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At an international colloquium this September, researchers will tell the story of science poetry’s evolution

Anna Lena Phillips

The popularization of science is done most often now through nonfiction. But in the century following the scientific revolution, it was poetry that carried the day. Book-length treatises in verse elaborated discoveries in botany, astronomy and medicine. This may seem counterintuitive to us now; and indeed, some of these works can seem far removed from scientific fact. In 1791, in his verses about plants, Erasmus Darwin imputed emotions and desires to them. It’s perhaps an understatement to say that, however charming, something like this would not fly today.

2010-09SciObsPhillipsFA.jpgClick to Enlarge Image But in the early 1800s, such fancy was not so far-fetched. According to Hugues Marchal, a professor of literature at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, scientific poetry was seen as a way of promoting the science it described. Its writers wanted most of all “to lead people to be interested in what was going on in contemporary sciences.” He points to the remarks of poet-naturalist René-Richard Castel (1758–1832): “A poet must not aim to teach and advance a science as much as to show its advantages and make it loved.” This was not a bad deal for those scientists whose work was enshrined in verse. They often repaid the favor by endorsing writers’ work or providing prose commentaries on it. Poets, in turn, who had been relying on classical literature for their subject matter and sources, received an infusion of new ideas and material—and they went with it.

This mutually beneficial relationship could not last. By 1900, such works had all but disappeared from the literature. Poets still played a part in furthering public understanding of scientific concepts. But the long poem designed to inspire interest in science—to seduce readers, as Marchal says—was gone.

Such poems and the reasons for their disappearance will be the subject of a colloquium this September 15–17 in Montréal, Canada, entitled “The Glory and Fall of Scientific Poetry.” Its organizers, Marchal and Michel Pierssens of l’Université de Montréal, are part of an ongoing project, Euterpe (named for the Greek goddess of lyric poetry and music), designed to map the evolution of scientific poetry in France. They hope that the 40 papers presented will create a collective assessment of the genre across Europe and North America.

The first paper, presented by Muriel Louâpre of l’Universite Paris Descartes, will include Euterpe’s statistical analysis of French scientific poetry between 1792 and 1939. This will for the first time allow for systematic study of how the genre played out over time.

Other papers will cover astronomer Roger Boscovich’s 1779 poem on solar eclipses and its links to Maxwell, Newton and Kelvin, and the impact of Erasmus Darwin’s scientific poetry on the Romantic poets. Present-day examples will be considered as well: Two talks will discuss the work of Raymond Queneau, whose vast sonnet sequence of 1961, Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes (Hundred Thousand Billion Poems), ably employed combinatorics in its form. And astrophysicist Jean-Pierre Luminet will make a case for present-day science poetry. “According to him,” Marchal says, “we could speak of a kind of rebirth of scientific poetry at the end of the twentieth century. He is going to try and convince us.”

Marchal suggests several reasons for the fall of the longer scientific poem: the split that began in the early 1800s between literature and the sciences; the replacement of broad knowledge with specialization; the increasing speed of scientific discovery (which contrasts with the time required to make good poetry); and the rejection in the literary world of didactic poetry that transparently described science.

Barri J. Gold, a professor of English at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania and the author of ThermoPoetics: Energy in Victorian Literature and Science, believes our assumptions about teaching science played a part as well. “I think that we have certain socially engrained beliefs, held by scientists and nonscientists alike, that science can’t be explained in ordinary language to an intelligent nonexpert,” she says. “I don’t agree with that.” But the pervasiveness of this idea might explain why describing science in the language of poetry can seem doubly difficult.

Marchal offers the example of eminent botanist Francis Hallé’s 1999 work Eloge de la Plante (In Praise of Plants). “He always quotes poets like Paul Valery, saying that they provide him with good images of what he wants to convey about our new sense of what a plant is. The poetry is not only adornment for his book; he thinks with it, in a way.”

Gold also concurs with Marchal that the Enlightenment-era divide between the sciences and the humanities played a role—and still does: “Thinking about those two things as separate categories of problems that require separate methods to think about can get us in a lot of trouble.”

Thinking of the two as closely linked, on the other hand, can be fruitful, perhaps essential. “The humanities is good at framing questions,” Gold says. “It lets us think in the space prior to hypotheses. And that may be a really important space for poetry and other genres to engage, from different perspectives, with the stuff of science.”

Although many of the older texts under discussion at the conference will require a trip to the library—and pulling them out of the stacks would be a pleasant way to spend an afternoon—some are available on the Web. Here are a few science poetry works online.

The entire text of Erasmus Darwin's The Botanic Garden is available for online reading and for free download at Project Gutenberg . The introduction is followed by  "The Economy of Vegetation," and then by the more-famous second part, "The Loves of the Plants."

Several sites are devoted to Raymond Queneau's Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes, including this translation, which has a grid to show the combinatorics in action, and this one by Bev Rowe.

For a general overview, try Contemporary Poetry and Contemporary Science , edited by Robert Crawford (Oxford University Press, 2006). The book was reviewed by Katy Price at the British Society for Literature and Science and by Peter Forbes in the Independent.

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