Poets and Scientists: Some Experiments

Janet Phillips surveys recent projects

 "Poetry is a part of my life," says paleontologist Richard Fortey, as he sits, surrounded by papers and specimen cabinets, in a room in the basement of the Natural History Museum. How many contemporary scientists could say that? Well, an encouraging number of them draw on poetry in their writing (Richard Dawkins is an example, along with Fortey himself), and perhaps that number will grow, due to two projects that have brought about almost thirty collaborations between poets and scientists.


One, led by poet Robert Crawford (supported by the Wellcome Trust's Sciarts fund and organised through the University of St Andrews) involved nine poet-scientist pairings. Another – an anthology to celebrate the life of environmental scientist Rachel Carson, edited by John Burnside and Maurice Riordan – involved seventeen collaborations. It's easy to see what a poet might gain from shadowing a scientist: new material, insights, vocabulary. But for the scientists, is this anything more than an interesting way to spend lunch?


To begin with, collaborating scientists are frank about the dichotomies that comparisons between poetry and science throw up. Rona Ramsay, a biochemist who collaborated with Robert Crawford, says: "A poet wants to evoke multiple responses and different meanings with one word, but for a scientist, a word has to have a very precise meaning". Richard Fortey agrees that "the analytical function of being a scientist is absolutely different", and adds, "the one thing that's unforgivable in science is to make things up".


But this is not to say that the imagination has no role to play in science. Peter Forbes, a poetry editor and science writer, says: "Scientists today need to be more imaginative, spotting connections, say, between physics and biology, that only lateral or poetic thinking can produce". This is what Richard Fortey describes as the scientist's "imaginative breakthrough", which will be formalised through experiment and research. "The creative process is probably similar to that of a poet, but to convert it into scientific discourse you have to adopt a very formal language", he says.


But such formal language can be impenetrable to a general reader. So it's no surprise that the most obvious benefit to scientists from these collaborations is that they open up a different way of communicating. "My research seeks to explain how the three-dimensional shapes of small molecules fit together with large enzymes for recognition and affinity", says Rona Ramsay. "In the end, [Robert Crawford's] phrase 'deft inter-molecular embrace' sums up what it's all about".

Indeed, having someone else write about your work might reveal something new. "A poet takes from the material things that you simply wouldn't have noticed", says Richard Fortey, "or they make new connections beyond the world of the scientist". Peter Forbes points to Lucretius's poem, De Rerum Natura, as an example of a poet having a true scientific insight: "There was no real science then, only speculation. But Lucretius was percipient enough to pick the only winner among the rival hypotheses: the atomic theory. His reasoning is so elegant that the poem is still inspiring today".


In fact, the inspirational effect of poetry was something that Warren S Warren, Professor of Chemistry at Princeton, decided to analyse for his collaboration with Paul Muldoon. Warren made two brain scans of a volunteer reading parts of a Muldoon poem, interspersed with the dry text of administrative regulations. The scans show that when the volunteer was reading the poem, the prefrontal cortex of the brain revealed greater engagement then when the regulations were read. "This activation in the prefrontal cortex is no surprise: it is the most evolved part of the brain and a centre of both critical and emotional response", writes Warren, in Princeton Alumni Weekly. But, he adds: "We are not yet able to probe truly deep questions (brain sensors will not replace literary critics for some time)…"


Of course they won't, and surely what these collaborations emphasise is literature's ability to convey scientific thought. Maurice Riordan and John Burnside would argue that Rachel Carson's work on pesticides, Silent Spring, illustrates this. Their anthology celebrates "that wonderful marriage in one pen of lyricism and observation".


Wild Reckoning is published by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in April

Robert Crawford is editing a book on poetry and science for OUP.