“Hidden Science” in the Writings of Franklin & Conan Doyle

Men of method: Franklin and Conan Doyle

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Benjamin Franklin. By Joseph Duplessi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
It was my first year of graduate studies, and I found myself re-reading The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Some time had passed since I read this book in depth,[*] but certain portions remained clear enough in my mind, including Franklin’s ambitious and tongue-in-cheek project to acquire virtues in Part II.[†] As I read through this section, I felt a growing sense of familiarity that was related less to the content and more to the structure of the writing. Franklin’s project followed a pattern that I’d become familiar with while pursuing that other undergraduate degree:[‡] scientific methodology. Reading Part II of The Autobiography was not unlike reading a scientific paper: there was a section on the background and the project’s goal (“moral Perfection”; Franklin 1383), defined terminology, methods delineated (working on acquiring a single virtue on a weekly basis and recording instances of success/failure); results presented and discussed, and a conclusion or two (Franklin 1383–91), ranging from “I think I like a speckled Ax best” (Franklin 1390) to:

But on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was by the Endeavour made a better and a happier Man than I otherwise should have been, if I had not attempted it (Franklin 1391).

Obviously, the project to acquire virtue wasn’t, per se, a scientific experiment, but it bore the hallmarks of one.

Elated that I observed something I previously hadn’t noticed, I wrote my short paper for the upcoming class with a reference to my discovery and mentioned it during my brief presentation. I, however, did not expect to be asked which approach to the scientific method had Franklin favored. My professor posed an excellent question, considering that the 17th and 18th century scientific thinkers were in the process of disputing more ancient methods (namely, Aristotelian) for deriving facts (Weinberg 201-14).[§] I, however, knew more about applying the basics of scientific methodology than its history.

Awkward.[**]

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Photo by Walter Benington (RR Auction) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Curiously, though, this experience—that is, the feeling I’d come across a familiar format— recurred when I re-read A Study in Scarlet for a recent post. Again, I felt as though I was reading about Sherlock Holmes conducting a scientific study in which he carefully observed the crime scene’s grounds (Conan Doyle 23–4), collected data (measurements at the murder site as well as examination of the murder victims; Conan Doyle 26, 29, 56–7), and even tested his theory that the first murder victims was poisoned (Conan Doyle 58–9). But, there it was: a sort of literary déjà vu featuring the scientific method. While I’m sure I understood that Holmes was both methodical and logical in his approach to detection, I doubt I noted the specific scientific underpinnings in Holmesian detective fiction when I was reading the stories in my early teens. It doesn’t seem like the sort of thing I would have considered independently when I was intent on consuming as many mystery novels as I could. And I certainly didn’t have the same ability to read critically as I do now.

Of course, detecting  the presence of scientific ideas in the writings of scientific men (Franklin, a scientist and inventor, and Conan Doyle, a medical doctor) isn’t unexpected, particularly with two individuals whom share the distinction of forwarding scientific study. Conan Doyle’s fiction anticipated the usage of methods that would become central in forensic sciences (eg, preserving footprints, protecting the crime scene from contamination)[††] and inspired forensic science pioneers like Edmond Locard (Steenberg 35).[‡‡] In Franklin’s case, the study of electricity benefited greatly from his attention to it (Chaplin), to put it mildly. Nonetheless, uncovering these connections between very different people writing for very different purposes was satisfying. I wouldn’t go so far to claim that I’ve seen further than some, but perhaps further than I once did.[§§] And I do feel a bit like a sleuth for detecting evidence of scientific thought.

Have you experience literary déjà vu or found some interesting scientific ideas in unexpected texts? Share your experiences below! Also,  sign up for the Sequence’s newsletter and keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] High school to be exact.

[†] Spoiler: It’s my favorite part.

[‡] For the curious, I have an undergraduate degree in Literature and one in Environmental Studies.

