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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Scientific art : the tetralogy of John Banville McIlroy, Brian


The main thesis of this study is that John Banville's fictional scientific tetralogy makes an aesthetically challenging attempt to fuse renewed popular notions of science and scientific figures with renewed artistic forms. Banville is most interested in the creative mind of the scientist, astronomer, or mathematician, his life and times in Doctor Copernicus (1976) and Kepler (1981), and his modern day influence in The Newton Letter (1982) and Mefisto (1986). The novelist's writing is a movement of the subjective into what has normally been regarded as the objective domain of science. Chapter one gives a critical overview of the present state of Banville scholarship. It reveals that despite his focus on scientists, the novelist rarely invites more than narrow literary approaches. Chapter two discusses the cultural context of relations between science and literature. The theories of Gerald Holton on scientific history, of Arthur Koestler on creativity, and of Thomas Kuhn on paradigm change are shown to be germane to Banville's tetralogy. These theories support the general methodology throughout the dissertation. Chapter three examines the creation of the scientific genius Doctor Copernicus. In particular, the following areas are examined: the scientist's boyhood; the influences of his family, friends and colleagues; the link between science and public policy; the scientist's living and working conditions; and the scientist's thematic presuppositions. Chapter four continues the exploration of the social and artistic process of science with regard to the astronomer Kepler. This chapter's discussion of the brotherhood of science, astrology, physicalization, religion and dreams inevitably raises questions about the role of the scientist in society and how his ideas are developed. Chapter five reveals the importance of the extra—scientific factors that go into the composition of any purportedly objective science. In The Newton Letter, both the great English scientist and his Irish biographer seem to suffer from similar paradigm shifts. Chapter six on Mefisto argues that recent scientific theory, including the science of chaos, informs the work, particularly with regard to the notions of symmetry and asymmetry. Chapter seven concludes by advancing the argument that Banville's work is a much needed contribution to Irish culture, which has tended to ignore the social potential of science.

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