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The poetry of science

There is a misconception that religion and science are in conflict with one another, that a reasonable person must choose sides. It’s not true. There is, however, a conflict between religious bigotry and scientific pedantry. This is a conflict between two human failings, and should not deter anyone from seeing the poetry and the prayers that many scientists express in their writings.

1a seahorse1b A deep sea crab with fur (Michel Segonzac)There are more species in the ocean than there are humans alive on the planet, and they breed in millions. A seahorse, and a volcano dwelling furred crab, are just two examples

The sea

Here are some examples. The first is from a book called Under the Sea Wind, by Rachel Carson, written in 1941. Carson is best known for her 1962 book Silent Spring, which may have saved the world from ingesting the poison DDT with their food. She is one of the world’s great writers, easily excelling Thoreau and Emerson, and will never be recognised as such because she wrote as a marine biologist. I know and love her trilogy of books on the sea.

Carson is very much aware of the extent of the aeons of geologic formation and biologic evolution she studies, from 2,000 million years ago to the present. She has a poet’s awareness of the origins of the sea, and its depths, a space we never think of. She is in awe of the millions upon millions of life forms whose fragments she has studied, and can see the history of life in a cosmic setting. Her vision is awe inspiring. The following passage is chosen at random, for all of her work on the sea is inspiring.

“Below them lay the abyss, the primeval bed of the sea, the deepest of all the Atlantic. The abyss is a place where change comes slowly, where the passing of the years has no meaning, nor the swift succession of the seasons. The sun has no power in those depths, and so the blackness is a blackness without end, or beginning, or degree. The wind is unknown there. No pull of moon and sun can move that weight of inert water to surge and lapse in the rhythm of the tides. No beating of the tropical sun on the surface miles above can lessen the bleak iciness of those abyssal waters that varies little through summer or winter, through the years that melt into centuries, and the centuries into ages of geologic time.

“Down beneath mile after mile of water – more than four miles in all – lay the sea bottom, covered with a soft, deep ooze that had been accumulating there through eons upon eons of time. These greatest depths of the Atlantic are carpeted with red clay, a pumice-like deposit hurled out of the earth from time to time by submarine volcanoes. Mingled with the pumice are spherules of iron and nickel that had their origin on some far off sun and once rushed millions of miles through interstellar space, to perish in the earth’s atmosphere and find their grave in the deep sea. Far up on the sides of the great bowl of the Atlantic the bottom oozes are thick with the skeleton remains of minute sea creatures of the surface waters – the shells of starry Foraminifera and the limey remains of algae and corals, the flint like skeletons of Radiolaria and the frustules of diatoms. But long before such delicate structures reach the deepest bed of the abyss, they are dissolved and made one with the sea. Almost the only remains that have not passed into solution before they reach these cold and silent deeps are the ear bones of whales and the teeth of sharks. Here in the red clay, in the darkness and stillness, lies all that remains of ancient races of sharks that lived, perhaps, before there were whales in the sea; before the giant ferns flourished on the earth or ever the coal measures were laid down. All of the living flesh of these sharks was returned to the sea millions of years before, to be used over and over again in the fashioning of other creatures, but here and there a tooth still lies in the red clay ooze, coated with a deposit of iron from a distant sun”. (Under the Sea Wind, 1941, quoted from The Sea, Rachel Carson, an omnibus volume containing The Sea Around Us, Under the Sea Wind and The Edge of the Sea, Paladin/HarperCollins, 1991, p. 358/9).

2a An amphipod from the abyss (National Geographic)2b tropical flying gurnardWhen you go near the sea you disturb thousands of its inhabitants. Each survives in a narrow range of environments, just like us.Here is a deep sea amphipod, and a tropical flying gurnard


This kind of writing  inspires all kinds of ideas in me. The first is about the term “reality”. We think we experience it, and science attempts to measure it: but only part of the world. Not the atmosphere, or the earth’s core, nor, as Carson reminds us, the vast extents of the sea. Now, after quantum physics, we can choose. Reality is just what we observe, limited by our ability to observe; or it is all there is, meaning we can observe only a small part of it. Scientific laws become, in this perspective, a function of the human mind rather than of any reality out there. Something akin to a metaphor. Something akin to the bible, a book of metaphors, as Hebrew is a very poetical language: I think of the “handful of dust “ passage of Genesis. Carson alerted me to the existence of many other realities, those experienced by the myriads of life forms she has studied. And the arrogance of thinking that the species we belong to is the only one that matters (while we work busily to destroy it).

