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The love affair between science and poetry

Why these two subjects are not as different as we might think and the science of what happens in the brain when we read poetry

Poetry and science seem like opposites – but the two have long been intertwined. At the Roundhouse in June, performance poet Robin Lamboll’s take was wonderfully dramatic. It featured a shouting, angry and judging voice - performance on “science being fun facts of the natural world and religion being Nietzsche's the Antichrist.”

Watching it made me think about the flirtation of poetry and science and how deep a romance it is. In the late 1700s scientific treatises were written in poetic form because poetry was considered the language of intellect and the future. In the 1800s Lewis Carroll experimented with mathematical logic to create The Square Stanza.

And who can forget Dante’s The Divine Comedy; a smorgasbord of history and religion which at its damning best was underpinned by solid science such as the action of gravity as he travels to the core of the earth and on Lucifer’s fall through the galaxy.

In 1984, the paper The Detection of Shocked Co/ Emission by physicist J. W. V. Storey was published in The Proceedings of the Astronomical Society of Australia as a 38-stanza poem, much to the irritation of his colleagues (and his sadistic pleasure).

Today, many poets embrace and explore both the confirmed and the working theories of physics, astronomy and nature, the most popular scientific fields for poets. The idea of scientists as poets is surprisingly common; a variation of the “writer with the day job”.

Ruth Padel (whose great great grandfather is Charles Darwin), has dedicated much of her work to the amalgamation of the two, including a book of poems on Charles Darwin's writings, letters and journals to explore his life, family and science.

In 2012 Inky Fingers, a collective of enthusiasts of both the spoken and written word in Edinburgh, hosted a Science and poetry event. In it heroes of performance poetry including Harry Baker (who has won the London, UK and International grand slam poetry championships) showcased pieces delighting in the wonder of the double helix and the complicity of geophysics. It wasn’t just about spitting lyrical though; poet Ruth Aylett performed alongside Sarah the robot.

Occasionally, I too write poetry but have a science background. Does that imply a different interplay between the distinct areas of my brain?

Researchers at the University of Exeter conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans on people as they read some poetry, to try to identify which areas of the brain are activated. They found that to the mind, poetry is like music, something which Shakespeare would have approved of. The team found activity in the area of the brain generally characterised as the “reading area” but it was the more emotionally charged writing that triggered the region of the brain that responds to music. Interestingly, these areas (on the right side of the brain) also give rise to shivers down the spine.

When reading their favourite poems, the researchers noticed that areas associated with memory in subjects’ brains were more activated than the reading areas, suggesting that it was more of a fond recollection. Comparing poetry and prose, the team found that poetry activates areas of the mind such as the posterior cingulate cortex and medial temporal lobes, both of which trigger introspection.

In another study, researchers at Liverpool University found that when reading Shakespeare and Wordsworth, brain activity increased, showing that reader’s minds were challenged compared to brain activity when the texts were re-written into more modern language. This activation of the mind was long-lasting, effectively shifting the brain into a higher gear and encouraging further reading.

The research also found that reading poetry in particular, increases activity in the right hemisphere of the brain, an area associated with “autobiographical memory”, enabling the reader to reflect on and review their own experiences in light of what they had read. The study’s academics believed this meant that the classics were more useful than self-help books.

Frontiers in Neurology reported that the expression of science through poetry could enrich and better kids’ understanding of science education, in schools. According to the research, it encouraged use of their imagination to deconstruct and reconstruct their learned knowledge. Critiquing and analysing thus could facilitate learning.

Emily Dodd, aficionado and writer of scientific poetry and screenwriter for CBeebies science programs tells me: “There's something to be said for communicating science creatively and seeing how much knowledge is retained or if people are interested enough to look for more information afterwards.” What she wants to know is why we lose that desire to understand and how we can bring back that desire and the joy that comes with discovery.

This very tendency to reduce things to their minute components is science’s premise and so it is sometimes criticised for losing sight of the wholeness and larger human meaning. John Keats, who trained as a surgeon and apothecary before committing himself to poetry, famously said:

“There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:

We know her woof, her texture; she is given

In the dull catalogue of common things.”

This roughly translates as science ruins the beauty of things by dissecting it into its components. It’s worth noting, though, that Keats was a part of the Romantic era wherein poets were confronted by the Industrial Revolution and the idea that science and technology would pave the way for the future was for them, terrifying.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is perhaps the biggest exception to the norm.  A German, and born in 1749, he was a writer and a scientist but he always regarded his contribution to the science of colour far greater than any literature he wrote. His work includes poetry written in a variety of metres and styles, prose and verse dramas; memoirs, an autobiography, literary criticism, papers on botany, anatomy, and colour and four novels.

One of his biggest passions was the study of clouds and in an act of pronounced love and respect between a poet and scientist, he wrote a poem about each of the different classifications of clouds (nimbus, cirrus, cumulus and stratus) and an ode to the scientist who devised them, Luke Howard, as a declaration of his admiration for Howard’s scientific skills.

"To find yourself in the infinite,
You must distinguish and then combine;
Therefore my winged song thanks
The man who distinguished cloud from cloud.”

In fact, Robin Lamboll, too is a scientist: he is currently pursuing his PhD on the physics of solar cells. Why did he chose to perform piece on science and religion? “In 'The Gospel According to the Antichrist', I wanted to break down the distinction between scientific knowledge and meaning.”

He tells me, “I’ve always been drawn to Nietzsche's energy and drama, but dislike many of his opinions, like his contempt for equality as a concept. I wanted to draw on his rich stock of metaphors and then explain that, with a bit of science, the metaphors he used undermine his conclusions.”

Robin said Nietzsche “accused poets of 'lying too much', so I wanted to make sure it was the 'Gospel truth' - unalloyed facts. But all knowledge depends on having a knower, and humans instinctively add meaning to science, so even though the facts are unrelated to his statements, they still modify how we understand them.”

Poetry and science are united. They address the big questions of life. By focusing on detail, on particular characteristics, neither poetry nor science is allowed to be vague. For poets it may be the characteristics of each feeling, each mood and each notion and for the scientist, it is the characteristics of the object; the curve of the sea shell that lets us know it’s a sea shell.

“Adding an idea from one place to an idea from somewhere else to make something that perfectly sums up the thing itself,” says Dodd. “It's about seeing patterns in the world and translating them into something others can engage with. The best scientist and poets can do that.”

Both too depend on metaphor, as the manner by which thought is explained to the lay reader and as a way of confirmation: if something like this can exist in the world, then surely this itself can too? Many poets have used scientific imagery to evoke metaphorical imagery, such as the 16th century priest and lawyer John Donne.

Known as metaphysical poetry, it employs analogies between an individual’s spiritual qualities and an object in the real world. Donne for example likens the legs of a compass drawing a circle to the unification and subsequent separation of two lovers. The theme of evolution also repeatedly appears in Thomas Hardy and much of Charles Darwin’s thought was shaped by poetry - he travelled to South America to carry out research on what was to become the Origin of Species, with the poet John Milton.

A certain amount of logic too is required, even for a poem. To have a thought and see it through to conclusion is the basic premise of both experimentation and writing. Additionally, both strive to drive forward thought and introspection once their job has been done. For the poet, its introspection in the reader or listener’s mind and for the scientist it is to examine their process and where they may have gone wrong.

It seems then; more collaboration between the two will bring a greater understanding of our world. Perhaps William Wordsworth puts it best: “If the time should ever come when what is now called science, thus familiarised to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the Being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.”

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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