‘Although poets may aspire to understanding, their talents are more akin to entertaining self-deception. They may be able to emphasise delights in the world, but they are deluded if they and their admirers believe that their identification of their delights and their use of poignant language are enough for comprehension…While poetry titillates, science liberates.’
Peter Atkins, Nature’s Imagination (1995)
“Poetry is about feeling, science is about facts. They’re nothing to do with each other!” Maybe the relationship between poetry and science provokes passion because…science was born in poetry. Lucretius’s epic on atoms, On the Nature of Things continued this tradition; so did the 18th-century doctor Erasmus Darwin, whose poem The Temple of Nature outlined a theory of evolution, following life-forms from micro-organisms to human society.
Poetry and science have more in common than revealing secrets. Both depend on metaphor, which is as crucial to scientific discovery as it is to lyric. A new metaphor is a new mapping of the world. Even maths uses metaphor; and this is where more condensed forms of poetry join in. On the metaphor front, science and poetry fertilise each other.
But deeper even than metaphor is the way poetry and science both get at a universal insight or law through the particular. Darwin built his theories from scrupulous focus on tiny concrete entities. He spent seven years on barnacles before tackling a general species book. Furthermore, both arrive at the grand and abstract (when they have to) through precision. Scientists and poets focus on details. Poetry is the opposite of woolly or vague. Vague poetry is bad poetry – which, as Coleridge said, is not poetry at all. Woolly science is not science.
Scientia means ‘knowledge’. Science, it seems to me, is not about facts; it is about thinking about facts. Equally, poetry might or might not be driven by feeling but what it is “about” is relationships – between word and sound, word and thing, word and thought, sound and meaning, words and other words. So is science. Darwin wondered constantly about the relationships of organic forms – in earth, in stone, in what happens between red clover and bumble bees, orchid and moth.
The deepest thing science and poetry share, perhaps, is the way they can tolerate uncertainty. They have a modesty in common: they do not have to say they’re right. True, perhaps. Or just truer.’
Ruth Padel, The Guardian 09/12/2011
‘It seems to [a lot of people] that science supplies all the facts out of which we build the house of our beliefs. Only after this house is built can we…read some poetry.
This is not how we live our lives or how we ought to try to live them…the idea that science is a separate domain irrelevant to the arts, has often produced a strange kind of apartheid in the teaching of literature…whereby important and powerful writings get ignored if their subject matter contains science, or even the physical world…
Poetry and the arts generally play a central part in our intellectual life because they supply the language in which our imaginative visions are articulated. Poets…express not just feelings, but crucial ideas in a direct, concentrated form that precedes and makes possible their later articulation by the intellect and their influence on our actions…Influential bad ideas need to be understood and resisted so that we can grasp what is wrong with them and replace them by better ones.’
Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry (2001)
Science in poetry
Read these poems which are all related to science in some way.
Say what each poem means to you and whether you feel the poetic form has enhanced your appreciation of the science.
What do you think of the views of Peter Atkins, Ruth Padel and Mary Midgley?