Why Scientists Should Read Novels

Spring semester of my sophomore year did not go exactly as planned.

It started off promising enough. Good classes, good friends. I remember one of my sponsees telling me that I had “the perfect life.” Who was I to disagree?

But things did not quite go according to plan. Perhaps things never do. Around Valentine’s Day, my semester started to disintegrate. My identical twin sister, a fellow student at Pomona College, flew away to North Carolina one day for a medical “check-up” that ended up lasting months, involving surgery and central lines. A week later, the object of my affections left me sobbing and reading outdated love letters in old sweaters. My grandmother was in and out of the hospital, I was furious with myself for failing to catch my sister’s slippery slope of sickness, and I had to drop my Squash P.E. class because of a complete lack of talent.

Oh, the heartbreak! My Kentucky public school education had failed to prepare me for this.

My game plan was to stay under the covers of my bed, forever. But that turned out not to get me too far. So instead, I thought I should try to get out and do something.

And where better to start than with a book?

I should say, I am no English major. In fact, my humanities education prior to Pomona was embarrassingly inadequate. But I do love to read. So I reopened a personal favorite: The Once and Future King by T. H. White. On page 183 of my worn paperback copy, Merlyn tells young King Arthur, “The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails … Learn why the world wags and what wags it. Learning is the thing for you.”

I think Merlyn is probably right.

I am a science major. When I search for why the world wags, I start with things like benzene rings and the life cycle of the jellyfish. For me, there came a time last semester when this just wasn’t good enough. I was sad and confused and disappointed, and I tried to keep myself busy with problem sets and science articles. But these distractions didn’t let me know that what I was going through was similar to what billions before me have gone through—and that I was certainly not the worst one off. 

As I was slipping into the dangerous arena of overwhelming self-absorption and indifference to almost everything, I needed the reminder that there was more than my own little world. In the end, the humanities provided me with what I was really looking for: perspective. My humanities education is certainly more piecemeal than any English or dance major’s academic path, yet it is my English and dance classes that have kept me sane. They make me think with a different point of view, one that is at times almost painfully and irreplaceably relevant. They provide context to my growing up, which I need desperately; I’ll be 20 next week and time seems to fly past. 

The humanities remind me of what makes me wag. I changed my summer plans to work with social justice issues at home in eastern Kentucky. At one low point, I refused to flush my carnival goldfish down the toilet because I thought it was unethical to condemn him to an eternity in an inadequate, ignored, and environmentally harmful sewer system. I reveled in the readings from my heaven-sent religious studies class. Books and artistic movement helped keep me on track.

Last semester I was sad, and that was OK, and my world was bigger than I thought it was. But within this bigger world there existed an unspoken solidarity, and I couldn’t have found that with my science classes alone.

Fingers crossed, this semester will end a little better. Maybe, just a little, because of Merlyn.

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