[§] Numerous sources discuss this critical change in scientific thinking, including the one I cite here (as a physicist, he brings an interesting perspective to exploring this history ). The scientific methodology has a long history and, of course, will continue to evolve as scientific discoveries and thought require it to do so. The link I provide depicts a concise timeline of important known events, dates, and person contributing to this evolution.

[**] Based on my limited research, I’d (tentatively) go with Francis Bacon. Franklin already was familiar with the self-improvement plans of notable intellectuals, including Bacon who was likely the most influential (Lemay 39). Considering that Bacon favored experiments to establish facts (empiricism), I think this dovetails neatly with Franklin’s process here. Oh, and not having an answer didn’t have any negative consequences for my classwork; it was just embarrassing.

[††]  Holmes use of footprint evidence seems amazingly prescient when you consider the SoleMate database of shoe prints.

[‡‡] He apparently encouraged his students to read Holmes stories.

[§§] I’m cheekily referencing Newton’s famous quote: “”If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Works Cited

Chaplin, Joyce E. “Benjamin Franklin’s Science—In Public and Private.” Benjamin Franklin’s Science—In Public and Private. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2017. http://www2.avs.org/benjaminfranklin/chaplin.html.

Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories, Volume 1 and 2. 1920. Reprint. New York: Bantam Classics, 2003. Print.

Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography. In: Franklin, Benjamin. Writings. Ed. J. A. Leo Lemay. New York, NY: Literary Classics of the United States, 1987. Print.

Lemay, J. A. Leo. The life of Benjamin Franklin: printer and publisher, 1730–1747. Vol. 2. Philadelphia, PA: U of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. Print.

Steenberg, Lindsay. Forensic science in contemporary American popular culture: gender, crime, and science. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Weinberg, Steven. To explain the world: the discovery of modern science. New York: Harper, 2015. Print.

 

Writing and the Art of Paper Craft

What my hobby taught me about my writing.

There should be a limit to one’s ability to feel embarrassed by juvenilia and other potentially cringe-worthy work. Like that first poem I wrote and work shopped, if it still existed anywhere.[*] And yet early efforts in some ways, whether they subsist only in one’s memory or in actual, viewable format, possess a certain strength in their imperfection—something I’ve recently discovered by reminiscing other artistic endeavors:

I vividly remember my first camera, how it felt: the textured red plastic case with the smooth black cord I now would call a wristlet strap.[†] Its rectangular flash stick—my camera didn’t take cubes, which I felt were far cooler. I was ten or thereabouts. I kept most photos, even bad ones, in an album that had sticky pages with plastic covers. With age, the glue became visible wherever photos weren’t. Somewhere along the line, I learned about acidic (not archival) paper. I did not necessarily become better at photo taking.

By high school/college, I switched the photos to an album now called a scrapbook. It had manila pages and clear photo corners, which I found disappointing. I thought the pages and corners would be black, like the scrapbooks of yore, the kind my grandparents remembered from their youth. Removing the old photos proved to be challenging. They’d peel and tear on occasion, the cantankerous, yellowed glue refusing to graciously cede its grip. This time, I added some captions, school awards, and the like.

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One of the bad but interesting photos: the double exposure makes it look like a great spirit horse decided to join us on the ride. (Photo by R. Gould.)

It didn’t occur to me that I was revising my first draft. (I still kept many of the bad photos because they were all I had or were wrong in the right way. Because sometimes, mistakes[‡] can be cool.)

Side projects, both sweet and hilarious, informed my process. My friends and I decorated clipboards for each other using photos, magazines, stickers, and contact paper. Concepts from collage shaped my scrapbook. How these projects somehow gave me permission to make my own wedding invitations,[§] and how I never questioned that I could do so even though I’d never created cards previously.

(I sketched designs and found instructions on the Internet, and I made every last invite, with half the tools and knowledge I have now. There are a few mistakes, but fewer than I’d guessed there’d be.)

