Saturday, December 8, 2012

Scientific Poetry

The scientific literature I’ve read recently on my microorganisms of choice – ostracodes and foraminifera – surprised me.  In two of these texts, I found, of all things, poetry.  Prompted by these stray bits of verse, I’ve been considering the nexus of science and poetry.  The idiosyncrasies and limits of my initial exploration are, for better or worse, reflected in this post.

(Ostracodes are tiny crustaceans and foraminifera are single-celled protists.  The shelly fossilized remains of each have figured in several previous posts.)

Crystallographer Alan L. Mackay has asserted that scientific poetry comes in two categories, the first fairly abounding with poems, the second sparsely populated.  (Rhyme and Reason, The Sciences, July/August, 1981.)

The more common is the infusion of scientific terms and concepts into poetry to explore some universal truth.

Among the many examples one could read, let me offer one I particularly like.  Roald Hoffmann’s self-referential poem titled Evolution portrays the poet in the act of writing a poem about how insects are “good chemists,” using chemistry for defense, and, even more so, for attracting mates.

And I was in the middle
of telling the story of the western pine beetle,
which has an aggregation pheromone
calling all comers (of that species).
The pheromone has three components:
one from the male, frontalin,
exo-brevicomin wafted by the female
and (ingenious) abundant
pitch-smelling myrcene
from the host pine.

These lines, in language somewhat reminiscent of a scientific article, albeit with a touch of poetry, describe the complex, precise chemical formula that has evolved for the purpose of propagating the pine beetle.  But the poet and, indeed, the poem he originally drafted are undone, in part, by wild flowers he’d brought into the house and placed in a vase next to the poem.  This flora distracts him from the poem and he observes - 

The sun’s warmth had burst some of the pods,
which had fallen on the draft
(the words were lost in the sun) . . . .

The shadows from the wild flower bouquet lie across his draft deflecting him still further from his original poem, and . . .

Then I saw you walking on the hill.

The poem we have in hand (as I read it) tells us that, whatever wildly wonderful brew of forces that have evolved to attract members of our species to one another, it cannot be deconstructed into an intricate chemical formula, because it’s a quixotic blend of happenstance, the moment, idle musing, light and shadow.

Oh, I should add that Hoffmann is a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry (1981).  The science is as real as the poetry.

(The autobiography Hoffmann submitted to the Nobel Foundation is fascinating; the addendum from 1992 includes some reflection on the relationship of science and poetry.  Hoffmann has made a generous selection of his poetry available on the web.)

Mackay’s second category of scientific poem is the much less populated one consisting of poems in which science is the subject.

Mackay mostly limits this category to recent scientist who write poetry about science.  That's perhaps the safest route since, for older texts, much depends upon what one considers science.  Nevertheless, I'd argue that poems in this group have a very old and distinguished pedigree.  Renowned information scientist Eugene Garfield, in one of his Current Contents columns (which put me on to Mackay in the first place), observes that, in roughly 60 BCE, the Roman poet Lucretius (ca. 99 BCE – ca. 55 BCE) composed De Rerum Natura or On the Nature of Things, “the most extensive description of nature of its time.”  This was the "science of his day."

The poem deals with human nature and religion, but in large part it is a commentary on atomic theory, meteorology, astronomy, the origin of life, and the mechanics of perception.  (The Poetry-Science Connection, July 18, 1983.)

Even the limited amount of this epic poem that I’ve read shows me quite clearly how consonant much of it is with what is known now about the physical world, about the composition of natural objects and the conserving cycles that dominate nature.  A minor example will suffice.  A passage that waxes lyrical about new birth concludes with an observation about fertile death.

Hence the young scamper on their weakling joints
Along the tender herbs, fresh hearts afrisk
With warm new milk.  Thus naught of what so seems
Perishes utterly, since Nature ever
Upbuilds one thing from other, suffering naught
To come to birth but through some other’s death.
(Book I, Substance is Eternal, in the 1916 translation by William Ellery Leonard.)

But I’m reluctant to call it prescient because I don’t know what Lucretius really meant by the terms he used (well, those that I've read in translation).

Still, I agree with Garfield and think Lucretius counts.  Among the other notable scientific poems of past ages that I’d include in this group, is The Temple of Nature; The Origin of Society by Erasmus Darwin (1731 – 1802), a long poem (published posthumously) expounding this Darwin’s views on evolution.

