Wednesday, March 31, 2010

the dark energy of William Shakespeare

Literary types around here are falling over themselves to assert that the guy from Stratford really did write those plays. There is a new book out that ridicules all other theories, and it's got glowing reviews everywhere.

Not knowing much about this whole debate (or non-debate, as the Stratfordians hasten to call it), I am getting the impression that they do protest too much. The fact is that we know far too little about the biography of the Stratford man to be sure about how the plays came into being. And as with scientific problems, where there is an embarrassing lack of information, the field is open to wild speculation. Someone on "The Review Show" compared the Shakespeare "non-debate" to the evolution debates in the US. This comparison is outrageous, as we have tons of data confirming evolution, but virtually no data about Shakespeare's intellectual life.

If we're looking for an analogy in science, I would suggest the dark matter / dark energy conundrum. Current knowledge very clearly tells us (via several independent lines of evidence) that we know nothing about some 97 % of the mass-energy content of the Universe, and scientists have come up with a whole zoo of hypothetical exotic particles and other tweaks to the known laws of physics (eg modified versions of Newton's laws) to address this problem. All are speculative, but they can guide research that may one day find the missing bits.

Similarly, we have a > 90% knowledge vacuum concerning the inner life of Shakespeare and where he may have found inspiration for his works. So I, as a literary-minded scientist find it quite natural that this vacuum gives rise to wild speculation, which may inspire research that may one day resolve some of the mysteries surrounding the bard.

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