Poetry for Scientists?
— by Walt Hearn
At one time in my academic career, courses with names like "Chemistry for Poets" were being introduced. The idea was to teach liberal arts students at least something about chemistry without turning them off. My colleagues on the chemistry faculty used to debate whether mathematically minimal, non-laboratory courses in science would do more harm than good.
I forget which side of that debate I was on. Obviously it was better to produce liberal arts alumni who appreciated science rather than ignoring it or hating it. But would "science-lite" give them false impressions about science―and about their knowledge of it? Lately I've been thinking about the reverse situation. Would courses like "Poetry for Chemists" do much to humanize the scientific profession?
Readers of God & Nature may want to weigh in on this question. Anyone trained in science who is also a committed Christian knows that using scientific language is not the only way to say something important. God speaks to us from the Bible in an intensely personal way, sometimes in a special kind of structured language chosen for its emotive power. That's what poetry is. Actually, by even the strictest definition, poetry makes up over a third of the Old Testament, with other poetic passages scattered throughout the whole Bible. If the living God feels free to speak in poetic form, why shouldn't we? Chemists know how to speak in formulas, equations, objective analysis―why not in poetry?
To be literate, in the broadest sense, is to be educated. Literally, the word "literate" refers to an ability to read and write. When scientists complain that most of the general population is "scientifically illiterate," we mean that they couldn't read a scientific report and discuss it. Over fifty years ago, that situation was brought to public attention in a lecture by C. P. Snow, published as The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1959). In this famous paragraph he chided the British elite for not caring enough about science:
As with the tone-deaf, they don't know what they miss. They give a pitying chuckle at the news of scientists who have never read a major work of English literature. They dismiss them as ignorant specialists. Yet their own ignorance and their own specialisation is just as startling. A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's? (pp. 15-16).
Snow was not your run-of-the-lab scientist, although he earned a Ph.D. in physics from Cambridge in 1930 and spent ten years in research on molecular structure before becoming a civil servant. During WWII he was in charge of recruiting scientists for the British war effort. But he also wrote a series of successful novels about academic life in England, bridging the scientific and literary cultures himself.
Two years before C. P. Snow delivered that Rede Lecture, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made earth satellite. That feat forced the West to play technological catch-up in a cold-war space race, initiating a kind of "golden age" for scientists in the U.S. But as research surged ahead, the American public's knowledge of science lagged far behind. Citizens in a democracy must vote on policies requiring some technical understanding, including policies affecting the funding of research. Aware of its precarious situation, the scientific establishment has been trying to educate the general public ever since: "Give everybody some experience with real science and many of them will begin to think the way scientists think." The problem with that idea is that real laboratory courses are expensive to teach, and what many students in the humanities remember about, say, a chemistry lab is that "it was awfully smelly." Hence, proposals for dumbed-down, non-laboratory courses like "Chemistry for Poets."
Scientists might make a better case for science literacy if we weren't such "literary illiterates." We're all familiar with what is called the scientific literature, but it has about the same relation to literature as rap has to music: at best a highly specialized fragment of the whole, at worst a different thing altogether. A few scientists have written well enough about science to make a name for themselves (and for science) among the general public. My A-list would include biologist Rachel Carson, geographer Jared Diamond, anthropologist Loren Eiseley, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, molecular biologist James Watson, and a number of others. A few scientists have written widely about other things or even written fiction, like biochemist Isaac Asimov and chemist Carl Djerassi. And, of course, biologist Charles Darwin wrote "a classic."
One literary genre, science fiction ("sci-fi"), seems to have stimulated a good many scientific careers. Great, but it should be possible for scientists to broaden our horizons beyond reading technical papers and weird tales of space travel. Would literature courses for scientists be an effective way of doing that? I'm still not sure. Just as looking at science from the outside doesn't present a true picture, I doubt that dabbling in literature from an external, analytical, spectator stance would get us very far. What we would need is the equivalent of a "literary laboratory"―that is, some hands-on experience to help us think like the writers of real literature.
Poetry would certainly be a good place to begin, even though many people feel that poetry is written to be deliberately obscure. I've heard that when the Cambridge mathematical physicist Paul Dirac learned that J. Robert Oppenheimer of the Manhattan Project wrote poetry, Dirac said, "The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way. The two are incompatible." A gross exaggeration, from my point of view, even if Dirac was a genius.
A special section of Science for 13 August 2010 argued that teaching science and literature in the same classrooms, wherever possible, would benefit both kinds of education. Contributing to that issue was an environmental toxicologist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Arthur Stewart. He emphasized that ambiguous words, phrases, and figures of speech enrich our communication in science as well as in poetry. Stewart has had four books of his own poems published, the first in 2003. He published his fourth collection, The Ghost in the Word, in 2013. Could more of us do that? Maybe my personal experience as a working scientist and amateur poet could encourage others to experiment with literature―by taking a stab at, say, writing poetry. Of course, producing a few good poems won't mean that we should quit our day jobs.