I’ve recently come across a poem that might constitute a third category of scientific poetry – in this category, the poem isn’t ABOUT science, it appears that it IS science.  Or, put another way, the scientist appears to have written the poetry as an integral part of doing science.

Humphry Davy (1778-1829) is a central figure in biographer Richard Holmes’ award-winning book titled The Age of Wonder:  How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (2008).  Davy made significant contributions to chemistry in this fecund period for the arts and sciences.  During the Romantic Age, the arts, particularly poetry, and science seemed twinned, practitioners of each were often one and the same, or, at least, close collaborators.  So, it’s not surprising that the chemist Davy was also a poet.

Very early in his career, Davy experimented with the effects of different gases on the human body and mind.  Indeed, the body and mind on which he experimented were often his own.  When sessions with carbon monoxide proved nearly fatal, he wisely tried a different gas, nitrous oxide, with categorically different and addicting results.  As part of his research, Davy used poetry to capture the essence of a gas high.  In a poem titled On Breathing Nitrous Oxide, he wrote

Yet is my cheek with rosy blushes warm
Yet are my eyes with sparkling lustre filled
Yet is my mouth replete with murmuring sound

Though Holmes dismisses the poem as “very bad verse,” he calls it "a form of scientific data," suggesting to me that it should be considered part of Davy's effort to immediately record what he'd experienced (p. 260).  Holmes posits that it provided “surprisingly precise physiological information” of the gas’ impact from sexual arousal to flushed cheeks, from hallucinations to a sense of physical prowess.

Reflecting the shared worlds of poetry and science in this period, Davy proved an admirable host for nitrous oxide sampling sessions, inviting such friends as the poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  Not unexpectedly, Coleridge, who was deeply into opium, was not as moved as others.  Holmes writes, “In fact Coleridge’s accounts of his reactions to the gas seem oddly prosaic.”  (p. 267)

One might expect that the two poems on ostracodes and foraminifera that I found nestled in scientific articles might fit into this third category, as examples of the scientist doing science through poetry.  But, I think not.

I’m not sure where they belong, perhaps yet another category.  They speak to no truths about the human condition, and their subject is hardly science, though it has the appropriate patina.  Because these are not free-standing poems, their context – scientific journals – is all important and seems to dictate that they be played for . . . laughs.  Indeed, they are trivial.  That said, I did enjoy the poems and their articles, and it’s pretty clear the authors had fun writing them.

The first article, titled The Odds on “Ode” in Ostracode, or the Omicron and Omega of Chancy Spelling, appeared in the Journal of Paleontology (November, 1961) and tackles that most fundamental of issues for those who work with ostracodes –

Should the common name of these little crustaceans be spelled ostracode or ostracod (with appropriately different pronunciations)?

Paleontologist Richard H. Benson argues in this piece, from carefully assembled and footnoted etymological evidence regarding the use of the two terms, that ostracode is much the preferred.  He concludes with his Ode to Ostracode which in doggerel sums up his preceding detailed analysis.  The first two verses capture the essential geopolitical struggle over the spelling of the name.

In celebration of Oxford’s mode,
Most Americans spell it “ostracode.”

The Britisher’s closer proximity to God
Causes him to spell it “ostracod.”

The poem draws other nationalities into the fight, but notes that it’s of little consequence to most of the world.  Benson concludes the poetic effort with

I end this ode with a short delighter;
Both may be right, but one is righter!

The second of these poems appears in What Should We Call The Foraminifera?, a footnoted piece by Jere H. Lipps, Kenneth L. Finger, and Sally E. Walker, that appeared in the October, 2011, issue of the Journal of Foraminiferal Research.  Sally Walker is the designated poet in the group.  Her poem, titled Protist Protest, begins

Little protists of the sea
How do we treat thee?
As foraminifers, Oh wee beasties of the sea?
Or, shall it be, foraminifera
for the plural or the singular?

And ends with - 

Please, please tell me Dr. Foram Man or M’am,
Is it –minifer, -minifera, or –miniferan?

It would have pained me to end this post with such verse, so I wont.

As a lover of the fossil shells left us by gastropods, I am particularly taken with Roald Hoffmann’s poem Malacology, a dialogue about finding the universal in the quotidian, which finishes the whirling pattern it traces down the page with these lines arrayed in this fashion - 

But a snail –
            won’t it matter
                        it’s so glan-
                                    dular, all its
                                                            on display?

                        That’s what I
            said from the
            the world is
                        in a snail.

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