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Science and Poetry: More Similar Than You Think

Interpreting a poem and interpreting scientific data are both like putting together a puzzle.
Jared Tarbell/Flickr: sky puzzle
CC BY 2.0

Science and poetry aren’t necessarily seen as complementary - and certainly not overlapping - pursuits. But Elisa New, Harvard University professor and host of Poetry in America, has been seeking out scientists to read and talk about poetry. And she says scientists and poets have more in common than is widely recognized.

“The love affair between poetry and science is a really long one,” New said. “I think about those poets of the 19th century whose delight in poetry was often nurtured by their ramblings in their local pastures and in their studies in what they would have called natural history.”

New sees similarities in the attitudes that scientist and poets bring to their work – curiosity, observation, patience.

“They have a kind of attitude that's expressed by the word ‘hmmm,’” New said. “Rather than rushing toward what this all means - what the grand theory is – they have a delight in the small details.”

Problem-solving is another common thread, one that is more commonly associated with science than with poetry. But New says poems are more like equations or encoded messages that represent the writer’s experiences. Figuring out what a poem means can be trickier than simply following a story from beginning, to middle, to end.

“[It] is more like looking at a problem and trying to inspect the pieces before one, figuring out how they fit together,” New said.

Just as scientists must figure out what each piece of data means, and how different interpretations might affect our understanding of a broader subject area, poets and readers must do the same for each word in a poem. And New says that approaching poetry that way could actually make it more accessible.”

“I absolutely think that putting poetry next to other problem-solving activities, like doing a crossword puzzle, allows us to approach it with more pleasure - more ease - than we might if we thought ‘Oh, I just have to read through these lines, start at the beginning, get to the end, and then say what it's about,’” New said.

New says that she has also seen scientists overjoyed to encounter a poem that accurately describes some piece of their scientific knowledge in a form that would never appear in the technical literature.

For those interested in blending science and poetry, New recommends the work of A.R. Ammons, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and – of course – Emily Dickinson.

Elisa New’s interviews with scientists can be found on Nautilus’ Poetry in Science channel.

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.