March 21, 2018 is World Poetry Day, we’re getting into the spirit with some scientific poetry. Science and poetry overlap more than many diehards in either camp would like to admit. History is filled with poets who dabbled in science, as well as scientists who dabbled in poetry. In honor of World Poetry Day, I’ve pulled out some of my favorites.
James Clerk Maxwell – Physicist
Maxwell is best known for his equations describing electromagnetism, but he was also a prolific poet in his spare time. Some of his poems are humorous, such as “Valentine by a Telegraph Clerk (male) to a Telegraph Clerk (female)” (pictured). Others offer explanations of complex concepts – “A Problem in Dynamics,” for example, walks the reader through an entertaining explanation of a mathematical problem.
Maxwell was passionate about poetry and often complained about those who saw the world purely through the lens of math and physics while ignoring creative arts. He and his contemporary William J.M. Rankine (a theorist working in thermodynamics) published several poems lampooning their peers, such as Maxwell’s “To the Chief Musician Upon Nabla: A Tyndallic Ode” and Rankine’s “The Mathematician in Love.”
J.W.V. Storey – Astronomer
In 1984, Australian astrophysicist J.W.V. Storey was the first scientist to publish an article in a research journal entirely in poetry. His 38-stanza poem, titled “The Detection of Shocked CO Emission from G333.6-0.2,” included handwritten notes and a thorough explanation of methods and results, presented in rhyming common meter. Storey wrote his article as a poem out of spite when he was scheduled as the last speaker at a conference, but the format actually helps break down his complex research into easily understood language. The poem was originally published in the 1984 edition of Proceedings of the Astronomical Society of Australia.
Mary E. Harrington – Biologist
Later in 2001, biologist Mary E. Harrington published the first non-research poem in a scientific journal. Her poem “Feedback” (pictured) expresses her profound fascination with the circadian rhythms of the bioluminescent algae she was studying. The poem was published in the June 2001 edition of Journal of Biological Rhythms, though I noticed she omits it from the CV on her website.
Albert Goldbarth – Poet
First of all, if you haven’t read Albert Goldbarth, go read some Albert Goldbarth. He’s a contemporary poet who’s published over thirty books, and is still writing today. I hadn’t read this specific poem until my friend, a poet who I met in biology class, recommended it to me. “The Sciences Sings a Lullaby” is a beautiful poem that taps several scientific disciplines to piece together a lullaby. I’ve found that it makes me stop and think about how I see the beauty of the world differently because of my own scientific background. At the same time, though, it points out how despite the differences in our perspectives, we’re all united in our fascination with the natural world, and our dedication to always learning more.
Walt Whitman – Poet
While most of Whitman’s work focused on themes such as death and sexuality, he often includes references to his admiration of science and nature. In “Song of Myself,” for example, Whitman writes, “Hurrah for positive science! Long live exact demonstration! (Stanza 23)” and later spends several lines praising chemists, geologists, and many other scientists. In “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” (pictured), however, the narrator doesn’t praise the scientist himself, but instead walks out of a lecture to go gaze up at the stars in wonder.
Be sure to also check out our Facebook and Twitter feeds today for more poetry from several Promega science writers and our favorite cartoonist Ed Himmelblau.
Goldbarth, A. (2007). “The Sciences Sing a Lullaby.” The kitchen sink: New and selected poems, 1972-2007. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press. Retrieved from Poets.Org, March 21, 2018.
Harrington, M. E. (2001). “Feedback.: Journal of Biological Rhythms, 16(3), 277-277. Retrieved from Brain Pickings, March 21, 2018.
Maxwell, J.C. (1860). “Valentine by a Telegraph Clerk (Male) to a Telegraph Clerk (Female).” Retrieved from New Scientist, March 21, 2018.
Whitman, W. (1865). “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” Leaves of Grass. Retrieved from Poetry Foundation, March 21, 2018.