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“Jabberwocky,” altering it thusly: “Eight slithy toves gyre and

Scientists and Engineers Need gimble in the oxygen wabe.”

Literature by Troy Camplin Literature helped guide these scientists to their
scientific insights—insights that challenged the predominant
Shortly after clocks were introduced to Japan in the
ways of thinking. And when we look at the lives of our most
sixteenth century, Japanese inventors used the principles
creative scientists, we discover that they all counted literature as
underlying the clock’s movements to create robots. True, those
being central to their creativity. Creativity develops out of
robots were merely mechanical dolls, but they could often do expanding our horizons, not from narrowing them.
quite intricate tasks, like serving tea and writing Japanese
characters. This idea that mechanical objects could—and Literature is also filled with a number of patterns. There
should—be made animate and even human, is a deep part of are complex patterns of meaningful word distribution in novels,
Japanese culture. That helps to explain why the Japanese rhythmic and often rhyming patterns in formalist poetry, patterns
remain at the forefront of robotic technology. of speech and action in plays. Some of these patterns are
regular, others are irregular, and many are fractal (exhibiting
You could make the argument that if one were
both regularity and irregularity simultaneously). Literature can
interested in becoming a robotics engineer, an excellent way of
thus help us to see patterns more clearly, and to see more
doing so would be to become more Japanese. But how does
complex patterns. This allows us to see connections and to
one become more Japanese? How do we get into the mindset
notice when something is breaking a pattern. Both are vital to
of a Japanese person, whose world-view is formed as much by scientific discovery.
Buddhism and Shintoism as the Western mind is formed by
ancient Greek philosophy and Christianity? Literature is filled with the expected (patterns) and the
unexpected (pattern breaks). It is sometimes filled with strange
The answer is: fiction.
happenings—Kafka’s The Metamorphosis being an obvious
When we read a work of fiction, we come to empathize example—that challenge the way you view the world. Kafka
with the characters. We come to know them from the inside. certainly presents us with a strange world and forces us to
Literature is how we download another’s mind into our own. reconsider the way things are. We are faced with strange
Even though Japanese novelists Kenzaburo Oe and Kawabata possibilities—things as strange as quantum physics and the
do not themselves write about robots, having engineering strange attractors of chaos theory. Works like The
students read their works puts them into the minds of people Metamorphosis help develop a mind that’s open to
who live in a culture of which robots are a natural outgrowth. counterintuitive possibilities.

Despite such benefits, literature is one of those And as we discussed above, literature allows you to
courses that students in pretty much every other major consider inhabit the life and world of different people. Thus, literature
to be a pointless requirement. Why should a physics major or an develops our empathy. Men can experience what it’s like to be
engineering major care about literature? Or a chemistry or a woman; women can experience what it’s like to be a man. I’ve
biology or psychology or economics or sociology major? experienced being an African-American woman through Toni
Morrison and Alice Walker, being an African-American man
Clearly the psychology major should know some through Langston Hughes, being an African tribal priest through
biology and sociology. And in the case of Hayek’s theory of Chinua Achebe, being a Colombian Hispanic through Gabriel
spontaneous orders, anyone studying networks, including García Márquez, being a Czech Jew through Kafka, being
sociology, psychology, brain science, and biology, should ancient Greek through Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, and
definitely learn some economics. But where does literature fit Aeschylus, and being a modern Greek through Kazantzakis, just
into this? Wouldn’t it be better if people simple focused more on to name a few.
their narrow fields to learn about those fields more thoroughly?
I have inhabited those lives in the only ways actually
In other words, is literature mere entertainment for possible—literature—and that has made me more open,
those wealthy enough to get a liberal arts education? Or might cosmopolitan, and creative. There is little doubt in my mind that
there be something more to it? literature has allowed me to see the world as deeply complex,
which has in turn affected the way I have done my own social
First, as Mark Turner argues in The Literary Mind, we science work, seeing the world as I do from a complexity
think with stories. Literary works are the most refined and perspective.
complex versions of our natural way of thinking. That being the
case, if you want to sharpen your thinking and make it more New ways of thinking do not occur just among
complex, then read more literature. disciplines, but among cultures as well. These cultural
differences have resulted in geographically distinct scientific
Thomas Carlyle defined literature as “the Thought of developments. It is not a coincidence that so many of the
thinking Souls”—meaning if you want to think best and most revolutionary physicists of the early part of the 20th century were
beautifully, you simply must read literature. If we want our Germanic or that early Darwinism was an English phenomenon.
scientists and engineers and inventors to be good thinkers, we And we have already seen that robotic innovation is a mostly
should encourage them to read literature. Japanese phenomenon.
Second, literature, like other arts, helps stimulate Cultural elements contributed to those patterns,
creativity. There is creative crossover, and this crossover helps because culture affects the way we think and view the world. It
people to see patterns and connections in other fields. Bursts of affects the kinds of questions we ask, and the kinds of answers
creativity are apt to occur when one way of thinking comes into we see. As we come to understand different cultures better, we
contact with another. will come to think in more creative ways, which can benefit those
in math, technology, engineering, and the sciences.
Specialists in a field who only read and discuss the
work of others in that field can settle into uncreative groupthink. STEM students—those in science, technology,
Literature, with its complexities and narrative structures and engineering, and math—need literature because it helps to
alternative meanings, can break groupthink, creating new sharpen and complexify our thinking. They will have seen a
insights and possibilities. This is why we find the most creative more complex world, from which they will then ask new
scientists to be avid lovers of the arts, including literature. questions and find better solutions. And as complexity science
comes to dominate more and more, STEM students are going
When Max Planck received the Nobel Prize for to need more complex habits of thought. Those who want to be
physics, he commented that, “I am vividly reminded of Goethe’s most innovative in their fields will not ignore literature.
saying that men will always be making mistakes as long as they
are striving after something.” It was a giant of literature, not a
physicist, who came to mind for Planck. Noted chaos theorist
Mitchell Feigenbaum too found inspiration in Goethe—notably, Reference: Camplin, T. (2013). Scientists and Engineers Need
his Faust, in which Goethe develops the theme of the Literature. The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.
interrelatedness of order and chaos. And when British physicist From
Sir Authrur Eddington tried to explain how electrons actually engineers-need-literature/
behave in an atom, he went with Lewis Carroll’s poem