Another idea is about “life”.  Scientists say there have been five billion species of life on earth, all but 10 million of them now extinct. They have been able to study about only one million of these last ten million. Each species is part of an environment which it both exploits and which brings it to birth, and which it fosters, in which it survives. Carson has much to say on what is referred to laconically as the “food chain”, as one species preys on another. Life for most species is a constant search for food, which means survival. In the deep sea there is no light and so no plant life, and other species are the only food source. Carson sees this as a continuing process whereby the materials of one life are transmuted to that of another; starting with stellar explosions which eject elements into space, the combining of these elements to form complex structures on earth, and the minute evolution of them to form mountains, water, beings, and life. Carson has a vivid picture of the first centuries of earth’s history, as the gases cooled about a burning sphere of earth, and the hydrogen and oxygen condensed, causing a centuries long rain storm which first filled the ocean beds.  I thought life seemed a bit like the waves and vibrations we call light, which consist of x rays and radio waves and others still beyond our perception as well as visible light. And life forms symbiotic relationships too, as forms combine to help one another survive. Human beings are an example of this, the combination of five major systems: respiratory, digestive, skeletal, reproductive and nervous systems to make a whole. As well as hosting millions of beneficial microbes, the end result, a human being, a human colony. Does this imply a collective soul?

3a merging galaxies3b star nebula supernovaLife on earth exists in numbers, space exists in distances, we can’t imagine either. Two galaxies collide, as the Milky Way will with Andromeda; and lightyears away a supernova star explodes

The stars

Another book I think of as part of the poetry of science is The Soul of the Night by Chet Raymo (Prentice Hall 1985), which I read and loved more than 10 years ago and have never forgotten. Raymo is a physicist who writes on science. The Soul of the Night is about astronomy. Raymo is also a poet, a lyric poet who writes magnificently in prose about his beliefs. He has evolved a philosophy he calls Religious Naturalism, which I don’t fully understand. But his great prose will probably never be valued because he is categorised as a ‘populariser’ of scientific topics.

Do you believe in the soul? Chet Raymo does, but for him it’s not about personal survival after death. Deep within the universe, as we look around it as best we can, is the soul of its maker. A bit like the philosopher Olaf Stapledon, Raymo seeks The Star Maker, which was a 1937 book of transcendental meditation or a science fiction classic, however you take it. For Raymo, to look without feeling love and awe is a waste of time. His book is very quotable. Here is the way it begins, an unforgettable passage for me.

“Yesterday on Boston Common I saw a young man on a skateboard collide with a child. The skateboarder was racing down the promenade and smashed into the child with full force. I saw this happen from a considerable distance. It happened without a sound. It happened in dead silence. The cry of the terrified chid as she darted to avoid the skateboard and the scream of the child’s mother  at the moment of impact were absorbed by the grey wool of the November day…

“All of this happened in perfect silence. It was as if I were watching the tragedy through a telescope. It was as if the tragedy was happening on another planet. I have seen stars exploding in space, colossal, planet-shattering, distanced by light years, framed in the cold glass of a telescope, utterly silent. It was like that…

“How are we to understand the silence of the universe? ..There are no voices in the burning bush of the Galaxy. The Milky Way flows across the dark shoals of the summer sky without an audible ripple. Stars blow themselves to smithereens, we hear nothing. Millions of solar systems are sucked into black holes at the centres of the galaxies, they fall like feathers. The universe fattens and swells   in a Big Bang, a fireball of Creation exploding from a pinprick of infinite energy, the ultimate firecracker; there is no soundtrack. The membrane is ruptured, a child flies through the air, and the universe is silent…

“Once I saw the Crab Nebula through a powerful telescope. The nebula is the expanding debris of an exploded star, a wreath of shredded star-stuff eight light years wide and 5,000 light years away. What I saw in the telescope was hardly more than a blur of light, more like a smudge of dust on the mirror of the scope than the shards of a dying star…I stood for a quarter of an hour with my eye glued to the eyepiece of the scope. I felt a powerful sensation of energy unleashed, of an old building collapsing on its foundations in a roar of dust…But there was no sound…

This image is an enlargement of a three colour composite of the well-known Crab Nebula  (also known as "Messier 1"), as observed with the FORS2 instrument in imaging mode in the morning of November 10, 1999. It is the remnant of a supernova explosion at a distance of about 6,000 light-years, observed almost 1000 years ago, in the year 1054. It contains a neutron star near its center that spins 30 times per second around its axis. In this picture, the green light is predominantly produced by hydrogen emission from material ejected by the star that exploded. The blue light is predominantly emitted by very high-energy ("relativistic") electrons that spiral in a large-scale magnetic field (so-called synchrotron emission). It is believed that these electrons are continuously accelerated and ejected by the rapidly spinning neutron star at the centre of the nebula and which is the remnant core of the exploded star.

