Friday, December 23, 2005


I mentioned not long ago that at semester's end I gave my students Greg and Bailey each a copy of Sigrid Undset's Nobel-prizewinning novel Kristin Lavransdatter, and bought myself a copy too.

The novel is really three books: the first takes Kristin's life up to her marriage; the second accounts for her married life; the third folows her to widowhood and death.

When I first read the novel in my twenties, I thought it passionately romantic, but it was Kristin's youth I related to then. I should have read the novel again in mid-life, when I had teenage children of my own, but I suppose I was too busy for a 1200 page journey to 14th-century Norway. I'm now halfway through a second time round and enjoying the book as much as I did the first time,and with far more understanding.

But this is Science Musings. What, if anything, does Undset's novel have to say about science?

I can't think of any novel I have read in my life that depicts the human condition with more knowledge and feeling than Kristin Lavransdatter. It's all here -- love, passion, fear, joy, pain, sex, guilt, parents, children, nature, neighbors, politics, war, and through it all that terrible hungry search for meaning in a world that can be lonely and cruel. None of this has changed since the 14th century, or indeed since the dawn of history. Human nature remains the same. Which is why we learn so much about ourselves from great art of any age.

But between Kristin and ourselves stands a divide that is starkly evident in the novel: the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. The world of Kristin and her contemporaries is awash in superstition -- gods, demons, benevolent and mischievous spirits, and the fear and helplessness that goes with believing that one's happiness and sorrow are in the hands of powers other than one's own, and that our actions, however inadvertent, have supernatural consequences. Perhaps the most significant difference between the prescientific world and our own -- at least for those of us who embrace Enlightenment values -- is the knowledge that we stand on our own two feet, and that to a far greater extent than for our ancestors, we are -- as individuals and as a species -- masters of our own destiny.

More, much more, when I have finished reading.