Thomas Hardy - (Honorary) Scientist of the Day
Thomas Hardy, an English novelist and poet, was born June 2, 1840. Hardy is best known for such novels as The Return of the Native and Tess of the d’Urbervilles, works that have little to do with science, but he did publish one novel with an astronomical connection, called Two on a Tower (1882). One of the protagonists, Swithin St. Cleeve, is a young astronomer, who has set up his telescope atop an unused folly tower on a country estate, in order to make his mark in astronomy. There he is discovered by the landowner, Lady Viviette Constantine, nine years older than young Swithin, whose husband has left her to spend two years shooting up the animal kingdom in Africa. Swithin endeavors to teach the Lady about the universe, and she proceeds to teach Swithin something about the human heart. The tower from which Swithin and Lady Viviette scan the universe is based on a real tower in Charborough Park in Dorset (see above). Hardy later said that his intent was to show that, in a rational world, human affairs shouldn’t amount to a hill of beans when compared to the vastness and complexity of the cosmos, and yet, inevitably, the cosmos dwindles to insignificance when people inconveniently fall in love. Two on a Tower received savage reviews for its immoral and irreligious tone (neither marriage nor the local Bishop come off very well in the novel), although the book seems fairly tame to the modern reader. Also intriguing is the fact that, in addition to infusing the book with astronomical matters, Hardy makes occasional references to “paleolithic dead men” feeding the roots of the trees around the tower. You would not find references to Paleolithic humans in many other novels of this period, since the whole concept of human antiquity was a brand new idea in Hardy’s time. We did an exhibition on this topic just last year, Blade and Bone: The Discovery of Human Antiquity, which is now available online: http://bladeandbone.lindahall.org/.
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City