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ThermoPoetics: Energy in Victorian Literature and Science

Barri J. Gold
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 360
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    In ThermoPoetics, Barri Gold sets out to show us how analogous, intertwined, and mutually productive poetry and physics may be. Charting the simultaneous emergence of the laws of thermodynamics in literature and in physics that began in the 1830s, Gold finds that not only can science influence literature, but literature can influence science, especially in the early stages of intellectual development. Nineteenth-century physics was often conducted in words. And, Gold claims, a poet could be a genius in thermodynamics and a novelist could be a damn good engineer. Gold's lively readings of works by Alfred Tennyson, Charles Dickens, Herbert Spencer, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, and others offer a decidedly literary introduction to such elements of thermodynamic thought as conservation and dissipation, the linguistic tension between force and energy, the quest for a grand unified theory, strategies for coping within an inexorably entropic universe, and the demonic potential of the thermodynamically savvy individual. Gold shows us that in A Tale of Two Cities, for example, Dickens produces order in spite of the universal drive to entropy; Wilde's Dorian Gray and Stoker's Dracula, on the other hand, reveal the creative potential of chaos.Victorian literature embraced the language and ideas of energy physics to address the era's concerns about religion, evolution, race, class, empire, gender, and sexuality. Gold argues that these concerns, in turn, shaped the hopes and fears expressed about the new physics.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-27400-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. I The Consolation of Physics:: Discovery

    • Prologue: Physics for Poets
      (pp. 3-12)

      Through a nice piece of luck, I happened to be at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, in January 2001, where a bumper sticker reading “Conserve Energy” had been affixed to an office door. In spite of the obviously good intentions behind the message, someone could not resist scrawling on it, “The Fools! Don’t they know energy conserves itself?” This exchange attests not only to the sense of humor enjoyed by physicists the world over, but also to the ambiguity that haunts the “conservation of energy.” Now where there is ambiguity, the literary among us will not...

    • Introduction: That Thing We Do
      (pp. 13-32)

      The French philosopher Michel Serres has called J. M. W. Turner “the first true genius in thermodynamics.”¹ That sounds great. But what on earth does it mean to call a Romantic landscape painter, with decidedly impressionistic tendencies, a genius in thermodynamics, the science that deals with the relationships between heat and other forms of energy? In addition to engaging in some rather promiscuous disciplinary mixing, Serres’s claim also has a small problem of chronology, for the French engineer Sadi Carnot’s essay “On the Motive Power of Heat” was written in 1824—twenty years before Turner makes one “see matter.” But...

    • 1 Tennysonʹs Thermodynamic Solution
      (pp. 33-68)

      Could Thomasina Coverly, a thirteen-year-old girl living in a country house in Derbyshire, possibly have discovered the second law of thermodynamics in the spring of 1809, over four decades before the termthermodynamicswas even coined? In fiction, where such things happen, she can and does. And though this rather remarkable teenager exists only as a character in Tom Stoppard’s 1993 playArcadia, her unlikely discoveries trigger the very real suggestion that in 1809 we knew. In some sense, we have always known. Byron knew in 1816, when he opened the poem “Darkness” with these lines:

      I had a dream,...

  5. II Energy and Empire:: Applications

    • 2 Grand Unified Theories, or Whoʹs Got GUTs?
      (pp. 71-112)

      In the twentieth century, physics strove to create what was known as a grand unified theory, which would connect what seemed like four distinct basic forces, electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear forces, and gravitation, such that they revealed themselves as one. Victorian energy physics made a similar effort to unify apparently disparate observables. Eventually heat, light, electricity, work (mechanical effect), magnetism, and motion were all comprehended withinenergy. But for Victorians, apparently, this list was insufficiently comprehensive.² Tennyson, as we have seen, brings not only evolution, but also religion into the fold of what these new principles can and should...

    • 3 The Reign of Force
      (pp. 113-150)

      Characterized by tension, even paradox, Victorian thermodynamics exhibits some of the protean quality of energy itself.¹ Those who write about it find it transforms easily, providing metaphor or even physical justification for pet theories of all kinds. And vice versa: when thermodynamics is thus used, that usage solidifies the status of its statements as facts rather than artifacts. As this chapter extendsThermoPoeticsto a different kind of literature—the poetry and popularizations of Victorian physicists—we will consider how these participate in the processes of transformation that make statements into facts, those indisputable assertions “devoid of any trace of...

    • 4 A Far Better Rest: Equilibrium and Entropy in A Tale of Two Cities
      (pp. 151-184)

      In 1858, Herbert Spencer wrote to John Tyndall, communicating his distress at the implications of the new energy physics for his “doctrine of ultimate equilibrium.”² Having built his system of political philosophy on the premise that equilibrium is the necessary and proper goal of social change, Spencer was understandably dismayed to find that thermodynamically speaking, equilibrium orrestis death. In 1859, Dickens published a different kind of narrative—less self-conscious, perhaps, than Spencer’s, but similarly dismayed about the implications of thermodynamics for social stability. Boasting what may be the best equilibrated opening in the history of the novel,A...

  6. III The Engine and the Demon:: Transformations

    • 5 Bleak House: The Novel as Engine
      (pp. 187-224)

      If the first law of thermodynamics was born of religious conviction,³ the second was the discovery of frustrated engineers. Joule’s experiments, Kelvin’s articulations, Clausius’s nomenclature—all of these attempt to account for the heat loss driving engineers a little batty since before the time of Sadi Carnot. Engineers struggled to make more efficient engines; heat loss kept getting in the way. One could put fuel in and get work out, but always less than was hoped for or even expected and never reversibly. But not for lack of trying. And the trying, after all, turns out to be very important....

    • 6 Bodies in Heat: Demons, Women, and Emergent Order
      (pp. 225-258)

      The late nineteenth century evinces a sense of decay so prevalent that we refer to the period asdecadent. This general sense of grand-scale decay is reflected in texts that represent the earth as succumbing to heat death, such as H. G. Wells’sThe Time Machineand Camille Flammarion’sOmega: The Last Days of the World. In turn, accounts of literature and history reflect this expectation of the late Victorian affect associated with energy physics.² With twentieth-century chaos and information theory, however, entropy emerges as a thing of potentially positive value. But perhaps this is less of a surprise than...

  7. Epilogue
    (pp. 259-262)

    ThroughoutThermoPoetics, I have considered physics and fiction as part of a larger conversation, working out similar concerns, using overlapping methods, and collaborating in the shaping and circulation of scientific fact. I have focused on a particularly solid scientific object—energy—whose status as object we rarely doubt and whose origins we thus rarely consider. We know energy, what it can do, what it can’t. The facts that go along with it are so firmly established that we call them laws. Undoubtedly, I have chosen this set of issues because energy matters to me, to us, now. “Energy,” says Nobel...

  8. Appendix: ʺReport on Taitʹs Lecture on Force:—B.A., 1876ʺ
    (pp. 263-264)
    James Clerk Maxwell
  9. Notes
    (pp. 265-306)
  10. References
    (pp. 307-320)
  11. Index
    (pp. 321-344)