4b emerging solar systemThe Crab Nebula: and the creation of a solar system. Like a giant kaleidoscope the universe is constantly changing its form as its creatures, galaxies, are born, live and die

“The physical silence of the universe is matched by its moral silence. A child flies through the air towards injury and the galaxies continue to whirl on well-oiled axes. But why should I expect anything else?…The number of galaxies may be infinite. Our indignation is finite. Divide any finite number by infinity and you get zero…

“As a student I came across a book by Max Picard called The World of Silence…Silence, says Picard, is the source from which language springs, and to silence language must constantly return to be recreated…It is for this silence that I turn to the stars, to the ponderous, inaudible turning of galaxies, to the clanging of God’s great bell in the vacuum. The silence of the stars is the silence of creation and re-creation. It is the silence of that which cannot be named…and in that deep hid the soul of the night”. (The Soul of the Night, Chet Raymo, Prentice Hall 1985, pp. 3-8).       


Another idea I wonder about is the concept of “beginning”, as in “in the beginning”. How do we explain the so called Big Bang, an explosion, with all matter and energy expanding from an infinitesimal point, if those qualities, and the tools to observe them and evaluate them, did not yet exist? Not that much better than the entity we call god saying “Let there be light”. It’s the problem of first causes. Go back as we may, we always have to ask where first causes came from. Where did god come from? He (!) is infinite. What is infinite? Where does infinity come from? Answers are not likely. I can’t get at the Trinity of three Persons defined by the Council of Nicaea in 325 BC. One nature, three persons? Aren’t these terms we use for people? You mean god is some kind of committee? God sounds a bit like the Council who had the temerity to define it. Why only three persons, why not three million? Athanasius was obviously making it up in reaction to definitions by others he didn’t like. Where does the Big Bang come from? We don’t, and apparently can’t, know. I imagine the Big Bang as coming from a particle like an atom, but one which comprised parts. Perhaps a freak, one of billions but the only one with parts. Like a nucleus and an electron. If there were parts, there must have been movement of the parts to define them. If there was movement, there must have been time so as to measure the movement. Movement can only occur in time. If there was one particle, or atom, there may have been others. They may have been stable, inert, unlike the one that created the Big Bang. Could they have given rise to inert universes, ones without movement, time, matter and energy? What came before these particles? We’re in foreign territory, where nothing makes sense, and the best thing to do is shut up and look, be quiet and listen.

5a flowers5b cat and mouseAbove every other sense, the sense of smell defines the world humans and other mammals live in

The senses

My third choice of poetical writing about science is A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman (Chapman 1990). This book had a most powerful effect on me when I first read it, like a great work of poetical imagination which it was. Ackerman has published many volumes of poetry, but in this book she has turned to science to mix mythology and literature with scientific fact about the senses, expressed in the poetry of her prose. It’s very personal, as poetry should be, but universal, as a work of literature should be.

Taking each of the senses in turn Ackerman explores their evolution and function, giving examples from science, myth, history and literature. The effect on me was to disrupt my normal perspective, and I began to imagine I could see, smell, touch, taste and hear in a way that showed a very different world to the one I took for granted. I learned about other senses I had never imagined. The senses are our gateway to what’s out there, and our idea of the world is an effect of the range, mechanics and intensity of our senses. Our eyes, for instance, show an upside down picture of what’s in our field of vision, which is corrected by the brain. Who would expect everything to be upside down? Perhaps our idea of god is upside down. This is a book hard to excerpt from, as everything it says is fascinating. Here are examples.

“Though most people would swear they couldn’t possibly do such a thing, studies show that both children and adults, just by smelling, are able to determine whether a piece of clothing was worn by a male or a female.

“Our sense of smell can be extraordinarily precise, yet it’s almost impossible to describe how something smells to someone who hasn’t smelt it…Smell is the mute sense, the one without words…We see only when there is light enough, taste only when we put things into our mouths, touch only when we take contact with someone or something, hear only sounds that are loud enough. But we smell always and with every breath”. (A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman, Chapman 1990, p. 6).

“Violets smell like burnt sugar cubes that have been dipped in lemon and velvet, I might offer, doing what we always do: defining one smell by another smell or another sense…But Napoleon and Josephine also adored violets. She often wore a violet scented perfume, which was her trademark…Violets contain ionone, which short circuits our sense of smell. The flower continues to exude its fragrance, but we lose the ability to smell it. Wait a minute or two, and its smell will blare again”. (the same, p. 9).   

