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Mind and Matter: The Intersection of Poetry and Science

The brain is wider than the sky,

 For, put them side by side,

The one the other will include

  With ease, and you beside

 “CXXVI”by Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson (1830-86). Complete Poems.

             Neuroscientist Gerald Edelman used these lines by poet Emily Dickinson to begin a discussion on consciousness in his book Wider than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness. Edelman won the Nobel Prize in Medicine at the age of 43 for his work on the chemical structure of antibodies. As Edelman writes, his role as a scientist transforms into that of a poet. He strives to see the impact of the world on his spirit while teasing out the relations between the world and the brain. Poetry and science, in truth, are two sides of the same coin. They represent two manifestations of the fundamental urge to understand the natural world.

In my senior year as an undergraduate student at Columbia University, I chose to take the course Grid, Fold, Crystal: Poetic Modeling taught by Professor Michael Golston for two reasons. The first reason was that I had missed taking English courses, something that was not included in my curriculum as an engineering student. The second reason was that the course sounded the most scientific among all the courses offered by the English and Comparative Literature department. In reality, I had no idea what the course title meant but was eager to find out.

As I came to learn, Grid, Fold, Crystal: Poetic Modeling was an exploration of the intersections between poetry and science. Grid is a reference to “Grids” by Professor Rosalind Krauss, which argues that the grid led to the evolution of modern art. This theory is first modeled by artist Piet Mondrian in 1912, when he broke with tradition and began to create compositions using a grid of horizontal and vertical black lines. Krauss dissects the grid into a spatial component and a temporal component in the same way neuroscientists analyze two-photon excitation microscopy data. Spatially, the grid represents the “autonomy of the realm of art” because it is planar and precise.  As outlined by Krauss in “Grids,” the grid is a symbol of modernity and represents the 20th century. Fold is a reference to The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque by Gilles Deleuze, which argues that the fold is a form of connection between two objects. For Deleuze, the universe is a process of constant folding and unfolding in the same way that proteins fold and unfold to produce structure. Crystal is a reference to “The Crystal Land” by Robert Smithson, which argues that clarity in prose takes the structure and form of a crystal. One illustration of this is how Smithson extends the study of entropy in crystals to well-crafted prose. He claims that in the same way that it takes more energy to maintain a crystal structure than a liquid structure, it takes more effort to write organized prose than disorganized prose. In summary, the concepts of grids, folds, and crystals elucidate their ideas through concepts in science.

Poetry and science are similar in many ways. Louis Zukofsky, an influential 20th century American poet, said in his book Prepositions “the poet, no less than the scientist, works on the assumption that inert and live things and relations hold enough interest to keep him alive as part of nature.” I agree with Zukofsky’s statement that both poets and scientists experiment, only with different objects. A poet deals with words in the same way a scientist deals with cells and atoms. A poet uses metaphors in the same way a scientist does. While one may argue that verbal manipulations and laboratory testing are comparable, I will argue that the main similarity between poets and scientists is that they take the same attitude towards their object of study.

Poets and scientists form testable hypotheses to support or discard a theory. Often taking the form of a first draft, a poet forms a hypothesis regarding whether or not an arrangement of words will produce his intended effect on the reader. A scientist forms a hypothesis regarding whether or not an independent variable will produce an effect on the dependent variable. The evidence will result in a hypothesis being supported or unsupported. In either case, poets and scientists are inclined to follow the evidence, accepting (at times, begrudgingly) that reality often acts independently of their wishes. In some instances, a scientist’s laboratory serves a similar function to the poet’s pen and paper: both are places where the creator tests their ideas and revises their approaches. In this way, both the poet and the scientist search for feedback on their ideas of the natural world by observation and experimentation. Thus, they approach their work with an empirical attitude. Octavio Paz, the 1990 Nobel Laureate for Literature, writes

Poets and scientists are not doctrinaires; they do not offer us a priori systems but proven facts. Results rather than hypotheses, works rather than ideas. The truths they seek are different but they employ similar methods to ascertain them… A poem and a scientific truth are something more than a theory or belief: they have withstood the acid of proof and the fire of criticism.

 Modern Poetry and Scienceby Octavio Paz

Octavio Paz (1914-98). 

In this verse, Paz argues that poetry is a form of experimental knowledge in the same way that science is.

Although poetry and science both employ experiments, the subject of the experiment is distinct. In science, the subject of the experiment is often a model organism, which can range from viruses to monkeys. However, in poetry, the poet is the subject of the experiment and “he is both the observer and the phenomenon observed.” In short, a poet is the subject of his poem’s energy. In “Modern Poetry and Science” Paz explains:

To see with our ears, to feel with our minds, to combine our powers and use them to the limit, to know a little bit more about ourselves and discover within us unknown realities: is that not the aim assigned to poetry…?

 Modern Poetry and Scienceby Octavio Paz

Octavio Paz (1914-98).

After exploring the curriculum of Professor Golston’s course, I have come to believe that the poet and the scientist share the same aim. Both disciplines involve using our senses to not only learn about nature but also about ourselves. I can attest to this as an aspiring scientist. In my research done under the mentorship of Rafael Yuste, I used cluster analysis techniques to classify neocortical neurons in a mouse model. As I attempted to uncover and define unique populations of neurons, I learned of my passion for neuroscience as well as the limits of my patience for experimental work. I often theorized about the use of cluster analysis in fields other than science. I am quite happy to have found a recent article published in PLOS ONE that applies the same clustering methods I used in neuroscience to poetry. In this paper, titled “An Information Theoretic Clustering Approach for Unveiling Authorship Affinities in Shakespearean Era Plays and Poems,” cluster analysis techniques are used to analyze the word frequency profiles in Shakespearean works to reveal patterns of relationship between texts.

Poetry and science intersect in greater ways than their methods of choice. As stated by Paz, Both disciplines are forms of experimental knowledge that require same empirical attitude to achieve “results rather than hypotheses, works rather than ideas.” Ultimately, poets and scientists learn a little more about themselves along the way.

If you have more questions about the similarities and differences between science and poetry, I suggest reading “Science vs. Poetry” by Sam Illingworth in the PLOS SciComm Blog.

References

  1. http://english.columbia.edu/people/profile/383
  2. Krauss, R. (1979). Grids.October, 51-64.
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosalind_E._Krauss
  4. Deleuze, G. (1993).The fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. U of Minnesota Press.
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilles_Deleuze
  6. Smithson, R. (1966). The crystal land.Harper’s Bazaar, (3054), 73.
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Smithson
  8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Zukofsky
  9. Zukofsky, L. (1981).Prepositions: the collected critical essays of Louis Zukofsky. Univ of California Press.
  10. Paz, Octavio. Modern Poetry and Science. Canadian International Youth Letter. Retrieved on December 27, 2015 from: http://www.paep.ca/en/CIYL/2002/doc/paz_poetry_and_science.pdf
  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Octavio_Paz
  2. http://www.columbia.edu/cu/biology/faculty/yuste/
  3. 13. Arefin AS, Vimieiro R, Riveros C, Craig H, Moscato P (2014) An Information Theoretic Clustering Approach for Unveiling Authorship Affinities in Shakespearean Era Plays and Poems. PLoS ONE 9(10): e111445. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0111445

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