Things are better than they used to be; there are more poets who use scientific terms and concepts in their poetry. I welcome it; I have never accepted the C.P. Snow ‘Two Cultures’ paradigm. There’s no inherent reason for scientists not to like poetry, or for poets not to be inspired by science. The trouble is that sometimes some poets don’t get below the surface of the science topics, and they use the correct terms without truly understanding the underlying scientific concepts. We share a language, but the meanings of words differ in their specific contexts. Behind a scientific term there’s a paradigm understood and accepted by scientists. Behind a poetic phrase there’s a world of literary associations. There’s no reason why the two can’t be combined, in the interests of communicating meaning and expression.
Take evolution, for example. It’s a concept that inspires many poets, but the underlying science is sometimes glossed or misapplied in the poem. The relatedness of apes and humans reflects the fact that today’s species share a common ancestor, some millions of years ago, but the fact that chimpanzees and humans also share a large proportion of their genes does not imply that they are close in terms of mental ability, language development and other features. The ancestors diverged and specialised, separated by biogeography and genetic drift. A chimpanzee will never turn into a human, and vice versa.
In the plant world, many members of the rose family produce fruits which are eaten by animals, including ourselves. Farmers selected individual plants and bred from them, to give fruits which were sweeter, larger, juicier, stored better and so on. The first apples probably came from a region in what is now Kazakhstan – read Roger Deakin’s Wildwood for a fascinating account of his journey to that region. Plums are a group of species with a variety of origins. The damson, or Damask plum, probably originated in Syria, as the name suggests. The peach probably came from Persia. Cherries, apricots, pears and quinces are other fruity members of the rose family. The stone fruits probably had a common ancestor millions of years ago, and probably in the Middle East. Even further back there must have been a common ancestor between this group and the seeded fruits like apples and pears, hawthorns and rowans. Left to themselves, an apple will never become a pear, an apricot will never become a plum. Human intervention can hybridise plants artificially – cross-fertilizing apricot and plum produced the plumcot, for example.
There is scope in all the sciences for poets to communicate the excitements of discovery, conflict and uncertainty in poetic form. Cosmology, astronomy – especially since Hubble, the LHC, DNA and genetics have been fertile ground for poets, but what about some of the other areas of science? I’m looking forward to the plate tectonic poem, to the ones reflecting on ecological energetics, ethology, cladistics, neurophysiology, a good one on chemistry.
Above all, we need some spectacular poems on climate science. We need our poets to inform our people, since scientists haven’t succeeded in getting the facts across to the general public.