The Earth Whirls Everywhere
by Dava Sobel
The spheres of science and poetry probably intersect in all eleven dimensions, for poems, like discoveries, spring from insights of unusual acumen, expressed in concise, often symbolic language. I sincerely believe that e=mc2 could be construed as haiku.
When I was writing Longitude, I searched poetry anthologies for epigraphs that would open each chapter with a link between science and art—as a way to invite the non-scientist into the technical world of astronomers, clock-makers, and cartographers. I was surprised but elated to find that Lord Byron had included reference to “the best time-piece made by Harrison” (the inventor of the marine chronometer) in Don Juan. Even more apt lines came from The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll (who, under his real name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, lectured and wrote about mathematics):
“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!”
While studying the science of seventeenth-century Italy for Galileo’s Daughter, I discovered that Galileo, who laid the foundations of modern physics, prized the poetry of his countrymen Torquato Tasso and Ludovico Ariosto. Galileo committed a great deal of Latin and Tuscan poetry to memory, according to his son’s account, and could recite the better part of Orlando Furioso by heart. He also wrote poetry. At least six of his sonnets have survived, as well as two longer poems of about two hundred lines each, and one extremely long work of three hundred lines—a rhyming diatribe against what he called “the wearing of the gown.” This poem argues that faculty members should not be forced to wear their academic robes, as was the practice at the University of Pisa when Galileo began teaching there in 1589. In fact, he said forcefully at the close of the first stanza, the best thing in the world would be for everyone to go naked, so that men and women could honestly assess each other’s virtues. This sentiment is now quoted—and duly attributed to Galileo—in a featured position on the Web site of Associazione Naturista Italiana, the Italian nudist society.
In my latest book, The Planets, I used poetry throughout the chapter about Venus as a way to equate the planet with beauty. So many classic and modern poets have addressed “the evening star” or “the planet of love” that I felt certain I could introduce each scientific concept with part of a poem. The extraordinary brightness of Venus, for example, which is due to its proximity to Earth and also its dense covering of reflective clouds, is perfectly portrayed in Robert Frost’s “The Literate Farmer and the Planet Venus.”
Another ideal fit was the poem “Venus” by Diane Ackerman, which actually describes the planet’s stifling atmosphere and half-melted surface in verse:
Deep within that
temperatures are hot enough
to boil lead
And though layered cloud-decks
and haze strata
seem to breathe
like a giant bellows,
heaving and sighing
every 4 days,
the Venerean cocoon
[ is ] a sniffling atmosphere
40 miles thick
of sulphuric, hydrochloric,
and hydrofluoric acids
like a global terrarium,
cutthroat, tart, and self-absorbed.
Ackerman absorbed much of the knowledge that informs her book The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral from a year-long association with Carl Sagan, who was charmed by her intention to create a scientifically accurate cycle of poems about the solar system.
My current project is a play about Copernicus. This time I made no methodical search for poetic references, but stumbled upon them in the ordinary course of researching the characters’ lives. Rheticus, the young mathematician who persuaded Copernicus to publish his heliocentric theory, dabbled in poetry himself and kept company with other poets. Laudatory poems regularly appeared in the opening pages of sixteenth-century science books, and Joachim Camerarius, one of Rheticus’s associates, wrote several Greek verses that were intended to introduce Copernicus’s Latin treatise on astronomy, De revolutionibus. Unfortunately, a last-minute shuffle at the print shop replaced Camerarius’s poem with an anonymous prose preface that warned darkly, “Let no one expect anything certain from astronomy … lest he depart from this study a greater fool than when he entered it.” In contrast, the poem had exclaimed: “O Zeus! How great a wonder do I see! The earth whirls everywhere in ethereal space!”
The practice of prefacing science books with laudatory poems has all but disappeared in modern times, with the notable exception of the 1974 physics text My Father’s Watch, by Donald Holcomb and Philip Morrison. This book took its title from the poem of the same name by John Ciardi, which was printed in full on the back cover:
One night I dreamed I was locked in my Father’s watch
With Ptolemy and twenty-one ruby stars
Mounted on spheres and the Primum Mobile
Coiled and gleaming to the end of space
And the notched spheres eating each other’s rinds
To the last tooth of time, and the case closed.
Although I don’t write poetry myself, I do try to employ what I’ve learned from reading poetry in my science-oriented prose. I try to be concise, to heed the rhythm of the sentences (by reading them aloud), to choose words for their sound as well as their sense, and to prize the emotion attached to each discovery or invention.
Dava Sobel is the author of Longitude, Galileo’s Daughter, and The Planets
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