The University of Southampton

ENGL3062 Nuclear explosions, genetic engineering, and climate change: How literature has held the sciences to account since 1945

Module Overview

The twentieth century was often called an age of science. In the popular imagination science has meant the big bang of the atomic bomb, the ability to read DNA as if it were ‘the book of life’, the possibility of copying or cloning humans, and the threat of irreversible climate change. The authority of scientific knowledge has been especially invested in discourses derived from first atomic physics, and then later those of molecular biology. Books and journalism that disseminated the cosmologies and models from physics and genetics were immensely influential on the development of poetry, fiction and drama. This module explores three areas of interrelation between science and literature: 1) how modernist and postmodernist poets and dramatists wrote about the ethical dilemmas presented by physicists and biologists; 2) how scientists and novelists employed literary strategies in texts aimed at the general public; and 3) how a new and increasingly popular genre of science fiction extrapolated the achievements and dangers of scientific vision. Throughout the module we will be considering the asymmetric relations between literary and scientific knowledges. Our main emphasis will therefore be on the insights of novelists, poets, and playwrights. Alongside the writers, we will also look at the work of literary researchers ranging from I. A. Richards, to Gillian Beer and George Levine, and some key concepts from the history and philosophy of science that have proven useful to writers, literary historians and theorists of the interrelations of science and literature.

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

- to introduce you to ideas and discourses from physics and biology that shaped twentieth-century culture and its literature. - to introduce you to some of the key theoretical and historical approaches to the study of science and literature in the twentieth-century. - to enable you to explore interrelations between literary genres and the prose genres, including journalism, that have been employed for the dissemination of scientific knowledge. - to investigate the rhetorical strategies of prose writings written by scientists for the general public. - to situate poems and plays about the social and cultural impact of atomic physics, genetics, and neuroscience on the modern world, in their historical contexts. - to develop an understanding of the conflicts and convergences between the forms of knowledge considered valid in the sciences, and literary forms of knowledge. - to give you an opportunity to research independently a topic of your choice relevant to the course, and to discuss this in class with your peers.

Learning Outcomes

Learning Outcomes

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • read, comment upon, and critique a range of novels, poems and plays that depict modern science and scientists and offer critiques of ideological appropriation of scientific metaphors and theories
  • better understand the cultural impact of the modern sciences of physics, molecular biology, and neuroscience on public discourse
  • identify and analyse the ways in which political, social, and cultural influences intersect with representations of science and scientific ideas since the second world war
  • read texts in a variety of genres with attention to their rhetorical, epistemological, and imaginative strategies, alert to the tensions between literary form and the scientific themes
  • situate literary representations of modern science in their wider historical context
  • develop a complex, analytical argument, with reference to a range of primary and secondary sources, both orally and in writing


You will read 20th and 21st century novels, poems and plays that depict scientists, scientific dilemmas, and scientific discoveries. What should we do about what was known as the ‘big bang’, the power of nuclear weapons? Do they keep us safe or is their capacity to destroy whole cities and leave behind deadly radiation too high a price to pay for security? Should we use the power of genetics to clone humans and if we do, what might the consequences be? Is technology the cause of climate change, or its solution, or both? Throughout the module we will foreground ethical, epistemological and aesthetic issues in the texts for study, which will include science fiction as well as literary fiction and creative non-fiction.

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

- Lectures -Seminars and group discussion - Feedback on essays - Private consultations before and after assignments - Guided research - Preparing group presentations - Use of electronic resources such as BSLS website, science magazines and journals, and poetry archives.

Preparation for scheduled sessions60
Follow-up work100
Wider reading or practice40
Completion of assessment task59
Total study time300

Resources & Reading list

Maurice Riordan and Jon Turney (2000). A Quark for Mister Mark. 

Michael Frayn (2003). Copenhagen. 



MethodPercentage contribution
Creative writing  (1500 words) 25%
Essay  (2500 words) 45%
Essay  (2000 words) 30%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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