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Still uneasy bedfellows?

Science meets Poet in the City

Jennifer Rohn 23 September 2007

Illuminating: science inspires poets, but what about the reverse?

Science moves faster than the ethical debate, so it takes poets time to react to new developments

What good is science to poets? And what good is poetry to scientists? A recent London event at the Wellcome Collection, put on by the philanthropic organization Poet in the City, provided an opportunity to explore these questions.

Scientific themes have featured in poetry for hundreds of years. This is not surprising given that science, by the very nature of its diversity, comprises a vast repertoire of topics from which a poet can draw. But according to poet Maurice Riordan and science writer Jon Turney, up until recently only two themes consistently make it into poems: the universe and evolution. As they write in the introduction to their fine science poetry anthology A Quark for Mister Mark [Faber & Faber, 2000], "Poets are good, it seems, on heavenly bodies and lower life forms. But there are areas of science that hardly get a look in."

This focus could be explained in part by the visibility and awe-inspiring nature of the night sky and in the great impact that Darwinian thinking has had on culture at large, but there may also be a lag in scientific concepts filtering down. One of the participating poets, Michael Symmons Roberts, told the assemblage that science moves faster than the ethical debate, so it takes poets time to react to new developments. Genomics, a topic that Symmons Roberts is currently interested in, is a good example. He said, "It's so new that the deeper metaphors haven't been thrashed out yet".

The featured poets read their favorite science poems by others as well as their own, treating the audience to a broad mix of themes. From nuclear physics and the Chernobyl disaster to fruit flies, cancer and even intestinal flora, the works were witty, original and often beautiful.

The poets made it clear that science is good for poetry, inasmuch as it continually provides new language and concepts for wordsmiths to play with and react to. But could poetry's use of science ever be harmful? Symmons Roberts' science-inspired poetry at times comes across as ambivalent; while he is clearly very interested in genetics, the works can betray an edge of hostility. In his poem "Mapping the Genes", he likens the geneticist to a driver tearing through the desert in a "topless coupe", the helix "unravelled as vista / as vanishing point". The listener gets the feeling that this act is somehow a cavalier desecration of nature: when he recites the verses you can hear the disapproval in his tone. This disapproval is made explicit in "To John Donne", a clever homage to the famous erotic poem "To His Mistress Going to Bed". In the original poem, Donne compares undressing his lover to the delightful romp of early explorers discovering America. In Symmons Roberts' version, however, the lover finds his mistress has already been violated – by geneticists: "[H]er body is already mapped’, and "her breast’s / curve has a patent".

Symmons Robert's antipathy is probably fuelled by conversations he said he has had with Nobel Laureate John Sulston, an outspoken critic of gene patenting. Yet the lines make clear that the poet objects not only to the commercialization of the genome, but also to the act of knowing itself – as if complete description kills the beauty of life. "It's all mapped – there is no new landscape," he laments in "Mapping the Genes". This attitude is in contrast to what many scientists believe: that the more we understand about how life works, the more beautiful it becomes. In taking the opposite view, poets might be missing an opportunity to transmit the reverence that science could inspire in everyone, not just its expert practitioners.

John Donne might well have agreed with Symmons Roberts. Riordan recited Donne's poem "On the Progress of the Soul" as an example of the metaphysical poet’s ambivalent feelings about science:

What hope have we to know ourselves, when we
Know not the least things, which for our use be.
Why grass is green, or why our blood is red,
Are mysteries which none have reach'd unto.
In this low form, poor soul, what wilt thou do?
When wilt thou shake off this pedantry,
Of being taught by sense and fantasy?

Donne might also have been dismayed to know that his rhetorical scientific questions about chlorophyll and hemoglobin, which he clearly intended in a "when hell freezes over" sort of way, are actually now largely solved. But the take-home message of this poem seems to be that not only can't we know life's mysteries, but it probably isn't healthy to even try. A contemporary of Galileo, Donne was probably responding to tumultuous current events. He used science in his poetry, and was clearly interested in “the new learning”, but at the same time, according to Riordan, he regarded it with skepticism.

Scientists, whose job it is to be pedantic, might also object to explicit errors fostered by science poets. The evening's examples were no less error-prone than any other; for example, when reciting his poem "The UV Catastrophe", Riordan stated that Planck's constant is "precise, unlike pi" (which had the epidemiologist next to me bristling). Perhaps the main difference between poets and scientists is that poets don't think such mistakes are important – after all, the term isn't 'poetic license' for nothing.

The epidemiologist (’s regular contributor Bill Hanage) told me afterwards that he thought the science/poetry relationship was all one-sided and parasitic: poets borrow language but don't contribute to scientific understanding. Worse, in exploiting its concepts, they repay the favor by criticizing without entirely understanding. I don’t entirely agree with this assessment. Scientists can clearly benefit from poetry. Even Hanage at times seemed spellbound by the beauty of the poems that were recited, a spell that lingered after the event was over. More practically, scientists are indebted to a key poetic tool: metaphors. When you start looking for them, the language of professional science is loaded with them: cascades, pathways, crosstalk, cytokine storms, imprinting, silencing, switching on and off. And science poetry, like its cousin science art, is being used in public engagement exercises the world around. In fact, in the lavish new building where the event was held, a recording of Symmons Roberts' "To John Donne" is shown alongside a display about the human genome project within the permanent collection "Medicine Now".

So do poets and scientists have anything in common? As a former physicist who did his Ph.D. in optoelectrics, the poet Mario Petrucci ought to know. He told the audience that both practitioners "pay the world their full attention, and bear witness." He put it best, perhaps, when he joked, "Science and poetry is not a marriage – but they do exchange theoretical fluids."

Related information

A shorter version of this piece originally appeared in The Scientist magazine under the title “Rhyme and Reason”.