6a sunbathers6b sunflowersHumans, like flowers, turn towards the sun. We are happier and more relaxed in the sun (under moderate conditions), so presumably are sunflowers, who follow the sun’s course each day

“Because chocolate is such an emotional food, one we eat when we’re blue, jilted, premenstrual or generally in need of TLC, scientists have been studying its chemistry… [The psychopharmacologists] proposed an explanation for why lovesick people pig out on chocolate…They speculated that the phenomenon might well be related to the brain chemical phenylethylamine (PEA), which makes us feel the roller coaster of passion we associate with falling in love, an amphetamine like rush…So it’s possible that some people eat chocolate because it reproduces the sense of well-being we enjoy when we’re in love…Not everyone agrees with the PEA hypothesis”. (the same, p. 154).     

“For convenience, and perhaps in a kind of mental pout about how thickly demanding just being alive is, we say there are five senses. Yet we know there are more, should we wish to explore and canonise them. People who dowse for water are probably responding to an electromagnetic sense we all share to a greater or lesser degree…We are as phototropic as plants, smitten with the sun’s light, and this should be considered a sense separate from vision…our experience of pain is quite different from the other worlds of touch…The vibratory sense, so highly developed in spiders, fish, bees and other animals, needs to be studied more in human beings…We are constantly aware of a sense of gravity, which counsels us about which way is up…When science, philosophers and other commentators speak about the real world, they’re talking about a myth, a convenient fiction…In an odd way, one-celled animals may have a more realistic sense of the world than higher animals do, because they respond to every stimulus they encounter. We, on the other hand, select only a few. The body edits and prunes experience before sending it to the brain for contemplation or action.This makes our version of the world somewhat simplistic, given how complex the world is. The body’s quest isn’t for truth, it’s for survival”. (the same, pp. 302-304).


“What is truth?” asked Pilate in the Gospel of John. In Kurosawa’s film Rashomon we are presented with five versions of an event and invited to reflect on what truth really is. But if Ackerman is right, and we have only a selection of sensory data to guide us in surviving, then each of us may have a unique perception: we don’t need to choose one as the accurate one. No more “I am right, you are wrong” confrontations. Instead we have a task of understanding others and interpreting their vision with respect.  Each of us has the same wonderful mechanisms of senses as the other, and each of us has accumulated a store of wisdom from the experience of living. If these are acknowledged, we are more likely to admit it when we are wrong in our conclusions.

7a pit viper7b Bees' vision of a buttercupThe pit viper can pick up infrared through sensors near his eyes and catches even camouflaged prey by sensing its warmth. A bee can see in the ultraviolet range. Dr Klaus Schmitt at

In the meantime I wonder about the other creatures we share the planet with, and their perception of it. Scientists say most birds and reptiles can see ten times as many colours as humans, some insects and birds 1,000 times as many. What could that be like? Sea mammals on the contrary have monochrome vision (no colours in the depths of the sea). But they have other senses we have no idea of, such as the statocysts of comb jellies, which enables them to sail the currents that criss cross the world’s oceans. Bees see ultraviolet light; pit vipers can see infrared through a separate vision channel near their eyes. Many species, such as dolphins and porpoises, have the sense of echolocation, which enables them to sense the earth’s magnetic field. Some birds fly from Antarctica to the Arctic in their breeding season, negotiating all the world’s winds and finding food somehow on the way. What drives them and guides them on this immense journey? There’s obviously more to know of the world than we can ever know with our limited human senses.

Reminds me of old King David, Psalm 148, which inspired St Francis of Asissi:

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,

especially through my lord Brother Sun,

who brings the day; and You give light through him.


From the distant majesty of a nova to the frightening power of a volcano, the gentle lapping of a tide drawing a mountain back to the sea from the continent it had created grain by grain of stone, the unbelievable gentleness of a curling flower stem turning gracefully to face the sun, the persistence of a female eel struggling up a river course to spawn, writers like the three I have excerpted show their readers the most powerful forces we can know, those of cosmic and geologic progression, and evolution, and show us also the amazing precision and gentleness of which they are capable of if left undisturbed. Perhaps these processes have influenced the writers’ prose, which has rhythms that move me deeply, that ebbs and flows, building a picture of wonder of the world we live in.

©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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This entry was posted on Thursday, 7 January, 2016 by in books and tagged , , , , , , , .
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