Monday, April 16, 2012

How are science and poetry alike? Let me count the ways.

Today's medical students are a busy group. I imagine that most of them spend their spare moments (if such things exist) sleeping and relaxing and definitely not studying Byron, Milton, and Spenser. These students would probably weep if I told them that two centuries ago, young surgeon-in-training John Keats somehow found enough free time to become one of the greatest poets England has ever known before the age of 25.

John Keats, thinking about what
slackers you all are. 

But Keats was bitter about his day job. He expressed his frustration at the "cold philosophy" of science and medicine in his poems:

...Do not all charms fly 
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things. 
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line, 
Empty the haunted air, and the gnomed mine --
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person'd Lamia melt into a shade. 

To Keats, science is a prism that "unweaves the rainbow" into lifeless, mechanistic wavelengths, which is to say that science and beauty are made of different stuff. If you've been following this blog for any length of time, you already know that I take issue with that sentiment.

It seems to me that we're always wrestling with the question of whether beauty and science are mutually exclusive. If you think that science is too reductionistic, you might also believe that beauty lies in the unexplained sums of parts and never in the individual parts and pieces themselves (re: the leaves versus the chloroplasts within;  rainbow versus light's reflection in a misty sky). If you're Keats, you think that rainbows are best left alone --just mysterious, pretty things floating above our heads.

But if you're me, you think all of this is a non-issue. If you're me, you think that art and science --form and function -- combine effortlessly if only a person is willing to try.

That said, I admit that I sometimes think of science and poetry as entirely separate worlds. Keats is great, but he's not really the first thing that comes to mind when I'm poring over my lab notebooks, wondering what my results could mean. And it's not just the poets that want nothing to do with us; scientists are often quick to reciprocate. The physicist Paul Dirac allegedly approached Oppenheimer one day about Oppenheimer's dabbling in poetry:
"Oppenheimer, they tell me you are writing poetry. I do not see how a man can work on the frontiers of physics and write poetry at the same time. They are in opposition. In science, you want to say something that nobody knew before, in words which everyone can understand. In poetry, you are bound to say something that everybody knows already in words that nobody can understand."
Is poetry really all that different from science, as Keats and Dirac would have us believe? Maybe not --especially when it comes to scientific communication (the magic word around these parts).

Metaphor, for instance, is equally essential to science and poetry. Think about the last time you learned anything about the genetics. It's difficult to talk about all the moving parts of genetics and convey its basic concepts without analogy. When DNA becomes a "recipe" or "blueprint" for our cells, we begin to understand. And really, what is science if not artful metaphor?

Science writers need accessible metaphors to make their subject clear for a lay audience. But clear is not quite enough; we also want to make it sound nice. We science writers are literary beings, or at least I hope we are. We like the spoken sound of a well-written sentence as much as we like the imagined whir of the cellular machinery constantly untwisting and retwisting our DNA. And there's really nothing weird about a literary approach to science. To me, it just makes sense. I liked this quote from an old Science piece by John Banville:

I am not arguing that art is greater than science, more universal in its concerns, and wiser in its sad recognition of the limits of human knowledge. What I am proposing is that despite the profound differences between them, at an essential level art and science are so nearly alike as to be indistinguishable. The only meaningful distinction I can see between the two is that science has a practical extension into technology, and art does not. But this is a distinction only in terms of utility. At the level that concerns me, the level of metaphor, art and science are both blithely inutile—at this level, for instance, the theory of relativity has nothing to do with the atomic bomb.
Like Banville, I believe that science and art are driven by the same intellectual forces.

What happens when the two fields come together in practical terms? For those poets willing to dabble in another discipline, there is a small subset of contemporary poetry about science. New Scientist interviewed a few of them here.

Lavinia Greenlaw reads her poem about the iron lung machine in the video above:
 "You can't describe the unknown other than in terms of the known. And so science relies upon language, and imagery and metaphor and therefore poetry, yes, in order to communicate itself --particularly now, because so much science is happening at a level that we can't see."

Mario Petrucci explores the Chernobyl disaster through lyric, and the connection between literature and science:
"I suppose what [literature and science] have to offer each other that attention they both give to what is already known and the desire to search beyond that to what isn't known."
Listening to these poets speak, I was struck by how nicely their work sounded --how well technical concepts were conveyed even through the cultural strangeness of their medium. I'm glad for that zone of overlap between science and art (less narrow than we think), and I'm happy to live in it.

More reading, if you're interested (because this topic defies the constraints of a single blog post):
"The Future of Art?" (SEED)
Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins
"Science and Poetry" (Cosmos and Culture, npr)
Science in the work of Shelley (npr)

No comments:

Post a Comment