Occasionally I intend to post stories that are unrelated to the main topics in my book, but reflect one of my other passions i.e. history. This is a post that first appeared in The Norwalk Patch:
To many scientists the words “interdisciplinary research” refer to cross-fertilization of ideas and experiments within subcategories of their chosen field, or collaborating with clinicians, engineers, and physicists. Usually, when scientists strayed into areas of music, film, and literature, or when artists strayed into science, it was within the framework of communicating the latest discoveries to laymen or using creative images to transmit the impact of the latest breakthroughs. Another possibility is simply demonstrating the beauty of nature for its own sake. By and large, the motto seems to be “to each his own.”
History has provided us with figures that break the traditional mold, either in the breadth of their scientific expertise or by their achievements in the seemingly separate worlds of science and literature. Thomas Young, an English polymath (1773-1829), is an example of the former, and Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian-American author (1899-1977), is an example of the latter.
Nabokov is, of course, widely known for his novel, Lolita, composed while on butterfly collecting trips in the western United States. He combined teaching “all things Russian” with his interest in lepidoptery at both Wellesley College and Harvard University. Harvard students may be familiar with Nabokov’s collection of male butterfly genitalia stored at the university’s Museum of Natural History and his expertise in microscopic comparisons of these specimens. Several butterfly and moth species, as well as the genus Nabokovia were named in his honor.
Thomas Young broke boundaries in many areas of science. He established the wave theory of light, overcoming a century-old view that light was a particle—an assessment made by Sir Isaac Newton. The roll call of his achievements includes founding the field of physiological optics, establishing the theory of capillary phenomena based on the principle of surface tension as well as related equations, making contributions to haemodynamics, medical writings on consumptive diseases, and developing a rule for children’s drug dosages. Young’s interest in Egyptian hieroglyphics was evidence that this genius did not only confine his mind to scientific matters. His publication,Account of the Recent Discoveries in Hieroglyphic Literature and Egyptian Antiquities, may have influenced the Frenchman, Jean-François Champollion, who deciphered the Rosetta Stone.
Although Young and Nabokov were completely different in terms of temperament, interests, and accomplishments, one might argue that both flourished as creative individuals because interests and success in one field stimulated success and further accomplishments in other areas. Stephen Jay Gould, noted paleontologist and essayist, held an alternative view that may apply to both Nabokov and Young, namely, success in science and other fields may be rooted in a love of detail, contemplation, and symmetry.