Popular Science and (Unpopular?) Poetry

As I wrote in my previous post, I’ve been thinking about poetic quotation recently. I’ve probably been thinking about it too much: quotations of poetry in prose writing often seem fairly insignificant; a kind of ornamentation to the main argument, or a demonstration of the writer’s erudition; irrelevant to the larger structure of the text, and at best effective at a local level. But the practice of poetic quotation is so widespread, both in the nineteenth century and now, that I’m convinced that, however slight any single quotation might be, the convention as a whole is significant, and worthy of study. At the moment I’m researching a book chapter on poetic quotations in nineteenth-century scientific texts; because of this work, perhaps, I also can’t help noticing snippets of poetry scattered throughout my supposedly non-work-related reading. As I wrote in September, it seems to me that some contemporary novelists use quotations of poetry (and especially of Victorian poetry) as a sort of shorthand for characterisation. Another example, closer to my research, is the near-ubiquitous deployment of poetry in contemporary popular science, in a way that appears, surprisingly, very similar to the use of poetic quotation in nineteenth-century science writing.

My most recent example of this is from Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, by the physicist Jim Al-Khalili and the microbiologist Johnjoe McFadden. The book is an interesting and astute piece of popular science writing, characterised by a thoughtful self-consciousness about the difficulties involved in presenting abstruse scientific concepts to non-specialist readers. For example, it presents a series of effective metaphors for describing the weird and counterintuitive actions of subatomic particles, while also retaining a sceptical awareness of the explanatory limits of metaphor. The aspect of the book’s style that most interests me, though, is the authors’ decision to end its final chapter (apart from a brief epilogue) with three lines of Shakespeare’s blank verse:

The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,

And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault

Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder…

This quotation is taken from Prospero’s speech in act 5, scene 1 of The Tempest (lines 42-44). Its main function in Life on the Edge is as the capstone to the governing metaphor of this particular chapter, which imagines organic life as a ship, precariously navigating between the chaotic, stormy “sea” of classical physics and the finely tuned, infinitesimally minute operations of quantum mechanics (which, according to Al-Khalili and McFadden, underpin the ‘coherence’ and precision of biological processes). The Tempest is a good source text for illustrating this maritime metaphor, and one of the chapter’s early sections commences with the play’s opening stage direction: “On a ship at sea: a tempestuous noise”.

In order to make the quotation from the fifth act fit more closely into the chapter’s argument and metaphorical structure, Al-Khalili and McFadden alter it, and they do so by utilising one of the most basic formal features of verse: line endings. By omitting the final clause of the preceding line – “I have bedimmed” – they obscure the fact that Prospero is describing his personal (and magical) control over the sun, the sea, and the sky. The grammar of the lines is transformed, and agency is transferred from Prospero to the natural world itself. This edited version of the quotation chimes closely with the chapter’s account of biological life as the site of a complex and precarious interaction between different orders of natural process. This similarity is only attained, though, through a significant reworking of the quotation, in which the source text appears to surrender authority over its own meaning.

At the same time, it seems that Shakespeare’s poetry still retains a kind of authority over the chapter’s scientific argument. Coming at the end of the chapter, constituting almost the last word on the book’s claims, it might be argued that these three lines of poetry are being implicitly presented by the book’s authors as the most apt or suitable summary of their account of the complex theories of quantum biology. Nineteenth-century science writers frequently use poetic quotations in this way, as an elevated and edifying means of encapsulating a scientific argument. This makes sense, I think, given the prominent cultural status of poetry in nineteenth-century Britain: even if poetry wasn’t widely read, it was consistently deferred to as the highest form of artistic expression. It’s surprising to me, though, that popular science writers are still using poetic quotations in the twenty-first century: the non-specialist readers that these writers are trying to reach are probably not familiar with the details of the science being discussed, but many of them are also probably not very familiar with, or impressed by, poetry as a form. On reflection, though, perhaps the unpopularity and obscurity of poetry in contemporary British culture increases the effectiveness of poetic quotations in popular science texts. Writers and readers may no longer defer to poetry, but poetic quotations provide a means of conveying recondite scientific concepts in language that is pithy and eloquent, while also being seen as culturally sophisticated, imaginatively rich, and intellectually challenging.


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