Poets and science

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.


About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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7 Responses to Poets and science

  1. Tim Love says:

    I started making a list of UK poets with science qualifications – David Morley (post-degree), Mario Petrucci (Ph.D), Peter Howard (science degree), Valerie Laws (Maths/Theoretical physics), Michael Bartholomew-Biggs (was a computing professor), Kona MacPhee (computing degree), Stephen Payne (Professor of Human-Centric Systems), Joel Lane (MSc, MPhil). Some of these don’t write about science at all.

    Lavinia Greenlaw and Heidi Williamson have reputations for writing about science. I don’t think they have science degrees, but they hang around with scientists. Perhaps Williamson’s Bloodaxe book deals with some of the subjects you’re suggesting – “Fuelled by a residency at the London Science Museum’s Dana centre, Williamson’s fascination with science leads her to explore less usual territories for poetry, including mathematics, chemistry, and computer programming, as well as space travel, electricity, and evolution”

    You write “The trouble is that sometimes some poets don’t get below the surface of the science topics” – or below the surface of many other things. But superficial use of science bugs me more than it should. If you toss a coin and put your hand over it, no one knows whether it’s heads or tails, but people don’t write poems about it. They do write about Schrodinger’s cat, but sometimes only as a glorified (more clever-sounding) coin throw.

    The most recent Antiphon was an Alan Turing special. Amongst the poems at LUPUS are “Monolayer Fertilizer”, “Geologist”, etc. The “Plutonium” poem there is appended by an article.

  2. sunnydunny says:

    Thanks Tim. I met Lavinia at this year’s StAnza festival, and her reading did make valid connections with science. I will check out Heidi’s poetry. I ‘majored’ in earth sciences and chemistry, but I have studied other sciences, worked 30 years in scientific institutions, and my PhD is in information science. Like you, I get annoyed by the superficial use of science, and it was a specific misuse of evolution by a poet that made we write this.

  3. Tim Love says:

    I’ll add you to my list. On the Neuroscience front there’s Helen Mort

  4. sunnydunny says:

    Yes, Helen’s a friend.

  5. Have you been following Helen Mort’s blog about neuroscience?Elizabeth – in case you don’t recognise the log-in!

  6. sunnydunny says:

    Hi Elizabeth. Yes, I’m interested, since I did a short course in neurophysiology back in the 1970s. Helen and I have corresponded about it.

  7. Take a look at this optical illusion:

    I guess a scientist’s job is to discover that the two lines are actually equal. That’s the truth of the matter.

    I guess a poet’s job is to discover that we see those two lines different, even if they are the same. That, also, is the truth of the matter.

    But I totally agree with you, that science and poetry are not at odds. The two culture stuff is bogus.

    Albert Einstein said it well:
    “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

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