Science and Poetry
Let us look into some of the common elements between science and poetry. To the superficial observer, indeed sometimes even to the devotees of the fields, the two may strike as contrasting endeavors, as different from each other as day and night. Yet the two have a great deal in common: In both instances creativity plays a fundamental role, and even as in a hundred versifiers there may be but one genuine poet, so too in the realm of science the routine searchers are many and mechanical; the truly great scientific minds are few and far between.
In poetry, as in science, the urge to create is stronger than the plans to execute. When the poet Poe said that for him poetry was not a purpose, but a passion, he was also expressing the feelings of the true scientist to his own field.
Both science and poetry are efforts to cast truth and nature in symmetry and harmony. To the poet, “poetry is truth dwelling in beauty,” and to the scientist science is truth dwelling in beautiful formulas. Truth, that elusive entity, is of significance only to the seeker.
Thus, the difference between poetry and science lies in the modes of perception and in the framework of the search, not in the inspiration of the quest.
Even when the poet speaks out against the scientific conception he comes closer to the scientist in his description. William Blake, that inspired mystic who regarded “Reason as the Devil, and Newton as its high-priest,” and who proclaimed that “Art is the Tree of Life…Science the Tree of Death,” did echo powerfully the romantic revolt against a mammoth mechanical view of the universe such as was being suggested by 18th century physics and astronomy. But when he spoke of the raptures as one strives
To see the World in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your Hand
Eternity in an Hour,
he was merely putting to rhyme and rhythm the thrills of the scientific investigator. For when the chemist analyzes the elemental constitution of a sand particle, or the physicist probes into its atomic structures, they too see a world in a grain of sand. When the botanist describes the magic of wild flowers, their forms and their colors, and the plant histologist uncovers the biochemical turbulences that provoke their emergence and their transformations, they too see heaven in action in a wild flower. When the cosmologist computes the very limits of the universe, and the astronomer captures electromagnetic subtleties from distant galaxies, they too hold infinity in their hands. And when the astrophysicist examines the evolution of stellar systems he too holds eternity in an hour.
No wonder then that the pure scientist has always been sensitive to the charms of poetry. Galileo was an admirer of Ariosto, and knew the entire Orlando furioso by heart, as Euler could recite the Aenid from beginning to end. The mathematical physicist Simon Poisson mastered long passages from Racine and Corneille. Newton, Davy, Watt, Maxwell, Lallande, Ampere, Faraday – to name but a few of the great scientific minds – all showed more than a passing interest in poetry. Some of then even composed verses themselves.
Yet, not many poets have been enthusiastic students of scientific disciplines. Indeed when they do write on science they often tend to disparage the scientific enterprise, and make pitying references to the inadequacies and emptiness of science as they see it. From the pathological contempt for the science expressed by some of the more extreme romantics to the modern schools of inquiry into the illogical and the irrational which venerate the absurd in the inspired, if mistaken conviction that magic and mystery-mongering would lead to higher levels of reality, many gifted poets have painted the methods and fruits of the scientific quest in terms and images that connote pity and ridicule.
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