Poetry and Science, by Kate Dempsey

launch invite


Poetry and Science seem, on the face of it, to be two very separate disciplines.

The physicist, Paul Dirac, certainly had a low opinion of poetry (and perhaps poets too). He said something like:

“ In science you want to say something that nobody knew before,
in words which everyone can understand.
In poetry you are bound to say something that everybody knows already,
in words that nobody can understand.”

Now, at the risk of dissing a Nobel prize winner, I don’t completely agree. There’s a lot of science that is not explained well, whether because the scientist is too silo-ed to explain clearly or because they want to stay silo-ed. These scientists could use some poetry exposure, choosing the right words in the right order. Also a lot of time and effort in science is spent checking or confirming or refining something that many scientists already believe. Surely that is what many poems do? They explore areas already seen in poetry many times over. How many love poems have been written since the Song of Solomon? But each time, with a different poet and a different love dynamic, it’s possible to come at it fresh and new.

It’s wonderful to read a poem that leaves you thinking, “I never thought about it like that.” And in science, there are so many what ifs. What if we smash this particle with that? What if we mix this compound with that? What if we splice this DNA with that? Where is all the dark matter?

Experiments with structure and with form such as rhyme and rhythm play an important part in poetry, just as experiments do in science.

Even if a poem is not written in a strict form, such as a sestina or sonnet, poetic devices such as internal rhyme and syllabic counting can raise a poem from a chopped up anecdote or thought to a good piece of poetry. And science, physics in particular, is looking for the fundamentals truths about the origins of the universe. Poems, good poems, are also digging for some kind of truth.

Metaphors and similes are a common poetic technique, and metaphors and analogies, “What If” and “Imagine That…” are used all over science too. Einstein’s used thought experiments with people travelling on trains with clocks close to the speed of light to think through the concepts of general relativity.

In my debut collection, I’ve included some science-y poems. I have a physics background and worked for years in tech-y roles so science creeps into some of my poems. The title of my book is “The Space Between,” and the poems explore the space between words, between people but also I was thinking about the space between atoms, between fundamental particles, between stars. I am fascinated science, by beautiful equations and intricate diagrams. Scientists try to condense their thinking into elegant, concise formulae. Poets do the same with words.

I have a series of poems about elements, personifying them as women. I researched some of the uses of the elements, their structure and their history. It was inspired by an exhibition at the Science Gallery a few years ago which had visual art on various elements but no poetry. This one is about mercury. Emperor Qui Shi Huang, who had the Terracotta Army built in China, was said to be buried surrounded by 100 flowing rivers of mercury.

She Is Mercury

The elusive quicksilver
she runs rings around emperors,
breaks promises:
she says she’ll be there about nine
all smoothness and glimmer
shimmering in her unique way
by eleven you’re hot and flustered
calling her mobile
calling hospitals—
this time she’s really gone and done it.

There are some scientist-poets writing today. Iggy McGovern and Noel Duffy in Ireland spring to mind, but there are lots more. Iggy wrote a book of sonnets about another, earlier scientist-poet-mathematician called William Rowan Hamilton who discovered the formula for quaternions and etched it on Broombridge in Cabra in 1843. These are four-dimensional quaternions he described have since enabled developments in telecommunications, computer and movie animation and even space travel. How brilliant is that!

In the UK, there are poets-in-residence who work with scientists in place like the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cambridge, in Hull University, in various hospitals and other medical institutions, the Science Museum as well as in Antarctica. Recently I was the first poet-in-residence at the Dublin Science Hack Day which was a fruitful and inspirational collaboration. I love such cross-discipline events. I’d love to do more.

My collection, “The Space Between” is published by Doire Press on Monday 23rd November 6.30pm at the Irish Writers Centre. All welcome. You can buy a copy online http://www.doirepress.com/writers/f-k/kate_dempsey/ direct from the publisher with free P&P worldwide just in time for Christmas!