Poetry and Science Fusion
Dr Askey, English Teacher and Dr Tim Lesworth, Director of the Star Centre
Some ‘dyed in the wool’ scientists and literary researchers might balk at the idea of merging the concepts of their disciplines. However, I would contend that the time is ripe to help convert the nervous who are persuaded that ‘never the twain shall meet’.
But this schism would have been incomprehensible to the ancients. For example, the Roman poet/philosopher, Lucretius (99-55BC) wrote the didactic poem, ‘On the Nature of The Universe’ (De Rerum Natura). This poem is thought to be highly influential in the introduction of atomism to Renaissance Europe (Midgley, p.30). Moreover, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), the so –called ‘father of modern science’, had a complex relationship with poetry whereby it provided him with ‘“a model for thinking through philosophical problems”’ (p.xxix, Marchitello & Tribble). Galileo offers us an example of practice at a time when ‘the literary and the scientific [were] as the not-yet-differentiated disciplines’ (p.xxv, Marchitello & Tribble). So if melding science and poetry is good enough for Galileo then it should be more than good enough for the rest of us.
The division between the arts and science developed in the 18th century. Many Romantics distrusted scientific discovery. Keats felt that the poetry of nature was destroyed by reducing it to its constituent parts ‘Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings….Unweave a rainbow’ (‘Lamia’, part 2, l.229, l.237). Wordsworth said that ‘we murder to dissect’ (‘The Tables Turned’ l.28). But I suggest that far from being hostile towards scientific research, these poets can be read as advocating that we do not lose a sense of subjectivity in our objective scientific measurement and reasoning. Nonetheless, the parting of the ways of the arts and science seems to have been ‘hotly debated ever since C.P. Snow proposed the idea of Two Cultures (Snow 1959)’ (Gorrell, 2012, p.29).
Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that scientific research consists of acts of storytelling: one develops a hypothesis and then tries to prove or disprove it by storytelling which may contradict previously held ‘facts’. So these two disciplines of literature and science are not so divergent. Both depend on imaginative and creative thinking to interpret words/data/our world. Fusing these disciplines can offer our students the opportunities to develop proficiency in ‘multiple literacies’ to ‘pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally’ (Gorrell, 2012, pp.24-5) employing higher-order thinking. When analysing poetry about science, the students have to evaluate and justify decisions, checking hypothesising, critiquing, experimenting and judging. When writing their own science poetry, the students have to generate new ideas whilst planning and designing ways of viewing their chosen topic and distilling their notions into concise expression. These communication skills are invaluable for whatever students choose as their future career path.
Whilst in tertiary education, the melding of science and literature is not new, we can herald the ways in which educators in schools can develop overlapping interfaces between science and literature in the minds of our students. By adopting this cross-curricular approach, we can prepare our Langton students for the increased rigors of public examinations and allow for more nuanced ways of thinking about their learning. In UK’s new era of secondary education reforms, we know that we need to invest our energies in encouraging students to be thinking more creatively. Poetry and science fusion will help our students to be armed ready to meet the challenges of new organisational and industrial workplaces in the 21st century.
We have now developed regular Physics and Poetry Workshops where 6th formers from literary and scientific traditions in the boys’ and girls’ school work together to produce poetry with an aim to deepen their understanding of each others’ perspectives and work towards nuanced literacy skills. Here are some examples of their work:
Some Black Hole Poem by Patrick Lyle-Condon, Year 12.
Standing on resistance edge.
Watching buildings fall
And pieces only just missing
The thought to come together.
Crumbling like light
Stone is made dust
In the Nothing that has
Taken everything from what was something.
In my own event horizon there is
No trace of the slowly collapsing
Star, nor the light which it once
Emitted, glorious and whole.
Hearing the silence which crashes,
Whole and wild through its
Surrounding light, which blinds the sun
In its over-powering sublime,
And feeling the weight,
From everything that felt it before.
Singularity by Jake Rix, Year 13
Time perched on existence edge
Seen in mountain vale
What surprises us by Ruchia Bundy Year 13
the bulk bends backwards,
time disperses, the know that we’re in
collapses; universe soaks itself in black
matters down here keep turning, concerns
over shape and sound, over only vision
been allowed while an empty field
of waves smiles golden,
in sparking unison.
midnight, dawn, broken time
in equation. life on paper accelerates
from shape to spring life, again;
the physics of the aliens, alien home
we breathe in, yet stand apart and
only alluded to through and through
our favoured maths and reason.
1 line poem of quantum physics and a spiritual suggestion
entanglement’s a good one
boundlessly electric, magnetic fields dance in elegant
in a perfect world, synchronised.
tiny atom of person trips
in the blanket, hikes through higgs
everything to find just a sentence,
and justly answer all the simple questions,
out of theory.
theory never left; life through paper protons
and calculations, ever questing division death,
death of human dual perspective,
to truly know the universe.
cosmos’ lover, time picks away at flowers;
while we with chattering teeth watch demise,
degradative atoms pale from first form;
petals of the corners of universe
wilt, sulk and sleep away…
measurement on transcendent!
try to restrain the world in time, yet
from dying atoms births buds of energy,
and while we try writing the skies
with equations, light waves calmly
from all to everything, atom to atom;
universe blossoms, boundlessly.
A Day in the Life of a Proton by Rebecca Robinson yr12
Wake up late at π past six,
feeling fairly neutrino.
A light breakfast leaves him excited for the day ahead.
Lepton the train,
His destination potentially different from the current state.
Gets to work and is passed up for the tao promotion
It would be a massive step up
But the job was generations ahead of him.
He catches the eye of a friendly proton
And feels a sudden attraction
But her outer shell is already full.
Goes to a boson bar to ground his state
He overpays for his drink
But the neutron to the left received no charge.
Came home through the door and the window
Proceeds to state Schrödinger, his lot
Puts a photon on the bedside table
And has a rest mass.
Nancy S Gorrell with Erin Colfax, Writing Poetry through the Eyes of Science: A Teacher’s Guide to Scientific Literacy and Poetic Response (Equinox: 2012).
Howard Marchitello & Evelyn Tribble eds. The Palgrave Handbook of Early Modern Literature and Science (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry (London: Routledge, 2006).