by Katharine Coles, PhD '90

I am a scientist. You are a poet. You must live with the consequences of my imagination, as I must live with the consequences of yours." – Jacob Brownowski, scientist, to poet Gwyn Thomas

As a student and young professor, I was perplexed by the indifference of many writers to science, as if the measurable world were somehow irrelevant to their work; as I was puzzled to learn that young scientists knew less of literary culture not only than I thought they should but than they as a group believed they did. Many scientists of my own age thought that reading Animal Farm in high school and seeing the musical Oliver made a literary education. The writers, on the other hand, understood they were ignorant; they were often unaccountably proud of the fact. My own students still say things like, “If I know what the moon is made of, then its mystery is gone and I can’t write poems about it any more,” as if reality and imagination are competing for limited space in the universe.

Of course, in addition to precision and as much objectivity as a scientist can muster – qualities that poets and humanists need too – science involves itself intimately with beauty, mystery, human judgment, even passion. The scientist’s instant of comprehension – Newton’s, when he arrived at the model of the Newtonian universe; Einstein’s, when he overthrew that universe – is like the poet’s, when she has finally found the complex balance of expression she has been seeking. Both are engaging in powerful acts of creativity and instinct. Both observe the universe at work and imagine it into a constantly altering being.

And if understanding one level of a poem or novel opens up further mysteries to explore, anything science tells us about the universe is as much like a piece removed from a puzzle, permitting us a glimpse of the radiance behind the solid edifice, as it is like a piece clicking into place, filling in the picture. Even if the physicists present us with a unified theory, we will still be unable to predict from those equations the exact shape of the universe one second after the big bang, much less to apprehend our relationship to it and place within it. In other words, there will always be a place for art.

If my students do not understand this about science, it is because nobody has told them. For much of this century, science – as did the humanities – became increasingly focused, technical, and isolated in its disciplines. At the same time, a long tradition of scientists writing for the layperson was declining. Some scientists didn’t have the time or gift for such writing; others disdained attempts to popularize their work, saying it couldn’t be accurately translated – although scientists routinely translate difficult concepts into metaphor for each other, as Einstein invoked the image of a bowling ball on a trampoline to explain how mass and gravity curve space.

And if young scientists don’t read literature, it is because literary culture, too, often focuses on the technical, rather than teaching what books offer the fledgling scientist: the ability to imagine beyond the technique of, say, fracturing an atom or cloning a human being, toward the consequences such acts might have in the world. If young scientists are imaginatively self-impoverished, as C.P. Snow puts it, as a result of not reading, this impoverishment has potentially vast real-world consequences, consequences we all have to live with.

But things are changing. There is a new crop of wonderful scientist/writers – Stephen Jay Gould, Michio Kaku, and others – developing alongside a group of young poets and novelists who take science and its practice as a serious literary subject. Professors are working across the curriculum to link science, the arts, and the humanities for their students. And we have entered a new age of interdisciplinary research, in which physicists and bioengineers, geologists and computer scientists, even physicians and poets are working together, examining and solving human problems. After years of increasing specialization, we have rediscovered other disciplines and their power to help us imagine solutions to problems in our own.

Science and art are constructions of the human mind, intricate and beautiful. The structure of Benzene was discovered in a dream, as many poems have been. Science requires its students to revision it as they learn it, as students reading Paradise Lost recreate that poem individually in and around their own minds and hearts. Milton met Galileo when the poet was young and the scientist was old and blind; Galileo appears in Milton’s great poem, along with an argument that the visible universe was given us to study and understand. The truths of the universe belong, Milton believed, right next to the truths of the soul and the human heart, constructed by his words, invited into the larger human understanding.

– Katharine Coles PhD’90 is a poet and professor of English and Creative Writing at the University.

Copyright 1998 by The University of Utah Alumni Association