Scientists have a problem here. We spend much of our lives in a largely "objective" mode, keeping ourselves aloof from feelings and out of the data as much as possible. We don't want to be stirred. We don't trust our emotions. Carry that too far and we turn ourselves into soulless machines.
Starting from Scratch
As a freshman chemistry major I took chemistry, physics, biology, calculus, German, and English. That meant five afternoon labs a week (two in chemistry, two in biology, one in physics), leaving little time to read Shakespeare even if I had had the inclination. With other classmates in science and engineering, I took the standard freshman English course along with a lot of bright English majors. That was my only English course in four years of college. What I remember is that it made me feel ignorant and stupid. That was partly because the professor continuously expressed disdain for technical professions, but mostly because I really was ignorant. I can't blame my high school teachers for that. My mind had been on other things. I couldn't see the point of literature that seemed so unrelated to my interests.
Indeed, the literature we dissected in that freshman English class was of less interest to me than the frog I was dissecting in biology lab. The prof seemed to take delight in badgering science majors, calling on us by name to confirm his poor opinion of us. Once, after assigning John Keats's poem "Ode to a Nightingale," he focused on the line, "Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards." One after another he forced the science majors to confess that they didn't know what "pards" meant. When he got to me, I recall saying (in the Texas drawl I still had), "Aw, that's easy. It means his companions—you know, his pardners." Bad guess (it's "leopards"). Only once did I score a point. In class one day I argued that science is more valuable than literature because science is based on fact. "Aha!" (the leopard pounced): "Surely you know, Mr. Hearn, that there is a difference between fact and truth." Somehow I found nerve enough to reply, "Well, I may be confused, sir. For instance, was what you just said the truth, or was it a fact?" For once it was the professor who felt rescued when the bell rang.
Actually I had an earlier exposure to poetry in a form I didn't even recognize as poetry. It was a tradition in my Boy Scout troop for young assistant scoutmasters to recite long narrative poems around our campfires, strong stuff like Percy French's Abdul Abulbul Amir, Rudyard Kipling's Gunga Din, and especially the adventurous tales of Robert W. Service, like The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee. As a kid I loved the sound of those rhythmic yarns spun out in the semi-darkness on camping trips. My favorite was a long narrative about trudging through Yukon ice and snow, The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill. After all these years, I can still recite the way it begins:
I took a contract to bury the body of "Blasphemous Bill" McKye,
Wherever, whenever, or whatsoever the manner of death he die . . .
There's a huge difference between hearing a poem recited and seeing the words printed on a page. In grad school I did some focused listening. From the university library I checked out recordings of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas and played them over and over again, memorizing the lyrics of a number of the funny "patter" songs. I can still come up with memorable lines from The Sorcerer:
Oh! my name is John Wellington Wells,
I'm a dealer in magic and spells,
In blessings and curses
And ever-filled purses,
In prophecies, witches, and knells . . .
Enjoying such clever word-play, it finally dawned on me that all those hymns I had sung (off-key) growing up in church, were actually poems―or at least verses. I tried writing a few verses myself, including a ballad to a folk tune then being sung by The Weavers, On Top of Old Smoky. My version began, "On top of old East Chem, there's a light burning bright: / The graduate students are working tonight."
The ballad told of my major professor dropping in for what was known in our lab as a "midnight research conference." On this occasion he offered suggestions for characterizing what seemed to be a new amino acid that I had just obtained by hydrolyzing the antibiotic streptothricin:
"Well, first I would benzoylate, then if I were you,
Get a neutral equivalent is the next thing to do."
And as he was leaving, he turned to retort,
"Have it all done by morning for the Progress Report."
In 1955 I began teaching at Iowa State College. I was assigned a biochemistry course that was a prerequisite for a nutrition course taken by all students in home economics. Most of them couldn't see the point of learning "all that chemical stuff," so I kept trying new ways to catch their interest. One year I wrote a parody of songs from Annie Get Your Gun and handed out copies of the libretto. The plot featured a coed named Fannie who had no fun, not seeing the point of it all ("You Can't Get a Man with Your Brain") until she got a crush on her lab instructor. He tried to inspire her, singing:
The girl that I marry will have to be
Loaded with glucose and ATP;
The girl I call my own
Will have adrenocorticotrophic hormone . . .
Everything ended happily, including that term's class. Another term I went high-class, with a "Metabolic Opera" condensation, Carbon, based on music by Georges Bizet. In a big reduction scene, the sexy heroine tossed valence electrons to Don CoA (coenzyme A), with glycolysis and the Krebs cycle playing out to various arias like Seguidilla, all sung by Eugene "Gino" Lazzari, a grad student of mine with an operatic range. He was at his thundering best as "Oxy-geno" in the "Toreador's Song," explaining that "Oxygen is the stuff that makes life go, / For every H, you know, / Must go to H2O." He sang that the chain of hydrogen-transfer reactions "Builds ATP, / Aerobically." And toward the end:
What comes next?
