Can Plants Hear Bassoons? Science and the Sublime

By Mistichelli, William J. | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Can Plants Hear Bassoons? Science and the Sublime


Mistichelli, William J., Papers on Language & Literature


I cannot imagine any part of the world presenting a more extraordinary

scene of the breaking up of the crust of the globe than the very central

peaks of the Andes....

I cannot tell you how I enjoyed some of these views.--it is worth coming

from England once to feel such intense delight. At an elevation from

10-12,000 ft. there is a transparency in the air & a confusion of distances

& a sort of stillness which gives the sensation of being in another world,

& when to this is joined, the picture so plainly drawn of the great epochs

of violence, it causes in the mind a strange assemblage of ideas.

--Charles Darwin

A little known fact about Charles Darwin is that he spent a good part of his old age investigating whether plants could hear bassoons (Browne ix). It is one of those details, like Newton's preoccupation with alchemy and the Book of Revelations, or Copernicus's image of the sun as the father, and therefore, the rightful center of the solar system, which the scientific community has either ignored or suppressed. Kepler's enduring interest in celestial harmony has been more widely publicized, perhaps because the connection between music and mathematics--as opposed, say, to that of music and flora--has been sufficiently respected to warrant its passage without scandal or embarrassment beyond the boundaries of the scientific community. In the cases of Darwin, Newton, or Copernicus, however, one is confronted with interests that somehow jostle our stereotypical perception of the scientist's commitment to the rule of detached observation, rational judgment and objectivity, characteristics which presumably increase their capacity to discover nature's processes and predict its behavior. In many respects, however, the surprise or shock (perhaps even embarrassment) elicited by Darwin's interest in the hearing capacity of plants carries renewed interest for us, especially in the light of recent developments in the literature of science. The very nature of Dar-win's interest implies a wish to connect his scientific research with aesthetic ideals, as well as significant aspects of his emotional life. His insistence on crossing over into the domain traditionally occupied by poets identifies knowledge (scientific or otherwise) as something commensurate with our subjective lives.

To think of Newton and Darwin in these terms requires a reexamination of the view that science's authority as guide to the makeup of the material universe depends on its impartiality. Traditional approaches to Newton's work on alchemy, for instance, which insist on the separation of his eccentric preoccupations as a man from his monumental scientific gifts have been challenged by Richard Westfall's recent biography. In his portrayal of Newton, Westfall is able to demonstrate that the strict separation often made between the professional work of scientists and their humanity has never been universally accepted--not even by scientists themselves; nor has its intermittent acceptance been unproblematic. On the one hand, it posits for the scientist a schizophrenic existence-something similar to the Jekyll-Hyde figure we are all familiar with. At the same time, the characterization is made without the troubling and valuable insights contained in Stevenson's portrait. Jekyll's scientific experiments do not divorce his professional career from his personal identity and destiny; they bind them more closely together. The extraordinary thing about the Jekyll-Hyde story, as Chesterton has remarked, is not that one person is actually two, but that two persons are one (Haynes 148).

Chesterton's observation has much to offer in the context of the current reevaluation of science and science writing. In our culture the perceived split between scientist and human agent has been compounded by an equally disputable separation between observer and object. …

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