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‘A curious, messy business, fraught with failure’: Poetry and Science

Our lives are threaded through with science  – from the way our cars convert petrol into energy to how food changes form when cooked at different temperatures (runny or hard-boiled eggs, anyone?). I mean, isn’t the Great British Bake Off really a science show involving a lot of cake?

Scientists often use languages and vocabularies that only very small groups of people understand – sometimes those in the same specialism aren’t even completely familiar with each others’ terminologies. It can appear that science wants to keep the rest of us at arm’s length.  On my upcoming online course, Test Patterns: Poetry and Science, we are going to get closer.

The doing of science is often seen from the outside as something very serious, deeply rational and logical, and working in a lab – which is just ‘going to the office’ for thousands of people worldwide. Science seems mysterious and magical to non-scientists (and many scientists!), but from spending a year as writer-in-residence in a biochemistry lab, I saw firsthand that doing research is a curious, messy business, fraught with failure – and creativity. How do you come up with ideas for the questions you want to ask – and then design experiments that might find a way to confirm or shoot down your theory? What bits of equipment might you need? Who do you work with, how and where? Will you need warehouse risk assessment support?

There is a long tradition of poetry about and inspired by science – and of scientists writing poetry. Examples include ‘Slide Rule’ by Heidi Williamson, former writer-in-residence at the Science Museum, whose opening lines beautifully combine  the cosmological with the personal:

The universe is running away with itself

like a child on a red bike on Christmas Day.


Somewhere the wrapping is still being opened.

The present gives itself again and again.


And the child hurtles at perfect speed

across town towards nothing. 
Her parents are already


looking at the clock, saying

how late it is getting, how the darkness


comes so much sooner.

And 19th century physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who formulated the theory of electromagnetism, wrote poems about, among other things, molecules:

At quite uncertain times and places,

The atoms left their heavenly path,

And by fortuitous embraces,

Engendered all that being hath.

And though they seem to cling together,

And form “associations” here,

Yet, soon or late, they burst their tether,

And through the depths of space career.


So we who sat, oppressed with science,

As British asses, wise and grave,

Are now transformed to wild Red Lions,

As round our prey we ramp and rave.

Thus, by a swift metamorphosis,

Wisdom turns wit, and science joke,

Nonsense is incense to our noses,

For when Red Lions speak, they smoke.


Hail, Nonsense! dry nurse of Red Lions,

From thee the wise their wisdom learn,

From thee they cull those truths of science,

Which into thee again they turn.

What combinations of ideas,

Nonsense alone can wisely form!

What sage has half the power that she has,

To take the towers of Truth by storm?


Yield, then, ye rules of rigid reason!

Dissolve, thou too, too solid sense!

Melt into nonsense for a season,

Then in some nobler form condense.

Soon, all too soon, the chilly morning,

This flow of soul will crystallize,

Then those who Nonsense now are scorning,

May learn, too late, where wisdom lies.

Williamson and Clerk Maxwell did it their way – we are going to do it our way. On my course, we’re going to stand on the shoulders of giants, a phrase often used in the world of science to explain how great innovators build on – or radically veer off, like Einstein –  the work of those who have come before. We will play with science in a way you probably weren’t allowed to do at school, firstly dreaming up our own Fantasy Laboratory, where each of us will research whatever we’d like in whatever way we want. We will take inspiration from scientists directly through interviews such as Jim al Khalili’s The Life Scientifique on Radio 4; videos of scientists at work on JOVE, the Journal of Visualized Experiments; and wonder-filled TV programmes like the BBC’s Blue Planet. We will steal – as all the best writers do – from the treasure chests of science words, like the glorious ‘lamellipodia’, ‘macrophage’, ‘charmed quark’ and ‘aerodonetics’ – without first needing to study them enough to pass any exams.

Increasing our curiosity about everything and everyone around us sounds suspiciously like the way poets work, too. So let us make like scientists and come together to share our workings. The world of science is our oyster, cauldron, universe, toolbox, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator…

Peer into the world of science and scientists to gather inspiration for new poems on Test Patterns: Poetry and Science, a new online course with Tania Hershman. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.

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