The Popular Science Book

The Popular Science Book: A New Genre between Literature and Science in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

Safia Azzouni

Cooperation Partners: 

Andreas Daum (University at Buffalo SUNY), Michael Hagner, Philipp Sarasin (Competence Centre “History of Knowledge,” ETH Zurich and University of Zurich), Erhard Schütz, Joseph Vogl (Humboldt University, Berlin), Uwe Wirth (Justus Liebig University, Giessen)

In Europe, popular science books emerged during the second half of the nineteenth century. They were written not only by scientists who wanted to make their work accessible to a broad public, but also by literary authors. Accordingly the question arises as to the extent to which the genesis of the popular science book is linked to the literary movements of the time, and whether or not this hybrid between literature and science can be considered as a new genre.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the interest that writers took in scientific experimentation and innovation constantly increased. The French critic Hippolyte Taine established a positivist literary theory by naming “la race, le milieu et le moment” as determinants of human life and artistic production in his Introduction à l’Histoire de la Littérature Anglaise (1863/64). His reference to Darwinism is obvious. Emile Zola modelled his theory of the “Roman Expérimental” (1880) upon Claude Bernard’s Médecine Expérimentale, and he illustrated the laws of heredity in his novel series Les Rougon-Macquart.

This French naturalistic movement soon influenced German literary circles. Wilhelm Bölsche proclaimed “Darwin in der Poesie” in his manifesto Die naturwissenschaftlichen Grundlagen der Poesie (1887). The scientification of German aesthetic theory reached its peak when the poet Arno Holz made up the quasi-mathematical formula “Kunst = Natur – x” in his Die Kunst – ihr Wesen und ihre Gesetze (1891/92).

Literary naturalism reinforced the claim of truth and objectivity already pronounced by realist writers like Honoré de Balzac and Theodor Fontane. Nevertheless, by following their predilection for depicting alcoholism and mental disease, naturalistic writers created an amalgam of knowledge rather than a literary equivalent to the increasing specialisation of natural science. The period of naturalism was brief. Some authors, like Joris-Karl Huysmans and Gerhart Hauptmann, turned to Symbolist writing, which searched for subjective truth.

In the meantime, various means of popularising natural science developed in Germany and France based on political and educational views. Several writers engaged in this enterprise. The research project described here focusses on four authors whose writings can be partly considered as modern popular science books:

The theorist of naturalism mentioned above, Wilhelm Bölsche, was inspired by Ernst Haeckel and gave up his unsuccessful novels in favour of writings, such as Das Liebesleben in der Natur (1898–1903), which were best-sellers until the 1930s.

The mathematician, physicist and philosopher Kurd Laßwitz (1848–1910) is today mainly known as “the father of German science fiction.” Around 1900, he was also well known as a populariser of science and humanities. Laßwitz started by writing scientific articles and popular scientific texts but finally almost completely turned to writing novels and “modern” or “scientific” fairy tales.

The Symbolist dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911, and his book La Vie des Abeilles (1901) was even recommended by the zoologist Karl von Frisch.

The former naturalist writer Johannes Schlaf, who co-authored the well-known novella Papa Hamlet (1889) with Arno Holz, is a borderline case in the context of this project. After 1900 he regarded himself as a scientist and wanted to reestablish the geocentric system.

Furthermore, it will be another aim of the project to study the role that the popular science book played in the transfer of knowledge between poets and scientists.

  • “Populärwissenschaft als fachwissenschaftliche Autorität: Wilhelm Bölsche, Das Liebesleben in der Natur und die Anfänge der Sexualwissenschaft,” in: Jahrbuch Literatur und Medizin 3 (2009), pp. 13-38.