5a Science Narratives across Genres and Media: The Epistemic Advantages of a Comparative View

Research team: Norbert Schaffeld and Kim Hofschröer

This project pursues a comparative perspective, drawing on examples from fiction, drama, biographical writing, popular science books, film, TV documentaries, and transmedial archives, in order to define and differentiate the potential for representing and communicating science in different fictional and non-fictional genres and media. The key objectives are to identify genre- and media-specific modes of narrating science and to explore to what extent the non-expert experience of science is shaped by the distinctive qualities of the supporting medium (Ryan 2004). To achieve this, the project will conduct a number of case studies: each will be centered on a prominent scientist or a paradigm shift in the history of science, in order to draw a media-related comparison between different narrative representations of the scientist character or the scientific discovery. These comparative analyses enable a clearer description of the diverse epistemic benefits and costs resulting from the tensions between cross-media narrative strategies and their particular media-specific applications (Thon 2016). While narratological studies have become an established part of scholarly research (Fludernik 2009; Herman 2009; G. Olson 2011; Renner et al. 2013), expanding the narratological field to include the public understanding of science seems to be a relatively recent development (R. Olson 2015).

Based on the assumption that as a context-dependent generic entity, narrative communications of science apply inductive reasoning, this project will have to address the question of how the narrative processing of science and its corresponding comprehension by non-experts affects issues of accuracy, authenticity, and plausibility (Dahlstrom 2014). The choice of the subjects for the case studies will in part be made so as to integrate the complementary research focus of FMS II on the global dimensions of science. A global, genre- and media-related comparison could, for instance, center on the self-taught Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) whose remarkable life between the British colony and the academic heart of the Empire, between autodidacticism and professionalism, between religious inspiration and atheism has found numerous interpretations in biographies, novels, plays, films, TV-documentaries, and an opera. The corpus comprises more than a dozen texts and productions from Britain, Canada, Germany, India, and the U.S., among them Robert Kanigel’s biography The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan (1991), David Leavitt’s novel The Indian Clerk (2007), M.N. Krish’s thriller The Steradian Trail (2013), the plays Partition (2006) by Ira Hauptman, and A Disappearing Number (2008) by Simon McBurney, and, finally, Matt Brown’s film The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015). The case of the diverse representations of the life of a famous Indian mathematician will allow the project to investigate how the non-expert’s understanding is canalized by the narrative qualities of the respective genre or medium. In addition, it will enable an analysis of whether and how the tensions between Western and non-Western discourses on science (Harding 1998) manifest themselves in these various narratives.