October 28, 2016KR BlogKR

Jesse De Angelis: “Science and Poetics”

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I think that while science writing and literary writing have many things in common and can both learn from one another, there are also differences between what science and literature can talk about. These differences are significant. Science can discover new information; literature can’t. But literature can talk about things that science isn’t capable of addressing, because literature can transmit subjective experiences. The task for science writing is to make new facts understandable, while literature tries to make the lives of others understandable. Science writing and literary writing can both employ the same techniques, but their ends are very much different.

Most of what I read when I’m reading for fun is science writing for a popular audience. Authors like Bill Bryson and James Gleick and Mary Roach, or scientists like Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan and Lee Smolin. What unites them, and what makes me want to read them, is a genuine passion for communication, and an unyielding curiosity about how and why things are the way they are.

I think a similar impulse also animates the poets I love. While their methods are not the methods of scientists, but both develop ideas from close observation, and then try to use the small parts of the world they’ve seen to extrapolate something much bigger and fundamental. W.B. Yeats stares through the collar-bone of a hare, and sees the world passing him by; Clyde Tombaugh discovers Pluto by examining photos of the night sky in a blink comparator. They both change what we think about the universe around us. Yeats gets a crater named for him on Mercury, Tombaugh gets one on Mars.

There are some parallels, but there are also unbridgeable differences. Is there a literary Charles Darwin? An Ada Lovelace? Is there an Elizabeth Bishop or A.E. Housman of science? These are silly questions. They’re silly because literature and science are, to borrow a phrase, non-overlapping magesteria. But then science writing lets them overlap, and I’m very happy about that.

As a personal aside, I feel a little weird (and very happy) about having my poem accepted into this issue about science, since I’m not sure it’s a poem about science. It’s about a scientific tool, and a scientific mission, but it’s even more about being lonely, about wondering what it means to love something that doesn’t, and probably can’t, love you back. But thinking about the probes we send into deep space and to the surface of other planets helped me think about those things. Science continually expands the frontiers for literature, and I think science is at its best when, like with Carl Sagan’s image of Earth as a pale blue dot, it remembers that subjective sense of wonder that animates it in the first place.

Comments from other contributors to the Poetics of Science online discussion:

L. Shapley Bassen: “What unites them, and what makes me want to read them, is a genuine passion for communication, and an unyielding curiosity about how and why things are the way they are.” Surely the desire for knowledge drives both science & art, to be contrasted with other desires like money, power, or chocolate.