Science and Poetry

In this podcast, I, Rose Drew, Alan Gillott, and Damian O’Connor, bring together the seemingly conflicting topics of Science and Poetry.

Many earth orbits ago, my university writings always looked at Art and Science. One dissertation looked at the scientific knowledge within Margaret Cavendish’s startling science fiction A Blazing New World (1666), showing how Science and Art overlapped in the Seventeenth-Century. My other dissertation, along similar lines, used Foucault’s ideas of thought eras – or episteme – to explore when the ideas of Science and Art became separated in literature. When did we stop thinking about how things are similar and lead back to God, and when did we start to order and categorise?

Okay, I’m obsessed. Bear with me.

Up until end of the Renaissance in the Seventeenth-Century, Art and Science were interlinked. In fact, there was no such word as ‘Science’ there was only Philosophy, History, and the father of Science, Mathematics. There was no such word as ‘Scientist,’ there were Natural Historians, or Natural Philosophers.

Science was all in the mind. Philosophers would take a concept and subject it to Reason, they would ask questions and set it to debate to find a way it could be proven or disproven.

Science was surrounded by the cultural beliefs of the establishments and framed within a godly world. In the Christian world, God made the Earth, with the heavens above and hell below, and the sun and moon travelling around the Earth.

When Reason was the foundation of Science, scientists (though that word didn’t exist, then) regularly wrote fiction to explore ideas, or to explain ideas to the wider public.

Although Galileo recorded astronomical readings, his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632) used two philosopher characters and a layman to discuss and compare the two ideas. Today, we would see this as fusion of Art and Science, but this was a common strategy to assess ideas through Reason. However, because he defied the establishment’s narrative, Galileo was imprisoned in 1642 for his continuing declaration that this is a heliocentric universe where the Earth went around the Sun, and not the Sun around the Earth.

With the advent of the Enlightenment in the Seventeenth-Century, Science and Art were starting to be put into separate categories. Francis Bacon’s text The Method described a new way of understanding the world: through the senses, rather than through the mind. Though, it may surprise many scientists that their fiercely non-sectarian subject is rooted in ideas from an incomplete utopian novel by Sir Francis Bacon called New Atlantis (1627). In this book, the Atlantic scientists analyse the recordings of their scientific experiments, with the blessing of God. This was a new idea and this book was one of the inspirations to form the Royal Society in England in 1660.

In the Seventeenth-Century, The Royal Society started to lay down the rules for what scientific enquiry meant. The philosophy was that God wanted humans to find out about their world, but he wasn’t the centre of their enquiry anymore. The Natural Philosophers performed tests with newly created equipment such as Robert Hooke’s microscope. They tested, recorded, retested, looked for patterns, and categorised

By the Eighteenth-Century, there was an almost complete separation of Science and Art. Francesco Algoratti’s Il Newtonianismo per le Dam (1739), popularised Newton’s theories through the traditional format of dialogue, in this book between a narrator and a Marchioness, while Isaac Newton’s books remained dry and ‘scientific’.

What amazing advances we have seem over the past few centuries, but have we lost something by creating this artificial wall between Science and Art?

Sometimes, Science isn’t particularly ‘black and white’ scientific, either. The rise in quantum mechanics theory shows that particles are influenced by thought and expectation, and it’s difficult to mathematically measure these quantum particles. It’s well known that Science Fiction has influenced Science far and wide from predicting lasers to video chat, to space travel. Would scientists have come so far without human imagination to fuel exploration? And do we need Art, stories, and poetry to try to understand these strange concepts of the scientific world, to explore the ethics and how far people can reach with ideas?

I had so much fun being a part of my favourite podcast (I’m on the radio, Mum!). And now, I hope that you are as obsessed as me about poetry, and Science in poetry!

- Maxine Ridge

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