouraged with self-pity or self-doubt, Wordsworth encourages me to look to the embers of my flame. To look to why I embarked on my path in the first place. Then I will remember that I am where I am for a reason. This is when the light from my embers will cast away any dark debilitating thoughts of incompetence and guide me to my destination.  

A related self-discovery occurred with chemistry major Emma Skekel when she wrote about Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel Flight Behavior. Dellarobia, an Appalachian sheep farmer’s wife, is on her way to have a sordid affair with “Jimmy the telephone guy” when she is stopped in her tracks by a climate change disaster: she discovers millions of monarch butterflies in the Tennessee mountains. Dellarobia returns home and later begins working with scientists who are studying why the insects have relocated there from Mexico. She also resists her father-in-law, who wants to clearcut the forest to pay off debts. By the end of the novel, Dellarobia has amicably separated from her husband and is preparing to attend college to study etymology.

Emma wanted to understand the reasons for Dellarobia’s turnaround but initially couldn’t identify a compelling theme driving the change. She was a bit like an actor who has memorized all her lines but can’t bring the character to life.

In the revision conference, I pushed Emma to figure out what was a stake. Why did she care about what happened to Dellarobia? That’s when she began to expand upon her summer job at a national park.

Emma figured out that Dellarobia needs to find a cause beyond herself to devote her energies to. Her life is reinvigorated once she shifts from her own misery to the plight of the planet and once she realizes she is not altogether powerless. She is elated when she discovers she can play a role, albeit a small one, in saving it.

Figuring this out about Dellarobia helped Emma figure it out about herself. She began to see her work at the park in a new light:

During my national park job, I worked to restore the park, maintain its services and local environment, and preserve its history. I began my time there by trimming trees along the hiking trails, replanting new native species in place of invasive species, and doing ordinary jobs, just like Dellarobia started out with a basic task of counting the fallen Monarchs within a certain area. I worked my way up in the job, I gradually started interacting with guests, setting up activities for children, creating advertisements for the park, and recording and transcribing oral histories of the park’s former glory as a camp for middle-schoolers.

Emma caught a glimpse of what it means to live a life of service, and because she was most interested in the “whys” and “hows” of nature, she decided to become an environmental chemist. While her life doesn’t match up exactly with Dellarobia’s, they share a common interest in doing something that counts. Emma thought she was reading about a fictional character and discovered that she was reading about herself.

Literature does this time and again. Yesterday I wrote about how Peter Erdos, a student with Crohn’s disease, discovered a purpose beyond his sick self in Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And then we see Stephen using literature to rekindle his youthful enthusiasm and Emma using it to clarify her own life journey. Our students are hungry for a sense of purpose, and literature helps them search for it in ways they can find nowhere else.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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