I’m working on new projects, considering re-doing a few old albums with the more modern approach I currently use. I worry if my projects are too conventional, my captions too cute and canned. I’m working up some new phrasing. I’m an editor, after all.[**]

And somehow this proves that even when I’m not writing, there’s this writerly quality to what I do and that I improve, try new things, and find surprising measures of success that sometimes make me amazed that I did what I did. Then, this epiphany clicks: my older writing is just that—older. It’s only a step in the process of becoming a better writer.

What projects inspired your writing or changed how you saw your work? Share your thoughts in the comment section below. Also, sign up for the Sequence’s newsletter to keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] It doesn’t. I checked.

[†] Of course, no photos of this long-gone camera exist, which amuses me because I remember it more clearly than some of the events my 110 recorded.

[‡] Mistakes or errors are signposts to success. They point where you need to change direction, learn more, or just try harder.

[§] Permissible but not by my any means sensible. Hating every over-the-top romantic and/or too expensive card that felt very much unlike us also fueled this decision.

[**] I re-read my posts and fix the tiny grammar errors. Yep, editing all the way out the door and to the store.

Love, Concealment, and Laura Chase: Review of The Blind Assassin

At the heart of Iris’s web is her regret that she failed those she loved.

The Blind AssassinThe Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Part of the pleasure in reading Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Blind Assassin, lies in tracing the various narrative threads throughout the book to see how they inform each other and how they reconcile. Newspaper clippings and excerpts from a novel written by Laura Chase (sister to Iris Chase Geffen, the narrator) are stitched together with Iris’s own story (both past and present). The juxtaposition here—the fictional (or at least fictionalized) romance of two clandestine lovers themselves weaving a pulp sci-fi tale contrasted with the more factual/official accounts of newsworthy events—add both intrigue and tension to a novel that dramatically opens with Iris learning that Laura committed suicide. This added tension is important, too, because the storytelling (darting among accounts) reflects Iris’s reluctance to reveal all that transpired, even as her own approaching death leaves the possibility that the truth will be silenced.

Blind Assassins and Their Mute Sacrificial Maidens

As Iris spins the tale of her youth at Avilion and her early adulthood in Toronto, certain themes emerge: blindness, silence, and sacrifice. Atwood employs the first two of these strands as physical traits of characters from Laura’s novel. The titular assassin and the mute sacrificial maiden represent the lower echelons of a cruel society where the wealthy force slave children to weave carpets until the children become blind, resigning most to a life of prostitution. The rich, unwilling to hear pleas for mercy, also sever the tongues of sacrificial maidens. Meant to appease the gods and thus keep the city safe, these sacrifices prove fruitless: an invading horde waits outside the gates and the assassin is likely to tell them how to breach the walls.

Class tensions, futile sacrifices, and overwhelming outside forces (World War I, the Great Depression) also shape life at Avilion, as do blindness and silence. Here, Atwood shifts from literal blindness to a failure to recognize or understand, just as sacrifice stems from more noble if misguided impulses. Iris’s father, Norval, generously retains his workers (many of whom were fellow veterans) but fails to see how keeping the factory running will jeopardize his own family’s financial security. Iris doesn’t despise sacrifice, but she cottons onto how it may be without merit. Implicit in her reflections about her father’s business mistakes (she recounts that he was a considered a “blind fool”) is the silent accusation that his prudence may have spared his daughters from a grim future. In this manner, the ever-wily Iris protests discreetly that blame does not lie solely with her. But she has a point: as female child then and a woman later, she always had less agency.

Most of the novel’s sacrificial maidens are women, though, motivated by love to endure. Liliana Chase suffers her husband’s post-war adultery and drinking binges in silence whilst attempting to bear him male heirs (Norval’s partial blindness, is a bit heavy handed here). She dies following a miscarriage. The girls pattern themselves after their mother’s sacrifice. Iris, who marries to save family fortune and factory at her father’s behest, finds such love burdensome. She is weighed down by her father’s love as well as the responsibility for the younger and too trusting Laura, a responsibility thrust upon her by parents and housekeeper Reenie. She shoulders the resentment of this duty into old age.

Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin. Review by R. GouldConcealment and Secrets

As Iris’s tightly held secrets begin to unravel, the effects of concealment—both blindness and silence—become apparent. Both girls learn how to hide their feelings to avoid mistreatment by their tutor Mr. Erksine, a stereotypical wicked instructor. And what could have been a close-knit relationship between two sisters begins to falter as a consequence of Erskine’s careful predation. Having not witnessed his actions, Iris is confounded by Laura’s unexpected and (to Iris’s mind) too calm account of wandering hands. She can’t imagine why a man would touch a child. However we might dislike it, her view is explicable given the historical context (children knew little of such abuse then). Then, as now, the notion of the “good victim” also plagues the abused and prevents justice. For Iris, concealment serves as a useful survival strategy in her dealings with the manipulative Geffen siblings, whereas silence places Laura at their mercy. Her choice to sacrifice herself for a loved one, concealing her suffering rather than trusting Iris to accept her story, is both tragic and understandable.

It’s concealment that ties Atwood’s novel together. The switches among the narratives styles permit us to question the notion of what represents the truth just as it lets Iris keep her secrets a little longer—even as she drops hints in hopes that she won’t have to outright admit her culpability. As she nears her confession, she finally has to embrace the terribleness of should: how she should have assured Laura that she believed her, when she should have said nothing, been kinder, or even lied. How she should have confessed to her daughter, Aimee, or rescued her granddaughter Sabrina. At the heart of Iris’s web is her regret that she failed those she loved. Whether readers guess at the big revelations in The Blind Assassin beforehand is immaterial. Atwood’s narrator is compelling enough to merit hearing out. And, Iris may earned some redemption by giving Sabrina the freedom to reinvent herself.

View all my reviews

Reading Past and Future

Ready to read in the new year

Generally speaking, I avoid the whole “new year, new me” resolutions that plague the early days of January. In my part of the world, January tends to be cold and grey with a chance of snow. After the merry and bright of the darkest nights of December, January already feels like the morning after the night before.[*] Why add the pressure of life-changing resolutions?

To be fair though, I have the bookworm’s long-standing goal to read more, regardless of which part of the year it is. It’s been a rather poignant plan at times, when I haven’t had enough free time to read deeply the way I wanted to do or the focus when I did have time. In 2016, however, I felt like I read many amazing books, although I always wish for more time to read more.[†] With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of the notable books I’ve read (links are to posts that discuss these books).

Since I’m making lists, I thought I’d consider books for 2017 as well. Normally, I let my birthday and Christmas presents[‡] dictate the books that I plan to read for the upcoming year, and I find other books that interest me as the year progresses. I am, however, hoping to get a few suggestions from my readers. Please feel free to post your suggestions in the comment box!

2016 Notable Reads[§]

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne[**]

The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind by Anne Charnock

The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan*

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

2017 To-Read List

All the Living by C. E. Morgan

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Howard’s End by E. M. Forster

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo[††]

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawker

Read a good book lately? Share your reading recommendations in the comment section below! Also, sign up for the Sequence’s newsletter and keep current with the latest posts!

NOTES:

[*]For some of us, this might be literally true on New Year’s Day.

[†] Just like that guy in the Twilight Zone episode.

[‡] Nothing is sadder than when you DON’T get books for a present.

[§] I’ve read more books than are listed here, but these are the ones that truly stood out as I was putting this list together. Some of these books are also re-reads.

[**] I still can’t believe I’d not read either of these books as a kid.

[††] I’ve actually been trying to read Les Miserables for ages. The problem is it’s so long that I start losing the plot when I put it down. I’m working on finding time to read it uninterrupted so that I don’t lose where I am.