Saiber Named Radcliffe Institute Fellow

Story posted October 13, 2003

Arielle Saiber, assistant professor of Romance languages, was recently named a 2003-2004 Radcliffe Institute Fellow. The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study was formed in 1999 when Radcliffe College merged with Harvard University. Each year the institute brings together a community of scholars to work individually and across disciplines. Saiber was one of 56 fellows chosen from 738 applicants.

"Not only is it wonderful to have this year of research and writing time in Cambridge, but it is a great gift to work in such close proximity to scholars and artists from varied disciplines," Saiber said. "As someone who ardently believes in the importance of interdisciplinary work to the Humanities of the twenty-first century, this is the ideal fellowship."

Saiber's project, titled Well-Versed Mathematics in Early Modern Italy, will investigate the impact that mathematics and mathematical sciences had on the literary imagination of Renaissance Italy. Saiber will look at the work of literary authors who were "well-versed" in mathematics and mathematicians who wrote poetry or literary prose.

In 15th and 16th century Italy, there was a revival of interest in classical mathematics treatises, and a frenzy of translation ensued. Literary authors were inspired by these new visions of the nature of space, form and number and sought to integrate them into their literary work.

"The big ideas are enticing, beautiful and exciting... "How can such paradigm shifts not infiltrate works of literature?"

"This project is only focused on one period of time, but the nature of the argument can be extended," Saiber said.

Periodically new ideas from mathematics and science completely alter common understanding of the way the world works. When this occurs these ideas affect the expression of art forms from architecture to music. Scholars have studied how ideas from mathematics and science made their way into other disciplines, but less attention has been paid to their effect on literature.

"The big ideas are enticing, beautiful and exciting," Saiber said. "How can such paradigm shifts not infiltrate works of literature?"

Postmodern literature, for example, with its emphasis on decentralization and fragmentation, emerged at the same time that ideas such as the theory of relativity were shaking up the world of science. Classical mathematics and science, on the other hand, placed a great deal of emphasis on centers, symmetry and harmony. There was a fear of empty space, of "the void," and of relative notions of space and time, Saiber said, that were expressed in the subject matter and in production of all the arts, literature included.

"Over time, these 'fears' started to change and started to become interests. Now they're celebrated," Saiber said. "What is now frequently feared and loathed are absolutist systems, interpretations and narratives about the world around us."

"Since Descartes, science has become a powerful discourse, exterminating some forms of imagination and initiating others"

Mathematics can be employed in rhetoric for different purposes: sometimes to strengthen arguments, at others times simply to make a passage more aesthetic. Mathematics can also be manipulated to express philosophical notions or hidden agendas. One of the authors Saiber will study is Giambattista Della Porta, a playwright/doctor/magician who was fascinated by the idea of mathematical curves and how they could ultimately serve his magic (and his megalomania). Another person whose work she'll study is a reclusive mathematician who hid in a poem the long sought after answer to an important equation.

Saiber's project will concentrate on authors who consciously drew on ideas from mathematics in their literary works and on mathematicians who wrote verse, but she is also interested in the reverse: why and how scientific and mathematical ideas insinuate themselves into the unwitting literary imagination. She believes that it is important for humanities scholars and readers alike to be aware of how literature interacts with these other disciplines.

"Since Descartes, science has become a powerful discourse, exterminating some forms of imagination and initiating others," she said. "Science is where many turn in their search for answers. Many also think of science as the place where the most important work is going on, and thus consider the humanities less relevant to society and to progress. I want to show that literature is right there with sciences, to show that literature and science have always had a symbiotic relationship."

Saiber's interest in these diverse, but what she sees as inherently related, fields goes back to her days as an undergraduate. She majored in philosophy and cognitive sciences at Hampshire College (with a year at the Universita' di Bologna), then went on to earn her doctorate in Italian literature at Yale.

Saiber serves on the Modern Language Association's executive committee for the Division of Literature and Science, has presented extensively on "science and literature" at academic conferences, and has published on Dante, Florence, and the works of the Renaissance author Giordano Bruno, to whom she has devoted an entire book. She is also currently collaborating with a theoretical physicist and a computer graphics artist to develop an interactive analysis of the complex shape of Dante's cosmos for the Dante Society of America.

In addition to her research, she'll give one lecture while at the Radcliffe Institute. She'll return to Bowdoin for the 2004-2005 academic year.

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