What They Learned: Mackenzie Tygh ’23

For her thesis, the physics major and astronomy minor researched the intersection of spiritual and secular imaginations by using the scientific phenomena in the cosmology of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy as a case study.

Mackenzie Tygh’s thesis is an attempt to reconcile the intersection of spiritual and secular imaginations by using the scientific phenomena in the cosmology of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy as a case study.

“Exploring the literary themes and symbols in the Divine Comedy through the lens of physics and general relativity was a thought-provoking exercise,” Tygh said. “I hope this project is of interest to those who are curious about interdisciplinary studies and are open to exploring unconventional connections between seemingly unrelated fields.”

Tygh, a physics major with a minor in astronomy, was supported by two thesis advisors; Assistant Professor Alessandro Giammei from the Department of Italian Studies at Yale University and Assistant Professor Daniel Grin from the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Haverford College.

“My collaboration with Prof. Giammei began during the summer of 2021 when we worked together on a Digital Humanities project as part of Bryn Mawr College’s Hanna Holborn Gray Undergraduate Research Fellowship,” said Tygh. “Our project focused on exploring the formation of Mount Purgatory in Dante Alighieri’s Purgatorio, the second canticle of the Divine Comedy. This initial collaboration formed the basis for my thesis and ignited my enthusiasm to bridge my dual passions for the natural sciences and the humanities.”

The West Chester, Pennsylvania, native says both professors played instrumental roles in shaping her thesis. 

“They provided invaluable guidance in developing my research topic, combining insights from Italian literature and cosmology,” Tygh explained. “Moreover, my advisors guided me in conducting extensive literature reviews, refining my research questions, and selecting appropriate research methods. They encouraged me to critically analyze the possibilities presented by Penrose diagrams as an analytical tool in relation to the Angels of Paradiso. Additionally, they helped me contextualize my findings within the broader frameworks of modern physics, such as special and general relativity, enabling a meaningful fusion of Dante’s elaborate worldview with contemporary scientific ideas. Specifically, I focused on the Penrose diagrams for three exact solutions to Einstein’s field equations: the Kerr solution, the Gödel solution, and the solution for anti-de Sitter space. These solutions all have closed timelike curves, which suggest the possibility for time travel to the past.”

Tygh adds that professors Giammei and Grin provided constant support and constructive feedback throughout the interpretation of my results. “Their insights challenged me to think critically and ensured that my conclusions were well-grounded and aligned with the existing scholarship. Their guidance, expertise, and unwavering support empowered me to explore the interplay between spirituality and science, leading to a comprehensive and thought-provoking examination of the cosmology of Dante Alighieri’s Comedy.”

Working on her thesis allowed her to develop an in-depth understanding of various elements related to the cosmology of Dante’s Divine Comedy, delving into the literary and philosophical aspects of Dante’s work, studying the nuances of his poetic language, and exploring the theological and spiritual themes present in the text. 

“During my research, I examined specific passages from the Comedy that describe the Angels of Paradiso,” said Tygh. “This involved analyzing the descriptions of their actions and interactions, as well as contemplating their significance within both the spiritual and physical realms. Additionally, I engaged with the concepts and theories of modern physics, particularly in the areas of special and general relativity, to analyze their implications within the poem. By immersing myself in the extensive literature on the subject and drawing connections between Dante’s cosmology and scientific theories, I developed a comprehensive understanding of the complex interplay between the spiritual and secular imaginations in the text.”

Tygh thinks that her thesis provides a starting point for ongoing inquiry and encourages the development of a broader discourse on the relationship between science and literature.

“My thesis bridges the gap between science and the humanities, specifically by examining the intersection of spirituality and physics within Dante’s Divine Comedy,” Tygh said. “This interdisciplinary approach has the potential to inspire and encourage further research that explores the connections between different fields of study, promoting dialogue and collaboration between scientists, literary scholars, theologians, and philosophers.”

The project also prepares her for future research endeavors, particularly in the field of History of Science

“I aim to continue exploring the intersections between different disciplines, expanding on the methodologies I developed during my thesis work. Pursuing a PhD in History of Science will provide me with opportunities to further develop my interdisciplinary approach and engage with scholars from diverse fields. I can contribute to the evolving discourse on literature and science through a historical framework.”

Tygh says that the  interdisciplinary coursework she took at Haverford offered her “a unique and multifaceted approach” to her thesis research.

“It helped me develop the analytical skills, critical thinking abilities, and theoretical frameworks necessary to bridge the gaps between literature, philosophy, and science. By engaging with diverse disciplines, I gained a comprehensive understanding of the complexities involved in merging different forms of knowledge, enabling me to approach my thesis research with a well-rounded and interdisciplinary perspective.”

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.