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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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Every single line spoken by actor Harry Styles in the movie Dunkirk, evaluated

Judging the actual speaking and acting the from teen icon.

When it was announced that Harry Styles had been cast in Dunkirk, most people assumed it was a Drew Barrymore in Scream sort of deal. A big name, who would be plastered over the posters, front and centre at promotional interviews, but given a barely-speaking part and probably killed off in the first five minutes. Not so! Not only does he not die early on, Harry has a very significant amount of time on screen in Dunkirk, and even more surprisingly, a lot of that time involves actual speaking and acting from the teen icon. In this action-heavy, dialogue-sparse film, he has more lines than most.

Of course, the most normal human response to this revelation is to list every single time he speaks in the film and evaluate every moment on a line-by-line basis. So here it is. Every single line spoken by actor Harry Styles in the movie Dunkirk, evaluated by a very impartial Harry Styles fan. Let’s go.

Obviously, this contains spoilers for Dunkirk.

“What’s wrong with your friend?”

It’s the first line, but it’s a goody. So nonchalant; so effortless; breezily accompanied by a mouthful of toast and jam. Curious, friendly – but with dangerous edge. A lurking threat. A shiver of accusation. This sets up Alex as a normal, if self-assured, bloke who also wants to be sure you’re not about to get him killed. A very strong debut – the kind of line that, if you didn’t know better, would make you think, “Hm, who’s this charismatic young guy”?

A cheer.

Solid 8/10 cheer, believe this guy has cheered before.

“You can’t leave us! Make some room!”

It’s only been ten minutes, but things have really kicked up a notch. Raspy, panicked, desperate, this line left my heart jumping for my poor sodden son. A triumph, and certainly one of Harry’s best lines.

“Hey!”

Here, Alex yells “Hey!” to get the attention of other soldiers, which turns into louder, repeated cries for their attention. I can find little wrong with this “Hey”, and indeed later “Hey”s, but I would not nominate it for an Oscar. This “Hey” is just fine.

“What’s that way?”

I believe that Alex does not, in fact, know what is that way. (It’s a boat.) 7/10.

“S’grounded!”

Alex has delivered the last three shouts with exactly the same intonation. This is good because normal people do not opt for variance in tone when desperately yelling at each other across the beach. I also appreciate the lack of enunciation here. Great work, Harry.

“’ow long’s that?”

I believe that Alex does not, in fact, know how long it will take for the tide to come in. (It’s about three hours.) 7/10.

“Poke yer head out, see if the water’s come in”

Alex is ramping things up a notch – this is authoritative, even challenging. Excellent pronunciation of “aht”, more great slurring.

“Talkative sod, aren’t ya?”

A big line, important for the growing hints that Alex is mistrustful of the silent soldier in their group. And yet not Harry’s absolute best. A little too much forced vowel for me.

“For fuck’s sake!”

Oh my God, we’re here now boys. It’s begun. The water’s not come in. Forget the high-explosive, Alex has only gone and dropped a bloody F-bomb, and Harry’s performance is actually stressful. What an about-turn. Delivered with spitting fury; the “for”, if there at all, almost inaudible; a dropped box clanging to the ground for extra impact. We know that Harry ad-libbed this (and a later) F-word, and this spontaneous approach is working. A truly superb go at doing some swearing. 10/10.

“Yeah but ’ow long?”

I would describe this delivery as “pained”. A little groan of fear hangs in the back. This is, as they say, the good shit.

“Why’d you leave your boat?”

This whispered anger suits Harry.

Some extreme shushing.

Definitely would shush.

“We have to plug it!”

Alex’s heart doesn’t seem really in plugging the bullet holes in the boat, despite the surface-level urgency of this delivery, probably because he doesn’t want to get shot. Nuance. I like it.

“Somebody needs to get off.”

A mic drop of a line, delivered with determined focus.

“I don’t need a volunteer. I know someone who ough’a get off.”

The way his cadence falls and his voice falters when as he reaches the word volunteer. It’s a sad, resigned, type of fear, the type of fear we expect from Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley. Harry’s dropping clues that Alex doesn’t really want to be shoving anyone off a boat to their deaths. But then Alex steels himself, really packing a punch over that “ough’a”.

