A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Why am I butting in?

Why should a physicist be sticking his nose into literary analysis, anyway?  Some recent news bumped this up in the queue of things I have to think about.

It’s a fact of life that elderly physicists have a tendency to wander outside their area of expertise. In theoretical physics, all but the most brilliant tend to peak in their 30’s.  So what do you do with the next 4-5 decades of your life? Alas, some of us decide we should do research in some other field, with lamentable results.  So how do I know I’m not That Guy, and about to make a fool of myself?

I think this is the answer:  Literature, like history and unlike science, is not about absolute truths. It’s about the relationship between a reader and a text.  This may be the most profound thing I’ve learned from Mythgard Academy: that the writer doesn’t get to say what the meaning of a work is; the reader does.  I infer that literary analysis doesn’t have a stopping point, because every new reader brings a new relationship along.  (After all, there are still hundreds of universities advertising degrees in Shakespeare Studies.)  So there’s plenty of room for my perspective, as long as I can find something interesting to say.

Scientists have a (possibly unfair) advantage, too.  The spectacular achievements of the sciences over the last couple of centuries have the denizens of the rest of the trees in the Groves of Academe looking on with envy. Example:  Michael Drout talking about how cool it is to be able to say “the prototype is on my desk”.  Another example: all the positive reactions to Sparrow Alden’s statistical analysis of The Hobbit. Bringing quantitative analysis to bear on literature is a wide-open field.  Conclusion:  between a unique perspective and new methods of analysis, I can jump into this field without certainty of disaster.




Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell


  1. Joe

    Another poster child for the arrogance of scientists is Richard Dawkins, who recently opined on the subject of law in his memoirs. Spectacular take-down by Ronald Sokal is here.

  2. I’m delighted that you have discovered the various analyses at It has been opined by Tolkien himself that brutish close analysis can take apart a work, breaking it down into component parts without understanding. I hope we can continue to develop the many kinds of intentional close analysis – loving the words while still gasping in wonder at the whole intricate dance they perform. Let each of us do what our minds and hearts do best and hold the good, sweet, heart-opening story in common. I look forward to your work.

    • Joe

      Thanks, Sparrow. I’ve hit a bit of an intellectual logjam, which you’ve reminded me is probably worth a post.

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