I listened to a very interesting programme on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday evening, part of which was a documentary about science and poetry presented by Gregory Tate. Given that both these subjects feature heavily on this blog I couldn’t resist a quick post about it.
The feature explored why so many scientists have been inspired to write poetry, and the nature of the relationship between their artistic work and their science.
Among the famous scientists included in the programme was chemist and inventor Humphry Davy who, inspired by his friendship with the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, wrote poems throughout his life. Others to do likewise were: physician Eramus Darwin; mathematician William Rowan Hamilton; astronomer William Herschel (who was also a noted musician and composer); J. Robert Oppenheimer; and Erwin Schrödinger.
Doing a quick google about after the programme I came across this example by Hamilton, which I searched for because he is the scientist from the list above with whose mathematical work I am most familiar because of its huge influence on physics, and because he seems to have been a very colourful character as well as a superb mathematician. Interestingly, he too was a very close friend of Wordsworth, to whom he often sent poems with requests for comments and feedback. In the subsequent correspondence, Wordsworth was usually not very complimentary even to the extent of telling Hamilton to stick to his day job (or words to that effect). What I didn’t know was that Hamilton regarded himself as a poet first and a mathematician second. That just goes to show you shouldn’t necessarily trust a man’s judgement when he applies it to himself.
Here’s an example of Hamilton’s verse – a poem written to honour Joseph Fourier:
If that’s one of his better poems, then I think Wordsworth may have had a point!
The serious thing that struck me about this programme though was how many scientists of the 19th Century, Hamilton included, saw their scientific interrogation of Nature as a manifestation of the human condition just as the romantic poets saw their artistic contemplation. It is often argued that romanticism is responsible for the rise of antiscience. I’m not really qualified to comment on that but I don’t see any conflict at all between science and romanticism. I certainly don’t see Wordsworth’s poetry as antiscientific. I just find it inspirational:
I HAVE seen
A curious child, who dwelt upon a tract
Of inland ground, applying to his ear
The convolutions of a smooth-lipped shell;
To which, in silence hushed, his very soul
Listened intensely; and his countenance soon
Brightened with joy; for from within were heard
Murmurings, whereby the monitor expressed
Mysterious union with its native sea.
Even such a shell the universe itself
Is to the ear of Faith; and there are times,
I doubt not, when to you it doth impart
Authentic tidings of invisible things;
Of ebb and flow, and ever-during power;
And central peace, subsisting at the heart
Of endless agitation.