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10 June 2016

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

By Zayani Bhatt

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”.

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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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