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The Modernist Review #34: Modernism and Science

30th September 2021

The beginning of Autumn is a great time for reflection, and 2021 has given us more than enough to think about. As we debate the ethics of vaccine boosters, try to interpret the erratic rise and fall of the graphs, and do our best to resist imitating Chris Whitty’s ‘Next Slide Please!’ whenever we open Powerpoint, it’s clear that science – and the debates it elicits – have become increasingly unavoidable. The last two years have shown more than ever the ways in which science – its methods, images, and practical applications – pervade and shape both our lived experience and our artistic interpretation of our place in the natural world. Of course, though science’s cultural presence may have been particularly stark of late, it is certainly nothing new. This issue of the Modernist Review brings a wealth of examples of the varied ways in which modernism and science were interwoven in the first half of the twentieth century to generate innovative aesthetics, striking social commentary, and dramatic philosophical and political conversations across fields.

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A Manifesto Against Specialization: Experiment (1928-31)

2 August 2021

Rachel Fountain Eames, University of Birmingham

We at Cambridge, at that time, thought of physics as an activity as natural as breathing or writing poetry.[1]

The intellectual atmosphere of 1920s Cambridge was under the constant impress of science. The British poet and critic Kathleen Raine describes how she and her peers were ‘under the spell of the new scientific universe’, feeling an impetus to integrate and respond to the developing scientific landscape.[2] The same was true of the faculty, with I. A. Richards’s scientifically-inflected formalisation of literary criticism shaping the English department.[3] The Cavendish Laboratory boasted some of the period’s most influential physicists and science popularizers, including J. J. Thompson and Ernest Rutherford, and students of all stripes enjoyed regular guest lectures from eminent scientists like Paul Dirac, J. B. S. Haldane, Arthur Eddington, and Albert Einstein.[4] For some, their breathtaking discoveries gestured to new applications; for Raine and her contemporaries, they inspired the ‘excitement, illumination, or whatever that quickening of the pulse may be that tells the poet here is the matter for poetry’.[5]‘The scientists of the Cavendish Laboratory’ she says, ‘had set the problem the poets must resolve as best they could: to discover the qualitative implications of their new modelled universe.’[6] In November 1928, those poets responded with a wave of experimental writing to fill the pages of a new student-run magazine: Experiment.

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