You should have read the text,
For men have written tomes
About the cytochromes . . .
My opera had a short run (the day before the final in my 8:00 AM class) but was a critical success. Thunderous applause brought people from all over the Chemistry building to see what was up.
From Parody to Poetry
In 1960, Iowa State became a university, with a new Department of Biochemistry & Biophysics. I was one of the founding members, transferring from Chemistry. For our first departmental party I wrote another libretto, The Launching of the B&B, to music from HMS Pinafore. Faculty colleagues in the chorus complained that only a tone-deaf person would have chosen the most difficult music from Gilbert & Sullivan's original.
I left ISU in 1972, moving that year to Berkeley. In 1985 I was invited back to Ames for the B&B Department's 25th anniversary, to give a talk on its beginnings. I was pleased that a repeat performance of my old Launching of the B&B was part of the celebration. In 2010 I was again invited back, this time to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of what has now become the Dept. of Biochemistry, Biophysics, and Molecular Biology. A "near-death experience" (from ventricular fibrillation) forced me to cancel the trip but I sent a copy of my remarks to be read by someone else on the occasion. I included a celebratory sonnet, which gave some indication that I had composed it while still in the hospital:
A TOAST TO THE DEPARTMENT, AT FIFTY
A wonder, is what it is, that ISU
Should boast this scholarly community
Called "BBMB," where more than just a few
Molecular explorers (of various degree)
Employ vibrational waves of varying length
To penetrate parameters unknown:
Perhaps an enzyme-substrate bonding strength
Or nucleotide components of a clone
(World-class research, I'd say, "state of the art"),
Probing more deeply than a surgeon's knife
The inner core (in metaphor, the "heart")
Of robust fragility, which we call "life."
So here's a toast: May your "vibes" increase;
May every member's wonder never cease.
My efforts to write serious poems, sometimes with a touch of whimsy, go back to 1963. The turning point for me was hearing a real poet, Prof. Richard Gustafson of the English Department, read some of his works in progress at a monthly "coffee house" that had just been organized by students. I was the only other faculty member there, so carried away by the experience that I rashly volunteered to read my own poems the following month. Then I had to write feverishly to add to my only two attempts up to that time! "Gus" attended my reading and was surely less impressed by my poems than by the fact that a practicing biochemist had made the effort. Anyway, he invited me to submit something for Poet & Critic, a moribund little magazine he was nurturing back to life. I submitted a sonnet with an explicitly biblical theme. When it took the prize ($30) for the best poem in that issue, I was hooked.
If I had known anything about poetry, I might have realized that sonnets were out of style. I tried writing free verse, with rhythm but no rhyme or set pattern, but found that it kept getting out of control and going on and on. In contrast, sonnets were both patterned and short; when I finished line 14, I knew I was done. Somehow that format must have been lurking in my brain since high-school English.
When Ginny and I moved to Berkeley in 1972, she soon became copy editor for Radix magazine (and still is). Most magazines, maybe Christian ones especially, are deluged with poetry submissions "not quite ready for prime time." One day I saw editor-in-chief Sharon Gallagher toss a stack of them into her wastebasket without responding to the senders. I said, "Hey, you can't do that! Even an absolutely unpublishable poem may be somebody's dearest and best." Seeing that I was serious, she fished out the doomed poems and handed them to me. "Here," she said, "You take care of these." That's how I became the "Poetry Rejection Editor" of the magazine. Some poets regarded my tongue-in-cheek title as a slap in the face, but over the years they began to appreciate my efforts to encourage each one of them and offer a few suggestions. Usually my amateur critique of an amateur poem would go something like this: "Now, that's a good line (or phrase or word or metaphor); let's have more of that." Once in awhile, finding almost nothing of redeeming social value to praise, I had to fall back on, "Well, you've got the length about right." Eventually Sharon persuaded the widely published Christian poet Luci Shaw to be a real Poetry Editor for the magazine.
In a special 1980 poetry issue, Radix let me introduce about a dozen promising poets whose work I had found in the stacks of mail I sifted through. Only three or four of those talented young people had ever had a poem published before. Besides introducing them and their work in that issue, I contributed a "how-to" article that was like an essay on "the science of doing poetry," despite the fact that making a poem is an act of creation. Any creative activity, including scientific research, is governed by principles but not by rules to be followed exactly. If we had exact instructions to follow, we would be copying, not creating. That's also why we can speak of "the art of doing science."
