Poetic breakthrough

March 24, 1995

The science museum has appointed a poet-in-residence to write about its collections and help communicate scientific ideas.

The move marks the end of the cold war between science and the arts, and the search by the literary world for new sources of inspiration, according to novelist A. S. Byatt speaking at the science museum's first poetry event.

Lavinia Greenlaw, aged 32, is one of the Poetry Society's 1994 "New Generation Poets" and has already written poetry inspired by science in her collection Night Photograph, published in 1993. She grew up in a family of scientists and doctors.

Ms Greenlaw said: "Many people are sceptical of the relationship between art and science and to what extent the divide between the two cultures can be bridged. I want to show that there are many ways in which art and science can elucidate each other."

She is writing poetry in response to exhibits in the museum. She has written about the museum's iron lung, which she says is "a very obvious image of interdependence". She has also been inspired by the telecommunications gallery: "Now words are smaller, harder, faster . . . Nets tighten across the sky and the seabed".

At Ms Greenlaw's first event as writer-in-residence, a gathering of scientists and writers held as part of national science week (SET95), Ms Byatt said that the literary world had got interested in science because modern literary criticism had "dried up". She said: "The way science imagines the world and the way poets imagine the world are not so far apart."

But there is opposition. Oxford University chemist Peter Atkin has objected that science is beautiful already and does not need poetry to embellish it.

Lewis Wolpert, biologist at University College London, a campaigner on the public understanding of science, said: "Science and poetry are both so important, each in its own right, but one should recognise that they are very, very different processes."

SET95 has been running this week with more than 50 universities taking part.

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