A Sonnet to Science: Scientists and Their Poetry, by Sam Illingworth

Tom McLeish delves into the complex relations between scientific and poetic creativity

July 4, 2019
Source: Getty

We are clearly not done with the question of science and poetry. Come to think of it, I am not sure that we have yet worked out what the question is. Goethe thought that science arose from poetry, Poe and Keats cried that science eviscerated poetry like a vulture on so much carrion, or that it unravelled the wonder of a rainbow like a truculent toddler destroying the knitting. Scientist and poet Miroslav Holub thought that poetry and science shared discovery and energy, and John Donne drew on science as poetically enriching.

The recent literature is substantial if not overwhelming. Mary Midgley’s classic Science and Poetry (2006) aligns with the complementarity of Holub or Donne, John Carey’s Faber Book of Science (1995) includes a little poetry. There are a few full anthologies – A Quark for Mister Mark: 101 Poems about Science (edited by Maurice Riordan and Jon Turney, 2000) comes to mind – and a few poets who have produced work of real quality about scientific ideas, such as R.S. Thomas.

Sam Illingworth provides a fresh perspective: what about scientists who write poetry? A Sonnet to Science sandwiches six short biographical sketches between an introduction and an epilogue in a thought-provoking short book. It is not an anthology – this is both a strength and a weakness. Illingworth wants his readers to explore why his subjects wrote poetry, how they did so, and its relation to their scientific work. Yet we do not get enough of the poetry itself from Sonnet to come to our own conclusions, however wide his chosen spectrum of poetic quality, which will include new territory for most readers. I knew that Humphry Davy wrote poetry under Coleridge’s tutelage, had encountered James Clerk Maxwell’s late epics and had read some Holub in translation. But I was not aware that Ada Lovelace wrote wonderfully about Florence Nightingale, nor that Ronald Ross (Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on malaria) wrote poetry – admittedly I am still not quite convinced on that score.

The underlying question of the relationship of these writers’ science to their poetry surfaces in each chapter and matures as we go. The introductory answer is the rather thin motivation from science-communication. Then Lovelace describes the “white wings of imagination”, when she writes about science, and the plot thickens again as astronomer Rebecca Elson makes poems that open up the inside of her science thinking and feeling (although at the eighth occurrence of the phrase “optimistic pragmatist” in her chapter I knew that some copy-editing was wanting). The book keeps in the main to a dualistic “as a poet…as a scientist” approach to its subjects, some of whom regrettably felt that they had to hide their poetry for the sake of acceptance in the scientific community. But we are left with unanswered questions. Do we actually know how common it is for scientists to write poems (I am one of the ones who does)? And is there a depth where the scientific and poetic imagination intersect? I felt myself ascending from this book’s dive into those questions without having quite reached ocean floor, but I enjoyed the strange and lovely creatures on the way down. I also found myself looking up more of the poetry it referred to – surely a good sign.

Tom McLeish is professor of natural philosophy at the University of York and the author of The Poetry and Music of Science: Comparing Creativity in Science and Art.

A Sonnet to Science: Scientists and Their Poetry
By Sam Illingworth
Manchester University Press, 216pp, £20.00
ISBN 9781526127983
Published 31 May 2019


Print headline: Lyrics in the laboratory 

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