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Released October 17, 2003

By Christopher Mapp

HATTIESBURG - At a recent international conference at the University of Alberta, professors of literature, film and philosophy gathered to discuss the works of renowned Polish author Stanislaw Lem. Among the nine scholars invited to speak at the conference, one stood out for his unusual academic background - chemistry.

Studying the science of molecules is Dr. Peter Butko's profession. But studying the science fiction of Lem is one of his passions.

"I have been an avid reader of Lem since my teens, and I actually learned Polish in order to be able to read his books in his original language," said Butko, who presented an essay on Lem at the international conference last month that drew scholars from Canada, Hong Kong, Poland and the United States.

Butko, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at The University of Southern Mississippi, was the only natural scientist invited to the conference on Lem. A writer of science fiction and fiction, Lem is regularly nominated by the Polish Pen Club for Nobel Prize literature. Lem might be best known stateside for his novel "Solaris," which was recently made into a critically acclaimed movie starring George Clooney.

"Apparently, members of the Nobel Committee do not read science fiction," Butko said. "Otherwise, they would know that Lem belongs with the best writers of speculative fiction, such as Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino or Ursula LeGuin."

Butko said English-speaking readers can convince themselves of Lem's genius by checking out any of the available translations, including "A Perfect Vacuum," "The Cyberiade," "His Master's Voice" or "Solaris."

At the conference in Edmonton, Canada, Butko presented an essay titled "Summa Technologie - Looking Back and Forward," which is devoted to the crucial work of Lem. The book's title is an obvious reference to "Summa Theologiae" by St. Thomas Aquinas, written in the 13th century. As the latter was the sum of all contemporaneous knowledge about God, the former is the sum of all knowledge about technology, Butko said.

"Lem not so much gives an historic account of technology development, as rather he represents his speculations on where the current burst of technological innovations will lead us and where the limits of technology are, if any," Butko said. Butko's essay is an important contribution to the field of Lem studies because the book Summa Technologiae is still unavailable in English translation.

Butko said he was honored to be included in the gathering of the world's top Lem scholars. "The meeting was good not only for improving our knowledge of Lem's works, but perhaps even more importantly, for promoting the meaningful communication between scholars in natural sciences and humanities, which is a rare occurrence," he said.

The conference presentations will be published next year in a self-standing collection of essays titled "The World According to Lem: Science Fiction and Futurology."


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM