COOL CLASSES: “Science as Fiction”

A seminar, taught by a visiting professor and alum, on the interrelations between literature and the history of science.

Class name: “Science as Fiction”

Taught by: Visiting Assistant Professor of German Brook Henkel ’05

Here’s what Henkel had to say about his class:


“Science as Fiction” is a seminar on the interrelations between literature and the history of science. We consider how concepts from early chemistry, romantic science, animal psychology, cybernetics, modern physics, and other fields influenced the literary aesthetics and critical imaginations of writers like Goethe, Mary Shelley, Poe, Kafka, Pynchon, and Calvino. Students also learn to apply skills in literary analysis to scientific texts, discovering the importance of narrative, metaphor, and other literary devices in writings by Boyle, Mesmer, Darwin, and Einstein. In reading science as literature and literature in relation to science, the goal is to challenge usual disciplinary divisions and identify the imaginative concepts and representational practices that literature and science have in common.

We also look beyond the printed page and study the histories of scientific education and exhibition on display at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. Our recent field trip, pictured above, allowed students to consider firsthand how wonder and fright contribute to scientific curiosity, thus relating the Mütter to a much older tradition of research on medical anomalies in the early modern period.

My hope is that students come away from this course with a better sense of how imagination and writing contribute to the sciences and a new understanding of literature as creatively, productively, and critically responsive to new scientific advances. The course was inspired by my own undergraduate experiences here at Haverford, where I double-majored in astronomy and German. While I already had a strong interest in both literature and the natural sciences at the time, there were no classes that directly addressed their intersection. At the very beginning of this semester, we studied the 1950s-60’s “Two Cultures” debate, which underlined a severe division between the humanities and natural sciences, a divide that is in some ways still with us today––despite efforts to promote interdisciplinarity.

I have been fortunate and thankful that “Science as Fiction” has attracted a stellar group of Bryn Mawr and Haverford students, whose diverse academic experiences have supported a truly interdisciplinary approach to literary and scientific texts. A high point for me this semester came during our visit to Special Collections in Magill Library, where students responded creatively to a first edition of Robert Boyle’s New Experiments Physico-Mechanical (1660), as they considered the book at once as a material object, groundbreaking scientific treatise, and literary technology composed of descriptive text and images. Thanks to the Head of Quaker and Special Collections Sarah Horowitz and our Research Librarian Jeremiah Mercurio, students were able to make use of this and other materials and get started thinking about unique projects for their final papers. Pynchon and entropy, the mad scientist in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and automatons in Romantic literature and science are just a few of the topics being explored in student research this semester.



See what other courses the German Department is offering this semester.

Photo by Hina Fathima ’15

Cool Classes is a series that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford experience.