A Laboratory Manual
My how-to article listed four qualities that help distinguish a poem from something else, or a good poem from a bad one. The best poems combine: 1) a definite rhythm; 2) evocative language rich in imagery; 3) unity of focus on a single idea or theme; and 4) compactness or "tightness" in which every word must bear its freight. Still, the most important criterion is that a poem has to "sound just right" and make sense when spoken aloud. Hearing seems to be the most basic avenue of human communication, because that's the way human infants develop language. We receive intelligence of the outside world through our ears long before we learn to read. Even after years of developing our visual sense, hearing poetry spoken aloud is more likely to stir us than anything we see or read―certainly more than most research papers in scientific journals.
Scientists have a problem here. We spend much of our lives in a largely "objective" mode, keeping ourselves aloof from feelings and out of the data as much as possible. We don't want to be stirred. We don't trust our emotions. Carry that too far and we turn ourselves into soulless machines. No wonder so many scientific societies today try to give science a human face. Christians trained in science have an advantage: we recognize our own humanity; we know that life is more than science. Yet to know a lot about the vast literature in our own language is not enough to humanize us; we must "feel it in our bones." Listening to live poetry readings is a help in that direction. I think that reading aloud our own poems, no matter how amateurish, takes us even further.
We get the word poem from the Greek ποεμα (literally, "something made"), the word the apostle Paul used in Ephesians 2:10 to describe Jesus' followers as God's "handiwork" (KJV). Making a poem takes a lot of work. Yet no matter how much effort poets expend in crafting their poems into final form, most of them speak of each poem as a gift. Such language resonates with Christians, who regard all things as gifts from God. It ought to resonate with scientists, too, since the word data comes directly from the Latin word for "given." Many great scientists have recognized that their best insights came to them from outside themselves. If we are sufficiently humble and open, poems may come to us.
A poem can begin from a striking metaphor, a bit of word-play, the kernel of a fresh concept or a new twist on an old one, or just a memorable cadence. Think of that gift as a seed to be planted and nourished to fruition. Don't abandon it; build on it. Like an airplane, a poem won't get off the ground unless the pilot goes through a sort of check-off list: Is the idea something I want to pursue? Are my words adequate to sustain the idea? Is the language rich enough to engage a listener's ear? Have I wandered away from that seed concept? Can I tighten the final product by getting rid of excess words or substituting a stronger word for a weaker one? Have I adhered to a rhythmic pattern, or perhaps intentionally deviated from it to keep it from being too predictable? Does the whole poem sound just right to me and to others? Is it time to quit?
We don't need to learn literary terms like "iambic pentameter" (which happens to be a sonnet's rhythmic pattern). All rhythms are made up of accented and unaccented syllables. Iambic meter sounds like the letter a in Morse code (dit-DAH), but there are other patterns whose names I forget, like n (DAH-dit) or u (dit-dit-DAH). In free verse, almost anything goes that sounds right, but even more rigid classical forms allow some wiggle-room. Poems can have two, three, four, or more beats per line. The pentameter of a sonnet requires five beats (DAHs) to each line, but I can get by with straying from the dit-DAH pattern with a few extra dits―if I don't overdo it. The accents should fall primarily on strong verbs or nouns rather than on weaker conjunctions or adjectives. As for rhymes, different schemes are possible, even for a sonnet. Rhythm and (often) rhyme are what make poetic lines memorable. The simplest sing-songy nursery rhymes stick in our minds throughout our lives.
Find a poem you like about something you care about and read it aloud over and over again until you get the "ring" of it. Or listen to a favorite hymn and use its pattern to write a stanza of your own. What's important is not to analyze a poem technically, but to roll up your sleeves and "get your hands dirty." You may not want to spread your first effort around, at least until you've tried reading it aloud to one or two trusted friends. Even better, get a friend to read your poem back to you. That's like sending a research paper to a peer-reviewed journal, hoping for a positive reaction to your work. You can see if your auditor/editor stumbles over any of your lines, and you may even get some helpful suggestions.
To begin, all we need is a single seed idea. Let's say that it comes to us as a rhythmic line. Now we need another line to amplify, illustrate, contrast, or play on that first one. Then we keep going. If the lines have a rhythm but don't fall into a regular pattern, call it free verse and keep going until it sounds finished, complete. It's good to put an unfinished poem away for awhile and come back to it fresh. Sometimes a poem will "come alive" and go where it wants to go, with us just tagging along. Your seed idea may not even make it into the final version. That's O.K. It will have served its purpose.
Trying to write a poem is an exercise in choosing just the right words from all possible words and arranging them in the most communicative way. Even if we find that we ourselves don't do it very well, the effort can give us an immense appreciation of what good writers do. That appreciation can lead us into reading great literature and perhaps eventually loving it. It can be the beginning of the liberal arts education we didn't have time for in college.
Would a course like "Literature for Scientists" be a good idea? Well, maybe. Scientists might learn a lot from such an experience—provided it's a hands-on, laboratory course.