Cover image for The nuclear muse : literature, physics, and the first atomic bombs
The nuclear muse : literature, physics, and the first atomic bombs
Canaday, John, 1961-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Madison : University of Wisconsin Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
xviii, 310 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm

Format :


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Material Type
Home Location
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QC791.96 .C36 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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John Canaday analyzes a variety of texts produced by physicists before, during, and after the Second World War, including Niels Bohr's "The Quantum Postulate"; the Blegdamsvej Faust , a parody of Goethe's Faust that cast physicists as its principle characters; The Los Alamos Primer , the technical lectures used for training at Los Alamos; scientists' descriptions of their work and of the Trinity test; and Leo Szilard's post-war novella, The Voice of the Dolphins .

Author Notes

John Canaday is a prize-winning poet and playwright who has been a Watson Fellow and the Starbuck Fellow in Poetry at Boston University. He tutors students in literature, writing, history, mathematics, and physics

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Literary critic Canaday tries to explain and find common ground with modern physics. "Although authors exercise a great deal of control, ... other factors--including established usage, common symbols, cultural myths, the literary canon, conventional diction, grammatical rules, social conditioning, subconscious desires--also play major roles in determining the semiotic content of a text.... [S]ome of the most significant features of a text often have little or nothing to do with the author's intentions.... [W]e must beware of treating scientific texts as a special case, exempt from this principle." (This reviewer doubts that many physicists will concur with the assertion of the ignorance of their intentions; they also will have difficulty with the convoluted prolix language of literary criticism.) Commonalties emphasized are the use, in science and in literature, of metaphor, rhetoric, and fiction--e.g., the gedanken experiment of Bohr or Einstein and the impact of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds on Szilard's initial conception of a nuclear bomb, the Manhattan Project rhetoric for convincing normally peaceful souls to work on a bomb. Not sufficiently clarified is the role of experiment and observation in choosing between different possible metaphors and hence differentiating science from literature. Still, literary readers should gain valuable insight into 20th-century physics, its morality, and its impacts on the world. Upper-division undergraduates and up. A. M. Saperstein; Wayne State University

Table of Contents

Illustrationsp. xi
Prefacep. xiii
Acknowledgmentsp. xvii
Introduction: Literature, Physics, and the First Atomic Bombsp. 3
1 "What We Can Say about Nature": Metaphor, Analogy, and the Birth of Subatomic Physicsp. 31
2 "Wandering on New Paths": Niels Bohr's Complementarity Principlep. 55
3 "The Sense of Option in Knowledge": The Blegdamsvej Faust and Quantum Mechanicsp. 81
4 The Los Alamos Primer: The Uses of Fiction in Founding a Laboratoryp. 109
5 A City on "The Hill": Decoding Life at Los Alamosp. 139
6 New Worlds, Old Words: The Exploration and Discovery of Nuclear Physicsp. 161
7 "Taking the Cloth": The Moral Texture of Los Alamosp. 183
8 "Beggared Description": Writing Nuclear Weaponsp. 205
9 Physics in Fiction: "The Voice of the Dolphins" and Riddley Walkerp. 227
Notesp. 253
Bibliographyp. 285
Indexp. 301