The Poetry and Music of Science
By Tom McLeish OUP, 384pp, £25/$35
This book attracted my eye because I combine my role as a science columnist with writing a fair amount of poetry. At first sight I could not see the connection. But then I made the mistake of allowing myself to think about it. McLeish’s book is a challenging one, and his theme is laid out very thoroughly. Give yourself a couple of quiet days to master it.
No one denies the importance of science. It may bore some of us but it is essential for our progress. It is concerned with cause and effect – it enables us to understand phenomena, and to develop that understanding through further research. We know that our current situation is largely founded on the sciences, and we are confident that our futures will be maintained and, one hopes, improved. It is important but it does not make the heart race.
Poetry is a different case. It has no precise definition, and it can range from Milton’s Paradise Lost, lengthy and written in iambic pentameter, to a verse of just a line or two: “If any question why we died, / Tell them, because our fathers lied” (Kipling). Normally it is “framed”. We recognise it first through metre and rhyme: for example, the pattern of a Shakespearean sonnet (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”) or the villanelle (“Do not go gentle into that good night”, by Dylan Thomas).
But pre-eminently poetry invites an emotional response and for that purpose a strong factor is metaphor. An uncomplicated example is Wilfred Owen’s “Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle”. Rifles do not stutter nor do they rattle, but we are left with an emotional understanding which a prosaic description could never match.
So poetry is concerned with the truth of feeling. And the frequent first inspiration for the poet is the recognition of a feeling or of a particular understanding. His or her initial task is to explore this truth through the writing of the poem, which is complemented by the reader’s reaction – it is the sharing of emotional truth which defines the complete poem.
Initially, science appears quite different. Not only do we have factual answers which are presented as a truth but they are accompanied by data and by calculations of the level of significance involved. And, even then, Karl Popper maintained that a statement could only be scientific if it was, at least in principle, falsifiable. Science, like evolution, must always be open to a given explanation being replaced by a better one. But what we don’t often see is the process that precedes this.
McLeish reminds us of Einstein’s statement, “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
The history of Einstein’s major work covered several years, taking us from special relativity to general relativity. The process of establishing the rules of this complex area necessarily requires an educated imagination to speculate on the possibilities, then following up by detailed investigation – resulting, often as not, in an equation. The reality of Einstein’s creative speculation had to await physical confirmation through the solar eclipse of 1919.
So I go, as so often one needs to, to the ancients. Plato (thus, in effect, Socrates) took a dim view of the passions. I think here particularly of Gorgias. He sees great danger in the capacity that emotion has to distort our reason. It must be avoided. Aristotle, his former student, disagrees. In his Poetics he accepts that human beings are influenced by both.
So, through our experiences, we need to be familiar with our passions and learn to use them appropriately. I am with Aristotle here.
McLeish, elsewhere, tells us about the research he undertook among scientists in different fields, looking not so much at the details of their results as the pathways through which they arrived there.
And of course his reading was broad from, for instance, Poincaré to Picasso. He speaks about our capacity to use three modes of imagination: the visual, the textual and the abstract.
The insight we try to reify may relate to the visual arts, or words, or to mathematics and music. Schrödinger’s cat – a concept of quantum mechanics – which may be alive and dead at the same time, springs to mind. McLeish argues that the common distinction we make between the humanities and the sciences is an artificial one dating from the late 19th century. And he concludes: “Perhaps the best way to address this is simply to ignore it, and start talking to one another more.”
Quentin de la Bédoyère is the Catholic Herald’s science columnist