Modern Science, Meet the Modern Poet

Image Credit: ESA/NASA/Hubble
Image Credit: ESA/NASA/Hubble

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Charles Bane, Jr. Bane is the Pushcart-Prize nominated author of “The Chapbook” ( Curbside Splendor, 2011) and “Love Poems” ( Kelsay Books, 2014).

My wife and I were recently watching a series, “How the Universe Works” on Netflix in which Michio Kaku bemoaned that contemporary poets do not write about the wonders of modern astrophysics, or write poems “to our real mothers, the stars.”

This may be my only opportunity to say this to a theoretical physicist who assembled a particle accelerator in his parent’s garage when he was in high school: Dr. Kaku, you are wrong.

Charles Bane, Jr. Photo courtesy of Lucien Capeheart Studios.
Charles Bane, Jr. Photo courtesy of Lucien Capeheart Studios.

There are many poets like myself who do indeed try to incorporate advances in astronomy into that strange, organic and revelatory experience known as a poem. In fact, I think the poet has the harder task: to the scientist, the universe is a physical system. To the poet it is, and must be, more – and no instruments guide his/her voyage.

No sooner do the scientist and poet recognize in each other a common awe of the cosmos than they must part for different missions, which if both journeyers are humble, studied and open, will arrive by different pathways at the same end: a deeper understanding of the incomprehensible.

By his side, the scientist has a mass of data and hypothesis that wait to be tested. Never before has he or she known more. I was born in an era that knew no farther than the Milky Way. I was a student in the 1970s that saw the revolution of plate tectonics, and a clearer understanding of the very ground beneath our feet.

As he stands on that ground, the contemporary poet is armed only with the unconscious. There is his inner universe, and play field. From there come undeniable truths, and their rightness is identified in the same way that Einstein knew that a new physical law was accurate: it is inherently beautiful.

Perhaps the ultimate search is most poignantly asked by a contemporary poet in a simple line: “Where are we, dear?” The author who wrote it, in his poem, “Quantum,” is Roald Hoffmann, winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1981.

Dr. Kaku, poets share your sense of wonder, and we delight in the reach of science. It is just that we are trying to reach farther.


8 thoughts on “Modern Science, Meet the Modern Poet

  1. Buzz

    Well argued, Mr. Bane. Perhaps it can be further argued that poetry can stretch the limits of human imagination. Imagination is what provides the scientist the basis of the hypothesis as well as the vision to apply it to our world. Imagine a world without high death rates attributable to bacteria. Imagine a cure for (fill in the blank). Imagine how our universe is and what might be.

    While the hypothesis is a linguistic creation of a testable theory, a poet creates a linguistic creation far without the bonds of testable theory, limitless. Imagination.

    Perhaps best said: “Poetry is the art of substantiating shadows, and of lending existence to nothing.”
    Edmund Burke, Memoir of the life and character of Edmund Burke by James Prior


  2. Timothy Ferris

    Good piece. Contrary to the impressions of some scientists who evidently don’t read much poetry, many good poets do indeed write strong, well-informed poems based on scientific findings.


  3. Pingback: [BLOCKED BY STBV] Physics Week in Review: February 1, 2014 - Garden Gal Gardening Blog | Garden Gal Gardening Blog

  4. Of all the forms of science communication out there, poetry is one that I would least expect. But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense to convey science in verse. Poetry can be so enchantingly beautiful and can impart so much meaning in so few words; I think poetry makes for an interesting read and can leave a lasting, thought provoking impact on a reader. I’m going to read “Quantum”, but do you have any other scientific poetry suggestions?


  5. Good for you, Matt! The idea that ‘somehow’ science-poetry fizzled out in the time of Walt Whitman and Charles Darwin is amazingly entrenched. Everything and anything that can be done to overturn that gross misconception is appreciated.


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