National Poetry Month: Poetry and Science – Not Necessarily at Odds

As Poets.org notes, National Poetry Month each April is the largest literary celebration in the world, with tens of millions of readers, students, K-12 teachers, librarians, booksellers, literary events curators, publishers, bloggers, and, of course, poets marking poetry’s important place in our culture and our lives.

Physicist Richard Feynman decried the idea that there must be a separation between science and poetry, between the empirical and the symbolic. They both reveal truth; just in a different way. Feynman contended:

“Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern — of which I am a part…. What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?”

Interestingly, that passage has inspired a number of poems on the connection between science and poetry, such as shown here and here. But Feynman perhaps expressed the intersection between science and poetry best in his own poem that he read as part of an address to the National Academy of Sciences. [“The Value of Science,” public address at the National Academy of Sciences (Autumn 1955); published in What Do You Care What Other People Think (1988); republished in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (1999) edited by Jeffrey Robbins]

I stand at the seashore, alone, and start to think.

There are the rushing waves
mountains of molecules
each stupidly minding its own business
trillions apart
yet forming white surf in unison

Ages on ages
before any eyes could see
year after year
thunderously pounding the shore as now.
For whom, for what?
On a dead planet
with no life to entertain.

Never at rest
tortured by energy
wasted prodigiously by the Sun
poured into space.
A mite makes the sea roar.

Deep in the sea
all molecules repeat
the patterns of one another
till complex new ones are formed.
They make others like themselves
and a new dance starts.
Growing in size and complexity
living things
masses of atoms
DNA, protein
dancing a pattern ever more intricate.

Out of the cradle
onto dry land
here it is
standing:
atoms with consciousness;
matter with curiosity.

Stands at the sea,
wonders at wondering: I
a universe of atoms
an atom in the Universe.

A recent article in the online magazine Nautilus also reflects upon the similarities between art and science:

“Kirk Johnson, a paleontologist and illustrator, and director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, sounds a theme that appears as regularly as a Beethoven motif in the interviews. Rather than being separate pursuits, art and science spring from the same desire to peel back the surface and reveal the world anew.

‘Both science and art are creativity and imagination and execution,’ Johnson says. ‘You come up with new ideas and you test those ideas and you execute them. So I find that the creative people of the world come in many flavors. People always talk about science and art as being very different things, and I find them to be very similar things.’”

Nautilus quotes geochemist, geobiologist and author Hope Jahren phrasing the connection more “poetically” if you will:

“Science, like art, can change you forever. Personally I think that’s the true purpose of science. It’s not to build bridges or make new combat-lack-of-erection medicines. It’s to feed the soul in the same way that art does.”

It is clear in any event that the subject of science inspires a great deal of poetry. This one, illustrated in comic book style, is a favorite among physicists:

Douglas Florian writes delightful books of science poetry for kids, like this great poem about Pluto from his book Comets, Stars, The Moon, and Mars:

“Pluto was a planet.
But now it doesn’t pass.
Pluto was a planet.
They say it’s lacking mass.
Pluto was a planet.
Pluto was admired.
Pluto was a planet.
Till one day it got fired.”

comets-stars-moon-mars-full

Another author who writes fun science poems for kids is Jon Sciezka, as shown by this poem from his book Science Verse

“Hey diddle diddle, what kind of riddle
Is this nature of light?
Sometimes it’s a wave,
Other times particle . . .
But which answer will be marked right?”

But my very favorite from the Sciezka book is this take-off of “The Night Before Christmas”:

“‘Twas the night before Any Thing, and all through deep space,
Nothing existed — time, matter, or place.
No stockings, no chimneys. It was hotter than hot.
Everything was compressed in one very dense dot.

When out of the nothing there appeared with a clatter
A fat guy with reindeer and something the matter.
His nose was all runny. He gave a sick hack.
“Oh, Dasher! Oh, Dancer! I can’t hold it back!”

He huffled and snuffled and sneezed one AH-CHOO!
Then like ten jillion volcanoes, the universe blew.
That dense dot exploded, spewing out stars,
Earth, Venus, Jupiter, Uranus, and Mars,

Helium, hydrogen, the mountains and seas,
The chicken, the egg, the birds and the bees,
Yesterday’s newspaper, tomorrow’s burnt toast,
Protons and neutrons, your grandma’s pork roast.

The universe expanded. The guy said with a wheeze,
‘Who will ever believe the world started by sneeze?
So let’s call it something much grander, all right?
Merry BIG BANG to all! And to all — Gesundheit!’”

You can also find a whimsical collection of poems for adults about science at Brain Pickings, here. Also at Brain Pickings, follow the links on this post about “The Universe in Verse” for more science poetry.

Want more poetry? Sign up to receive daily poems for free in your inbox from Poets.org, here. Poem-a-Day features over 200 new, previously unpublished poems by today’s talented poets each year. On weekdays, poems are accompanied by exclusive commentary by the poets. The series highlights classic poems on weekends.

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About rhapsodyinbooks

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3 Responses to National Poetry Month: Poetry and Science – Not Necessarily at Odds

  1. Celebrate the month, write a poem! I do occasionally, and everyone can. I enjoyed the ones you posted.

  2. Beth F says:

    Ha! Loved that Big Bang poem especially.

  3. Robbie Yates says:

    These poems are fantastic
    I’m glad you typed them out
    My favourite type of poetry
    It makes me laugh and shout
    I’m gonna click on “follow”
    And follow you, post-haste
    Cos I think that I’ll like your blog
    Now that I’ve had a taste.

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