Poetry about Science in the UK

Our world has been transformed by technology so one would expect cars, TVs and test-tube babies to appear in poetry. And as the percentage of scientists in the population grows, the lives and preoccupations of their profession feature more often in poems.

But the world we can't see directly has changed too. Relativity and (even more so) Quantum Physics have shown us that we live in a world beyond what common sense can cope with. And Mathematicians, dealing with topics like (and here I quote at random from the first maths journal at hand) 'Examples of tunnel number one knots which have the property 1+1=3' live in a stranger world still.

One might have thought that adventurous poets would have rushed into these newly opened territories, but it seems to me that poets over the last few centuries have withdrawn from trying to tackle the big questions about the Nature of the Universe. They tend not to deal with the moral complications that new technology engenders, and it's rare to see a Blakean anti-materialist piece attacking scientists. Instead, poets' attempts to write science poems fall into these main categories

These are topics that can easily be tackled by people who know little about science. And yet, more poetry is written by scientists nowadays than in any previous era. So why don't we have more poetry from the frontiers of science? On the international front, the internationally acclaimed Czech poet Miroslav Holub was also a serious immunologist. It is perhaps significant that he had doubts about twinning poetry and science. In "The Dimension of the Present Moment" (Faber and Faber, 1990) he wrote

In New Scientist (24 July 1999) Graham Farmelo (Science Museum, London) wrote "Be sceptical of any science-art initiative and you are liable to find yourself marked down as a narrow-minded reactionary. If a new work of art is based on a theme related to science, most critics will give it an easy ride... It seems that this flavour of political correctness encourages intellectual laziness, allowing shallow and sentimental nonsense about the relationship to pass for serious thought". So perhaps we should be wary of some recent initiatives.

In the UK ex physics/maths professors appear in small magazines, and Mario Petrucci, who's active in many areas of UK poetry, has a physics Ph.D. London's Science Museum sometimes has a poet-in-residence. The best known holder of that post is Lavinia Greenlaw. In 2000, she was awarded a three-year fellowship by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. She said she'd use the £67,000 to "undertake formal study" in science, and journey "to places with extreme perspectives - precarious and changing landscapes, or those which experience the natural phenomena of eclipses and equinoxes". For television, she has written a sequence of poems about the meaning of numbers for an Equinox documentary. Her WWW site is http://www.laviniagreenlaw.co.uk. Also worth a look is LUPAS (Liverpool University Centre for Poetry and Science).

If you want to read science poems, 2 UK anthologies of note are


Updated December 2005
Tim Love

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