Ruth Padel: Both depend on metaphor, which is as crucial to scientific discovery as it is to lyric
Maybe the relationship between poetry and science provokes passion because it is parental. Poetry was the first written way we addressed such questions as what is the world made of, and how did it come to be? In the sixth and fifth centuries BC, the pre-socratics reworked these questions, writing on physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, theology, metaphysics and epistemology; and often in verse. Science was born in poetry. Lucretius's epic on atoms, On the Nature of Things continued this tradition; so did the 18th-century doctor Erasmus Darwin, whose poem "The Temple of Nature" outlined a theory of evolution, following life-forms from micro-organisms to human society. ...
But poetry and science have more in common than revealing secrets. Both depend on metaphor, which is as crucial to scientific discovery as it is to lyric. A new metaphor is a new mapping of the world. Even maths uses metaphor; and this is where more condensed forms of poetry join in. John Donne, living through exciting new scientific discoveries, relished the door-opening powers of science. "A mathematical point is the most indivisible and unique thing which art can present," he said. His lyric uses science as image rather than exposition. But not as mere ornament. The legs of a compass as a metaphor for two lovers, the alembic as the distilling power of love, are not just surface glitter but organic to their poems: they take the thought and feeling forward.
Via The Science & Education team