Sunday, 17 January 2010

Shall I compare thee to a charming quark? When mitochondria meets metaphor

Many years ago whilst holidaying in Cyprus I experienced an event commonplace to our ancestors but increasingly rare to us light-polluted urbanites today. Sitting outside one evening a spectacular glow appeared over a nearby hill, slowly gaining a floodlight intensity until the full moon rose, casting shadows and obscuring the Milky Way. Small wonder previous centuries have written so much about the beauty of the "starry realm"; but can poetry survive when having discovered the secrets of the stars, we have ironically lost touch with them as a sensory experience? As the late Richard Feynman asked, "do I see less or more?" His answer, proving him a worthy successor to Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, encapsulates the view that knowledge gained need not lessen the wonder: "stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one million year old light..."

But then the night sky (and the natural world in general) is an easy poetic target compared to other aspects of science. Yet historical examples of British scientist-poets abound, from Charles Darwin's grandfather Erasmus, whose verse included copious footnotes explaining the ideas within, to chemist Humphry Davy, physicist James Clerk Maxwell, and more recently biologist Julian Huxley. You might ask who are today's equivalents - who writes paeans to Messenger RNA or odes to nuclear fusion? There are poets who exchanged science for versifying (David Morley) and scientists who edit poetry (Jocelyn Bell Burnell), but few who simultaneously practice both sides of C.P. Snow's infamous The Two Cultures. Apart from several astronomy compilations (featuring verse largely by non-astronomers) there are hardly any recent science-orientated volumes aimed at adults except for James Muirden's The Cosmic Verses: A Rhyming History of the Universe. Informative as it is, Muirden's charming couplets hardly push the boundaries of poetry or science exposition.

One obvious (and therefore not necessarily correct) reason for the lack of contemporary science poetry is that the complexity of modern theories and terminology create a prohibitive first hurdle: the likes of phagocytosis and inhomogeneous magnetic fields hardly trip off the tongue. However, ecologist and 'lapsed physicist' Mario Petrucci, a rare example of a contemporary scientist with an actively-employed poetic gift, argues that science-inspired poetry shouldn't rely on technological name-dropping but look at the defining methodologies. He provides an exquisite example via a (prose) description of the physiological response to listening to verse, which he defines as the "subliminal scent of aroused communication".

Then again, modes of writing have changed dramatically over the past century, with the florid, highfalutin prose of the Victorians replaced by a detached, matter-of-fact style developed to avoid ambiguity. Thomas Henry Huxley (Julian's grandfather) was, like many of his contemporaries, capable of prose that to the modern ear is to all intents and purposes poetry: "...intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land..." In contrast, today's technical papers achieve universal comprehension by austerity of language. This is of course the complete antithesis of poetry, wherein each reader brings their own personal history to enhance imagery and meaning.

At a practical level, does the constant 21st century babble of communications and background noise (not just aural) deprive would-be poets of time to reflect? This implies a somewhat rose-tinted view of earlier times, even though the virtual disappearance of a Classics-based education system has certainly divested us of the safety net of enduring metaphors. In addition, as scientists becoming ever-more specialist in narrower fields (not to mention polymathism seemingly frowned upon), is there a fear from practitioners and publishers alike that the profession has little worth versifying? Even the romantic image of the stargazer spending their nights in a chilly dome has seemingly been replaced by observation via computer screen.

Despite there probably being more books arguing the relationship between arts and sciences than there are volumes of science-themed poetry (from Mary Midgley versus Richard Dawkins to Stephen Jay Gould's attack on E.O. Wilson's definition of consilience), there is plenty for scientist-poets, or just writers with scientific knowledge, to write about. The late 19th century arrogance that the quest for knowledge was nearing its end has been superceded by the view that there may even not be any final answers to life, the universe, and everything. Far from being a list of dry facts and equations, the methods of science demand creativity to achieve paradigm shifts, as anyone with an understanding of Einstein's thought experiments knows. Other natural philosophers have achieved major breakthroughs via aesthetic considerations, such as harmonic proportions for Johannes Kepler, symmetry for Clerk Maxwell and patterns and linguistic analogies for Mendeleyev. As theoretical physicist Lee Smolin has stated, his discipline is based around an aesthetic mode of working, fashioning constructs that capture some essence of understanding about reality. Are theories such as loop quantum gravity that different from poetic metaphors? After all, even the subatomic particle we call a quark was named after the sound of ducks, and then later linked to the rhyme in Finnegans Wake.

But then there is the difficulty of finding a universal definition for poetry anyway. The title of Michael Guillen's Five Equations that Changed the World: The Power and Poetry of Mathematics suggests an aesthetic form on par with verse. If we can accept a wider meaning then perhaps there is a solution as to where science poetry is still to be found: hidden in the mellifluous prose of popularisers. The poetic style of Carl Sagan and his successors can clearly be traced to Loren Eiseley, thence to the pre-war British polymath James Jeans, who in turn was not so far removed from T.H. Huxley at his most rhapsodical. In addition to his writing, Sagan was also capable of poetic gestures that clearly represent our multi-media age's continuation of Erasmus Darwin's verses. When Voyager 1 had passed the orbits of Neptune and Pluto, Sagan persuaded NASA to turn the probe's cameras back towards the sun and make a family portrait of the Solar System, including our very own pale blue dot. Surely this is a superlative example of the amalgamation of science and poetry? And as to the future, the English author Eden Phillpotts once wrote: "The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper."

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