Saturday, 16 July 2011

Writing Science, Metaphor and Story

This is Tom McLeish, physicist at Durham University and currently also Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research. At the best of times this is a very nice job that allows me a high-altitude view over all of the University's research "landscape", with occasional dives into the long grass of individual projects in the Arts and Humanities, Social Sciences and Sciences themselves. I love listening to and responding to the language and ideas that researchers use to describe and discuss their ideas and projects.

I'm enjoying reading the blog, and warming up to this year's Celebrating Science, and I'd like to push the theme of science and writing in some new directions, perhaps surprising ones from a theoretical physicist. I was not surprised to read Linda discussing the explanatory, rhetorical and communicative skill of good science writing. All these are vital. But more is true - as suggested by the E.M. Forster quote about speaking and thinking. Scientists know that articulation and thought are reciprocal. We also know that metaphor is one of the greatest tools of science, and once of its greatest gifts of enrichment to the community. When Samuel Taylor Coleridge was asked why he attended so many chemistry lectures (especially those of his friend Humphrey Davy) he responded, "To improve my stock of metaphors".

So I'm interested in two rather deep aspects of science writing and speaking (yes I think we ought to be exploring the oral tradition here too!):

(1) the function of language in the process of formulation in new science and scientific thinking.

(2) the enrichment by science of metaphor and meaning open to the wider writing community.

If you still think science is about knowledge more fundamentally than idea, imagination or metaphor then dont listen to me - listen to Einstein: "Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world." What I think he meant by this is the priority of imagination over knowledge for science: all experiment is driven by pre-imagined possibilities of truth. Suppose that the universe is pervaded by an intangible ether that supports the propagation of light but through which the earth moves as it ordits, then if I very carefully measure the speed of light in different directions I should be able to detect differences (the Michelson Morely experiment) ... Suppose that there really are atoms and molecules at a scale far too small to see, then if I can suspend micron-sized particles in a fluid they will come into thermal equilibium with the motion of these molecules and display a density gradient along a gravitional field (Perrin's expeiment in 1908 that finally established the existence of molecules).

In my own research, imagining the complex tangling of long string-like molecules, and what might happen when they are tugged and pulled in different directions, has always been an essential pre-requisite to casting this imagined microscopic world into mathematical form and teasing out the phenomena that might be observed if this picture were true.

I think that science is like poetry in so far as it rehearses the collision of imagination and form. Without form, imagination is unbridled and explosively impotent; I remember someone explaining to me once that the role of the sonnet was to direct the most powerful emotional imagination in such a way that otherwise uncontrolled effusion becomes directed into a focussed (perhaps sculpted?) and beautiful form. The greatest poetry emerges from the struggle of the most powerful imagination with the contraints of the strongest form.

If that is true, then how could science itself be other than the limit of poetry - for what more powerful imagination could there be than the conception of the structure of an entire universe? And what stronger form could there be than the constraint of the actual world we inhabit? If Einstein is right, then the scientist needs to feed the imagination continually, from every source possible, borrowing metaphor from narative worlds all around us. And let's not have any nonsense about the inarticulateness of mathematics. Listen to two pure mathematicians talking at a blackboard, or savour the delicious language they coin for the structures of their contemplation: "modular forms", "vector bundles", "transcendental equations", ...

Less easy to trace is the reciprocal gift of metaphor from science to literature. Sometimes one hears of the failure of the romantic poets' notion that this would happen. But I suspect that the seams are richer than appear on the surface. Narrative threads from science don't have to talk about electrons to find their way into poetry; perhaps they will weave themselves more deeply into our literary fabric if they dont. Coleridge again (from Eolian Harp):

Oh the one life within us and abroad
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythms in all thought, and joyance everywhere.

seems to encapsulate the imaginative process within us that "meets" the world, by borrowing from that very science, in this case the emergence of wave-theories of sound and light.

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