Where science and literature intersect

Liza Blake
Monday, December 14, 2015 - 4:55pm
Carla DeMarco

Professor Liza Blake had ambitions to be Agent Dana Scully from the television series The X-files. But an introductory biology class during the first year of her undergrad program at George Washington University had her questioning if that path was the right fit.

Her other passion was for reading, particularly science fiction, but a degree in English was not especially appealing when she was contemplating her academic future.

“I didn’t want to do English literature because, based on my experience in high school, English literature meant to me the study and admiration of dead white men,” says Blake. “And the taste of English interpretation introduced in high school was not at all what I wanted to do.”

Flash-forward 10 years, and Blake is nestled in her office as an assistant professor in the Department of English & Drama at the U of T Mississauga, surrounded by shelves filled with English literature tomes and science fiction selections. Surprisingly, the catalyst for her scholarly pursuits was a class on Shakespeare. Blake reasoned that, since Shakespeare was “the ultimate dead white man,” if she could make it through a course on him, English may be the major for her.

“I just happened to have a wonderful Shakespeare professor, who said ‘we are not here to admire Shakespeare and how great a writer he is, we’re here to learn how to analyze texts critically, and use them to think new and interesting thoughts,’” says Blake. “I figured: now this is something I can do.”

And she has done it ever since, currently casting a critical eye mainly to the texts of early modern English literature, with a special focus on writer Arthur Golding, who was a prolific translator in the sixteenth century. Blake also investigates the work of Edmund Spenser, George Chapman, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and, yes, William Shakespeare.

Blake’s work explores these English Renaissance writers as she examines the intersection of literature and science in this period, which gave rise to and saw the development of the scientific revolution, and carries through to the late 17th century.

“I am interested in the long tradition of natural philosophy in early modern English literature. My book is about philosophies on the basic makeup of the material world and the rules governing it, which in the English Renaissance was referred to as physiologia,” says Blake.

Blake says the time period in her research is interesting because it predates the science-literature divide that is prominent today, where literature is regarded as “parasitic” to prevailing scientific wisdom. She gives the example of science fiction, where the science in the novel is considered as doing the intellectual heavy lifting, while the science fiction harnesses the science in order to drive the plot.

Blake feels one of the biggest impacts for her work is in her teaching where she has contributed to the shaping of curriculum. She currently teaches a course at UTM called “Science and Fiction in the English Renaissance,” where her students read about some of the radical experiments conducted by the Royal Society. Blake says science majors sometimes show up expecting an entirely different class.

She feels that her work has particular resonance today, despite the current “uneven relationship” between science and literature.

“I think that looking at earlier periods provides a model for thinking about science and literature as potentially equal, even if they aren’t today, and the problem of the epistemological status of science is one that is definitely reverberating more widely now,” says Blake.

“The larger questions about how science relates to other disciplines and how can we think about science as one epistemology among others, without undermining its claims, is absolutely crucial.”