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Science vs. Poetry by Sam Illingworth

By Sam Illingworth

The estrangement between poetry and science can be traced back to 320 BC, when Aristotle laid down in his treatise Poetica that poetry paints an imaginative picture, whereas physical philosophy (i.e. science) deals only in facts; Aristotle went on to argue that even if science were written with the rhyme and metre of a poem it would not ever truly be classified as poetry.

Over 2,000 years later, the American author and poet Edgar Allen Poe famously continued this condemnation, with his 1829 poem Sonnet to Science:

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Stolen summer dreams beneath the tamarind tree (Photo Credit: Pratheepps)

“Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!

Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.

Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,

Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?

How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,

Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering

To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,

Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?

Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?

And driven the Hamadryad from the wood

To seek a shelter in some happier star?

Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,

The Elfin from the green grass, and from me

The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

In this poem, Poe was writing about his concerns that science would steal away the magic from the world, and that the colour of the imagination would be replaced by monochrome facts.

When he wrote this at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Poe had the Romantic Era to his left and the Industrial Revolution to his right, jostling for supremacy over intellectual and indeed general thought. As an artist, it is perhaps no wonder that Poe felt this way, his writings reflecting the uncertainty of what lay ahead, and the worries that there would be no place left for his craft in this new order.

However I disagree. I believe that the more we find out about science, the more we realise what a beautiful and incredible world we live in. The fact that the patterns on a pinecone match those of the Fibonacci sequence, or that we can stare back into the void a few seconds after the creation of our Universe is, to me, a beautiful thing.

Like many fears, I think that those of Poe and others were based in recognition or familiarity. And that in reality science and poetry are actually very similar. For example, there are many overlaps in the process of writing a poem or conducting an experiment. When you start off you have to follow rules and regulations that produce half-expected results. However, it is only by fully exploring these rules that you get an underlying sense of how they can be used to create your own work, or how they must be rejected in favour of a new form or hypothesis.

Unlike historical writings, which hinge on truths that have already come into being, poetry offers us a sense of something that may (or may not) come to pass, and the opportunities that this may potentially present. Poetry gives us hope, or as the English Romantic poet P.B. Shelley noted:

“Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.”

Similarly, science offers us many alternative realities, be they future climate change scenarios or the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory. As with poetry, science has the potential make beautiful that which is distorted, but at times the starkness of our own reflections is difficult to witness.

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Both science and poetry hold up a mirror to society, but we don’t always like what we see (Photo Credit: Ben Smith)

Perhaps the most absolute of the similarities between scientists and poets is the panging sense of redundancy that at times underpins their work. Scientists spend their time trying to work out what gravity really is, but all of us still understand intuitively how it affects us: if we throw something up it will come down. Likewise, do we really need a poem to tell us how beautiful a sunset is or how we feel when we loose a loved one? Poetry and science are both just trying to make sense of the world in which we live, striving to describe nature in terms so absolute that they cannot possibly be denied, thus ensuring the posterity of the scientist or the poet throughout the ages. The irony is of course that it is neither the poet nor the scientist that will prevail, but rather nature itself. Yet as both of them search in vein for a chance of a prolonged mortality in an unforgiving and forgetful world, they could do far worse than to remember the words of the German poet, Johann von Goethe:

“Science arose from poetry, when times change the two can meet again on higher levels as friends.”

samSam Illingworth is a lecturer in Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK. His research involves looking at the ways in which science interacts with society via different cultural media. When he is not doing that he likes to write bad poems about good science, some of which can be read here.

Twitter: @samillingworth

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