“This one. He’s a German spy.”

The momentum is building, Alex’s voice is getting breathier and breathier, panic is fluttering in his voice now. I’m living for each and every second of this, like a proud mother with a camcorder. You’re doing amazing, sweetie.

“He’s a focking Jerry!”

Go on my son! Harry’s voice is so high only dogs can hear him now. The mix of fear and aggression is genuinely convincing here, and more than ever it feels clear that you’re practically watching a group of schoolboys with guns scared out of their minds, desperate to go home, who might shoot each other dead at any second. This is undoubtedly the pinnacle of Harry’s performance.

“Have you noticed he hasn’t said a word? ’Cause I ’ave. Won’t speak English: if he does it’s in an accent’s thicker than sauerkraut sauce.”

This is, objectively, the silliest line in this film and maybe any film, ever, and I love it. Never before have the words “sauerkraut sauce” been uttered as a simile, or as a threat, and here, they are both. Inexplicably, it sort of works through Harry’s high-pitched voice and gritted teeth. My personal highlight of the entire movie.

“Tell me.”

Alex is going full antagonist. Whispered, aggressive, threatening. It is safe to say I am dead and deceased.

“Tell me, ‘Gibson’”.

Ugh, now with an added layer of mockery. I am dead, but also please kill me.

“A frog! A bloody frog! A cowardly, little queue-jumping frog. Who’s Gibson, eh? Some naked, dead Englishman lying out in that sand?”

Brexit Harry Styles is furious, and his accent is going a bit all over the place as a result.

“Maybe he killed him.”

Just-about-believably paranoid.

“How do we know?”

This is too close to the delivery Harry uses in this vine for me to take seriously, I’m deeply sorry about that.

“Well, we know who’s getting off.”

I believe that Alex does, in fact, know who is getting off. (It’s the French guy.) 7/10.

“Better ’im than me.”

I agree!!!!!

“Somebody’s gotta get off, so the rest of us can live.”

Empassioned, persuasive, fervent. When glimpsed in trailers, this moment made me think Alex would be sacrificing himself to save others. Not so! He just really, really wants to live. A stellar line, executed very well.

“Do you wanna volunteer?”

Good emoting. I believe the emotion used here is “disbelief”.

“Then this is the price!”

I believe the emotion used here is “desperation”.

“He’s dead, mate.”

So blunt, delivered with an awkward pity. A stand-out moment thanks to my high quality son Harold.

“We let you all down, didn’t we.”

Dahhn. Harry lets us know this is not even a question in Alex’s mind, its a fact. Poor depressed little Alex.

“That old bloke wouldn’t even look us in the eye.”

The weird thing (irony? joke?) here is that the old bloke is actually blind, not refusing to look them in the eye. Slightly bizarre, but Harry rolls with it with this relaxed approach to the word “bloke”.

“Hey! Where are we!”

Good God I love this rousing line. The bell chiming in the background, the violins stirring. There is something curiously British about this line. Something so, “‘What’s to-day?’ cried Scrooge”. Here, Harry is doing what he did best in the early one direction days - being a normal lad from a normal town whose life was made extraordinary even though he’s just, like, so totally normal.

“What station!”

I take it back, THIS is probably my favourite line of the whole movie. Purely because it sounds exactly like Harry Edward Styles on an average day, going about his business, asking what station he’s at. Alex who?

“Grab me one o’ them papers! Go on!”

Now, this, I love. Newcastle brown in hand, f’s dropped, a “go on” barely lacking a “my son”. Put a flat cap on the lad and hand him a chimney sweeping broom - we are in deliciously caricatured Brit territory.

“I can’t bear it. They’ll be spitting at us in the streets, if they’re not locked up waiting for the invasion.”

How rapidly joy turns to ashes in our mouths. One second so elated, with the nostalgic scent of home quivering in his nostrils, Alex is now feeling extremely sorry for himself (fair enough, to be honest). A fine “sad voice” here.

“I can’t look.”

The “sad voice” continues.

“Wha’??”

Hahahahahaha. Yes.

And with this very confused noise Harry Styles closes his debut film performance, which I would describe as extremely solid. Even if I am fuming that he didn’t get to die, beautifully, and at length. Well done Harold.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.