Sunspots and Poetry

Scott McLemee reviews Tracy Daugherty's Dante and the Early Astronomer: Science, Adventure and a Victorian Woman Who Opened the Heavens.

June 7, 2019

Sixty years ago, C. P. Snow delivered his Rede Lecture, "The Two Cultures," at Cambridge University. (To be precise, it's 60 years and one month ago to the day, as of this column's publication.) Subsequently expanded into a book, Snow's argument was that the sciences and the humanities had become enclaves with "a gulf of mutual incomprehension" between them -- regarding each other with indifference, at best, tending toward mutual disdain.

A British chemist who wrote novels, Snow held dual cultural citizenship, though that did not make him an indifferent arbiter: plainly, he was rather annoyed that "literary culture" (his term, but covering humanistic scholarship as well as belles lettres) enjoyed a degree of prestige not necessarily extended to those with a scientific education. The more memorable zingers are aimed at "the literary intellectuals, who incidentally while no one was looking took to referring to themselves as 'intellectuals' as though there were no others."

On the other hand, the sciences were ascendant: expansive, world changing, with the claim to public resources that went with demonstrated economic and military applications. Scientists, as Snow put it, "had the future in their bones." That the cynical, hapless and prematurely bitter young academic in Kingsley Amis's novel Lucky Jim was a historian -- rather than, say, a biophysicist -- was no accident.

What stands out about Snow's lecture now is not just the Cold War subtext (two cultures glowering across an abyss) but Snow's desperate hope that some good might yet come of the situation. "The clashing point of two subjects, two disciplines, two cultures -- of two galaxies, so far as that goes -- ought to produce creative chances," he wrote. "In the history of mental activity that has been where some of the break-throughs came. The chances are there now. But they are there, as it were, in a vacuum, because those in the two cultures can't talk to each other."

Still, they should try! Détente between the scientists and the humanists would be in the best interest of everyone, with vast global implications. One imagines Snow's audience at Cambridge leaning forward, listening for some guidance as to how negotiations might begin, ready to do its part. But none is forthcoming, apart from hints that the literary intellectuals should: a) curb the snobbery and b) learn something about the second law of thermodynamics, while the scientists should probably read more fiction.

Today Snow's optimism -- minimal and heavily guarded as it was -- is difficult to treat as a live option. With decades of hindsight, it is clear that he underestimated something (perhaps the only thing) shared by the two cultures: the exponential growth of productivity and specialization within each of them. In place of a disconnection between enclaves, we now find failures of communication intra-enclave. There are two, three, many "gulf[s] of mutual incomprehension." And this is normal. As with Humpty Dumpty or the Tower of Babel, what's done is done and cannot now be otherwise.

Except, perhaps, in flashes of memory and imagination. The story of Mary Acworth Evershed (1867-1949) is a reminder that every once in a great while someone can carry on a career with one foot planted in each culture, as Tracy Daugherty shows in Dante and the Early Astronomer: Science, Adventure and a Victorian Woman Who Opened the Heavens (Yale University Press). Receiving precious little acknowledgment in her own time, Evershed became only slightly better known to posterity as M. A. Orr, the gender-concealing variant of her maiden name that she continued to publish under after marrying the astronomer and solar physicist John Evershed in 1906.

Daugherty, a distinguished professor of English and creative writing emeritus at Oregon State University, observes that John Evershed's reports on his work became suspiciously better written once he was married, but the collaboration went much deeper than that. Orr published in the Journal of the British Astronomical Association while still single, and traveled to India with Evershed when he was offered the post of assistant director of the Kodaikanal Observatory. There they established "a program of photographing sunspots and solar prominences, an uninterrupted collection of observations that continues to this day and forms a unique record of solar activities." (The observatory is still running.)

"The history of 19th-century British astronomy is replete with husband-and-wife teams," Daugherty notes, " … whose distaff side failed to earn equal credit for research and publishing despite clear evidence of shared work." What distinguishes Orr in that regard is that she staked out an area of interdisciplinary research of her own: Dante's astronomical allusions in The Divine Comedy.

The cosmological references in the poem are numerous and detailed enough to have annoyed T. S. Eliot. He dismissed them as "almost unintelligible" and fundamentally irrelevant to appreciating the poem. That was not how Mary Orr saw it. Dante's other writings suggested a wide and deep acquaintance with the astronomical knowledge and speculation of the 13th and 14th centuries, while the poem was the work of someone who had put in the hours as a sky watcher. She wrote that lunar images were usually "a stumbling block" for imaginative writers, "and it is quite a rare thing for a modern novelist to introduce one without making it do something impossible," such as rising at midnight. Dante "never makes flagrant mistakes of this kind," she said. His occasional small errors sometimes reflected flaws in the available almanacs.

Working at an outpost of the British Empire while performing the duties of an observatory research assistant, Orr managed to write and illustrate Dante and the Early Astronomers and publish it in 1913. It was reviewed briefly in a couple of astronomical journals during World War I, only to be discovered by the detective novelist Dorothy Sayers in the 1940s, while she was working on her translation of Dante for Penguin Classics. Orr went on to direct the historical section of the British Astronomical Society and prepared for it a volume called Who's Who in the Moon. Like her work on Dante, it was a fusion of astronomy and philology: an account of the origins of the names of the craters, as of the late 1930s, at least.

Since then a crater has been named in honor of John Evershed, whose contributions to astronomy certainly merit it. The photo of a solar flare he took in 1916 is awesome and majestic even in a reproduction taking up about half of page 70. It also bears mentioning that Orr established a link of sorts between Dante and her husband: the astronomical sophistication of The Divine Comedy intrigued Galileo, who discovered the existence of sunspots, which was, in turn, one of Evershed's research areas. In recalling Mary Orr from the shadows, Daugherty shows us someone not at all distracted by any "gulf of mutual incomprehension" between the two cultures, and for that she, too, deserves to have something above us named after her.


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