March 3, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Freya Masters entrances us with the link between science and poetry, including a personal poem of her own

Freya Masters
21st October 2021

Melancholy. Joy. Puzzlement.

Poems stir within us a myriad of emotions. A quiet need to sit and contemplate. An urge to delve deeper into the meaning woven between words. We may feel inspired, saddened…maddened.

Through poems, we are offered a window, an insight into the writer’s mind. Through poems, we may learn to look at the world a little differently. We may discover something we didn’t know before.

Just as we discover something in poetry, science is all about discovery.

With scientific progress comes an exciting feeling that we are unravelling the very secrets of the universe. However, in doing so, are we taking from the intrigue, the unknown wonders of nature?

Indeed, D.H. Lawrence believed that the way we do science, the scientific method (a process of reason and logic, steadily working towards the truth), took away from our ‘appreciation of art in nature.’

Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘A Light exists in Spring,’ evokes her perception of the discrepancy between what science can explain and experiences intrinsic to human nature, distanced from the scientific –

‘A colour stands abroad
On solitary fields
That science cannot overtake
But human nature feels.’

In his narrative poem ‘Lamia,’ Keats lamented his criticisms that natural philosophy (a pre-19th century term for natural science), will ‘conquer all mysteries by rule and line…. unweave a rainbow.’ This line is in reference to Newton resolving the colours of the rainbow; we see a sense here that, in conducting science, we take from the mystery of the natural world. Edgar Allen Poe echoed this belief in his sonnet ‘To Science,’ in which he portrayed science as a destroyer of the natural world’s beauty. Years later, Richard Dawkins’ book ‘Unweaving the Rainbow,’ challenged this view with the idea that science reveals, not destroys such beauty.

Has the intersect between science and poetry always been purely for lamentation? Certainly not! There are numerous examples of scientist-poets using poetry to record, explore or celebrate scientific phenomenon – to express their emotions about a particularly pivotal or tumultuous moment in their research.

The mathematician and writer Ada Lovelace merged poetry and science to ask questions fundamental to her research. Ada believed that the effective application of maths and science concepts relied on the intuition and imagination of what she termed her ‘poetical science.’ Humphry Davy detailed his euphoric experience of nitrous oxide in the poem ‘On Breathing the Nitrous Oxide’– ‘yet are my eyes with sparkling lustre filled.’

Science poetry can be a way to thrill, to engage, to inspire. After all, not only scientists write science poems! A non-scientist may write a science poem to express their opinion on a scientific matter. With so much scientific research occurring behind closed doors, science poetry is a way to bring science and its societal implications into public focus, encouraging engagement all round.

Below is a poem I wrote on the mutations which can occur in our DNA, and which may result in genetic diseases. In this poem I am alluding to the fact that, whilst we may know the molecular basis of how such mutations and subsequent genetic diseases occur, we may never fully understand the intricacies of our genetics – but we can certainly strive to try. This reflects the grander scale of mystery presented by science and the universe. I feel that, through creative poetry, we can attempt to capture this mystery and share it for someone else to discover, just as discoveries are made in science. Attempt being the key word.

After all, isn’t there a beauty in not knowing everything?

The Mystery of Mutation

A fault in DNA which you cannot see
Bases not quite sown at the seams
Thread by thread coming free
We know not why, it’s a mystery
An imperfection in the genetic code
A loss of information, precious and bestowed
Thread by thread coming free
We know not why, it’s a mystery
On the ladder of DNA, a misplaced stair
Bases a little torn here, a little frayed there
Thread by thread coming free
We know not why, it’s a mystery
Deletion, mismatch, substitution
A myriad of molecular chaos and confusion
Thread by thread coming free
We know not why, it’s a mystery

By Freya Masters

Have you ever tried your hand at science poetry? Has science sparked your curiosity? Troubled you? Inspired you? We would love to feature your poems on any aspect of science on the I, Science website. Send them into:

Freya Masters is the Online Features Editor for I,Science and is studying an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London