Learning Prompt

The Scientific Lens: An Exploration of Science-Inspired Poetry

By Bethanie Humphreys

Scientists strive to help us understand the world around us—poets, to understand how we feel about it. To accomplish this, scientists try to create a replicable experience using the scientific method to prove a hypothesis; poets try to recreate experiences using language to forge new connections—with readers, within their own realm of understanding, and with language itself. 

Much has been written about how poetry and science differ. They might be compared to siblings having similar DNA yet diametrically opposed personalities. Poets often welcome ambiguity and use specificity as an invitation to readers to relate and draw their own conclusions. Scientists, on the other hand, try to eradicate imprecision so that everyone may arrive at the same conclusion. 

While their approaches may seem incompatible, scientists and poets can learn much from each other in their shared endeavor to explain the inexplicable.

How might poetry benefit from a scientific lens?

  • Grounding—while some science is purely theoretical, it always involves the physical universe in some specialized way or place.
  • Accurate descriptions—toward replicable data.
  • Methodology—asking questions like a scientist. Example: participant observation in anthropology—what better way to write about a family recipe than to ask a family member to show you how to make it?
  • Experimentation—approaching writing as an “experiment,” giving yourself permission to play with forms, perspectives, scientific concepts, and language.
  • Objectivity—scientific language can provide a more objective way to talk about difficult subjects. For example, employing clinical language to describe a traumatic medical event can create greater psychological distance that may feel “safer” or “colder.” In the same vein, feelings come across more powerfully when unspoken or understated than if simply named.
  • Lexicon—precise and unusual language from which to draw and learn.
  • Invention—where two worlds of knowledge meet lies the greatest potential for new connections.

What constitutes a science poem?

While science poetry is not new, it has not been well defined (perhaps because both “science” and “poetry” branch into such a broad range of subjects and conventions), so I will offer my own definition: science poetry uses a scientific lens with which to view the world and to try to interpret experiences. It explores what is observable through our senses, and may acknowledge that our senses are not always accurate as to causality. (For example, from where we stand, the sun appears to orbit the earth, when in fact the earth is orbiting the sun.) It may also reflect the understanding that the scientific lens and language are human constructs and therefore fallible. 

What makes for a good science poem?

  • Seeks balance between conveying human experience and scientific concepts or explanations.
  • Rich imagery and sensory details (what is experienced through the senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, etc.), which bring the reader bodily into the poem.
  • Uses scientific language with both literal and figurative meanings, and that can be appreciated on its face, or its meaning can be intuited in the poem’s context. In other words, the poem’s meaning doesn’t fall apart if the reader doesn’t know or look it up.
  • Not just spouting scientific facts, but sharing information meaningful to the poem’s speaker.
  • Contrasts objective scientific language with the deeply personal and intimate.
  • Explores rather than offering conclusions—allowing the reader to draw their own. 

Science and poetry are both ways of looking closer. For more essays on science and poetry, I recommend The Measured Word: On Poetry and Science, edited by Kurt Brown. Science poem examples are below, but what better way to define science poetry than to write it yourself?

Prompt:

Write a poem using a scientific concept and language as a metaphor—a way to talk about an entirely different but somehow comparable human experience. Find a science article, or start with an everyday phenomenon like how insects appear to walk on water and find a scientific explanation for what might cause it. Read and note any interesting findings, thoughts, and images or concepts that remind you of something—potential metaphors. Then, write about a memorable experience using scientific language from the article as a way to explore, explain, not explain, or talk about X.

Science Poems:

All Palaces Are Temporary PalacesRosebud Ben-Oni

Introduction to Quantum TheoryFranny Choi

Ode to the Electric Fish that Eat Only the Tails of Other Electric FishThomas Lux

The Origin of OrderPattiann Rogers

The Red PoppyLouise Glück

Romantic MomentTony Hoagland

My SkeletonJane Hirshfield

The Collection—Poets for Science (various)

The Universe in Verse—The Marginalian (various)

Originally Published: July 1st, 2022