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Science v. Poetry

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Worlds apart, and yet alike in many ways

By Priscilla Long



They are old enemies, or else they are old lovers. The poet Albert Goldbarth writes, “Perhaps the arts and the sciences have never slept together without one eye kept warily open.” However warily, though, they have slept together. There are points of connection, even intimacy.

Science and poetry embrace a stance of doubt, of keeping the mind open, of eschewing dogma. Not to say that dogma has departed the premises. New scientific ideas often meet resistance from the Old Guard. And I once met an English graduate-student poet who fervently insisted that no great poem has appeared since the 17th century.

But doubt and an open mind serve both enterprises. “I believe,” wrote the physicist Richard Feynman, “that to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar.” And again, “[A]ll of the things we say in science, all of the conclusions, are uncertain, because they are only conclusions.”

In science, hypotheses are put forth and evidence is collected, for and against. Experiments are set up; their results can be reproduced or not. Meanwhile the instruments that extend our human senses keep improving, providing new evidence. Poet Alice Hawthorne Demming, whose poems engage with science at every turn, writes, “[S]cientists, in their unflagging attraction to the unknown, love what they don’t know. It guides and motivates their work; it keeps them up late at night; and it makes that work poetic.” (Demming’s essay “Science and Poetry” appears in The Measured Word: On Poetry and Science edited by Kurt Brown.)

Each time a poet sets out to write a poem, he or she launches into unknown territory, a landscape that opens with image, word, or story. The poet can acquire skill in shaping lines, can develop a good ear for the music inherent in language, can become adept at metaphor, and so on. But the poet can never know whether this poem is going to become good or great or a wrestling match requiring rounds lasting for days, weeks, or years.

Scientists and poets both regard the world with wonder. I say this despite Walt Whitman’s opinion:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

But, say, Walt, don’t most astronomers come to their calling out of amazement at the night sky, its vast and mystical mysteries? And Walt, you must have missed those terrific Teaching Company DVDs of astronomer Alex Filippenko radiating joy at the hugeness of Jupiter or at the eclipses he has traveled around the world to see with his own eyes.

Scientists and poets witness the world. Each watches, observes, and records, understanding that the observer affects that which is observed. Here are lines of the poem “Being Accomplished” by Pattiann Rogers.

Balancing on her haunches, the mouse can accomplish

Certain things with her hands. She can pull the hull

From a barley seed in paperlike pieces the size of threads.

She can turn and turn a crumb to create smaller motes

The size of her mouth. She can burrow in sand and grasp

One single crystal grain in both of her hands.

A quarter of a dried pea can fill her palm.

 Thus may an observation become a poem.

But there’s one way science and poetry have nothing at all in common—the way of language. “The sciences and poetry do not share words, they polarize them,” wrote the Czech poet Miroslav Holub. Poets love words for their sound and shape and feel on the tongue.  They rub words together and watch the resulting conflagration. The word fire emits heat and light. The word energy is dead as a dead dog. Poets want fire, not energy. They want the poems they write to burn. They want the layers of meanings, the visions, the connotations.

For the sciences, Holub continues, “[W]ords are an auxiliary tool.” In the science paper or report, each word must mean as close to one and only one thing as possible. It has a function. That’s why hard science can be so terrible to read. Dry and replete with necessary terms, figures, charts, and diagrams.

“The sole function of words in the scientific paper is to make statements that are not an end in themselves, but the matter of verification for future experimentation or for a present or presented theory.”

So writes Miroslav Holub, poet—and immunologist.

Priscilla Long is the author of The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life and Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America’s Bloody Coal Industry. Her essay “Genome Tome,” which appeared in our Summer 2005 issue, won the National Magazine Award for Feature Writing.


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