Contributed by: Dr. Chad M. Gasta
Dr. Gasta is a Professor of Spanish and serves as the Chair of the Department of World Languages and Cultures. When he is not too busy running our department, he focuses on Cervantes and Golden Age Spain. Read to the end to find out more about his Spanish course this Fall!
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Great works of literature allow us intimate access into the human condition and the world’s development. They can also provide an essential foundation for understanding social and scientific advances. Take, for example, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Generally considered the first modern novel and the most significant fictional work ever written, Cervantes’ work does not just characterize humankind’s struggles in an adventurous way. It also emblematizes the Scientific Revolution taking place across Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. By the beginning of the 17th century substantial discoveries were made in the natural and biological sciences, psychology, mathematics, geography, and metallurgy, and engineering which transformed life.
This was an especially exciting moment for physics and astronomy where great advancements by some of the most influential thinkers such as Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo were making headlines and disrupting sanctioned knowledge inherited from the known world.
[trx_image url=”https://newsletter.language.iastate.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/183/2017/03/don-quixote-390172_1920.jpg” align=”left” width=”800″]One area in particular—relativity—is especially intriguing. Relativity, as described in Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, unifies motion, time and space into one construct and demonstrates how their perception is always relative to each observer even when numerous witnesses think they are viewing the same thing at the same time. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Einstein proved that time, space and motion are, too. In Golden Age Spain relativity was as much a scientific idea as it was both a lived phenomenon and literary topic. The novel is full of examples where relativity plays an integral role. For example, Don Quixote’s unstable perception of time in the Montesinos Cave, or the distance he and his squire Sancho purport to cover in the Enchanted Boat, and the pair’s experience regarding motion in the flight aboard the wooden horse, Clavileño, all share an interesting peculiarity: these adventures reference pervasive early modern views regarding the scientific principle of relativity that was examined by Nicolas Copernicus in the mid-sixteenth century, studied by Galileo Galilei and Johanne Kepler in the early seventeenth, and finally confirmed scientifically by Albert Einstein’s twentieth-century theories on space, time and motion. In no way do I wish to suggest that Cervantes’ novel can be considered a precursor to Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, though it is quite tempting to think that the physicist took inspiration from Cervantes given that Don Quixote was his second favorite book. In short, the multiple layers of perspectivism and the blurring vantage points from which to understand the novel are perfected at unprecedented levels in Don Quixote and are the culmination of a long literary tradition—but they are also representative of important scientific principles unfolding during Cervantes’ lifetime.
If you want to learn more about this and the many wonders of Cervantes great novel, join Dr. Gasta’s Spanish 441 course Fall 2017.