The Uses of Poetry in Victorian Science

Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Criticism and Debates, edited by Jonathan Herapath and Emma Mason, has just been published. The book is a collection of primary sources and critical essays on the key issues surrounding the writing and reception of poetry in nineteenth-century Britain, and I was fortunate enough to be asked to write the essay on science. One of the questions that I try to address in the essay, and in my research in general at the moment, is how poetry contributed to the rhetoric and the presentation of science in Victorian Britain. Victorian science writers frequently used quotations of and allusions to poetry to reinforce and enliven their presentation of scientific theories, or their broader arguments about the value of science as a mode of knowledge. As I wrote in my previous post, this is a strategy they share with popular science writers in the twenty-first century. Verse, however, was particularly effective as a rhetorical support for science in the Victorian period, because, although it was losing commercial ground and market share to the novel and to the periodical press, poetry in nineteenth-century culture retained its status as the height of artistic expression, and as the articulation of enduring emotional and spiritual truths.

Victorian science writers found various uses for the cultural authority of poetry as a form. To give one example: on 5 September 1867 the physicist and populariser of science John Tyndall gave a ‘lecture to the working men of Dundee’ titled ‘Matter and Force’. At the close of his explication of the molecular processes that constitute the transformation of liquid water into ice, Tyndall commented that, ‘to use the language of an American poet, “the atoms march in tune,” moving to the music of law, which thus renders the commonest substance in nature a miracle of beauty.’ The quotation is from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1846 poem ‘Monadnoc’: ‘For the world was built in order, / And the atoms march in tune’. There are several ways of interpreting Tyndall’s deployment of this particular poet’s language. It might be argued that he uses Emerson’s poem as mere eloquence, an expressive form of words that functions straightforwardly as an ornamentation or embellishment of the argument of his prose. Alternatively, the quotation might perhaps be interpreted as an item of supporting evidence for that argument, encapsulating and demonstrating Tyndall’s suggestion that scientific knowledge (and scientific terminology such as ‘atoms’) also has aesthetic significance, making the ‘music’ of natural law and the ‘beauty’ of natural processes more readily appreciable.

A third possible interpretation is suggested by the next paragraph of Tyndall’s argument, in which he asserts, immediately after this quotation, that ‘it is the function of science, not as some think to divest this universe of its wonder and its mystery, but, as in the case here before us, to point out the wonder and the mystery of common things.’ In the light of this statement, it’s possible that the value of Emerson’s poetry for Tyndall is not just stylistic and aesthetic, but epistemological and even (in a way that he deliberately leaves vague and undefined) theological or spiritual. Tyndall was famously antagonistic towards theologians’ efforts to restrict the remit of science, and famously robust in his championing of scientific materialism and naturalistic explanation. Here, though, circumspectly yet firmly, he introduces a mysterious and arguably mystical element into his scientific argument. The ‘law’ to which his atoms conform is not wholly distinct from the providential ‘order’ that Emerson’s poem identifies in the world’s construction and operation.

Why would Tyndall (who, as Bernard Lightman has argued, was Victorian Britain’s most vocal proponent of scientific naturalism) use poetry in this way, as a kind of mystical, rhetorical safety net? Perhaps because, despite the growing prominence and intellectual authority of scientific thinking in the nineteenth century, there remained a widespread sense of anxiety or suspicion towards exclusively scientific models of explanation such as Tyndall’s. Gillian Beer, in an essay on Tyndall and Gerard Manley Hopkins which is republished in Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Criticism and Debates, writes that Tyndall saw a ‘recognition of a disjunction between natural processes and human patterns of expectation and design’ as ‘one of the characterizing gains of science.’ In many ways this disjunction was indeed a gain, but it was also a problem that needed to be managed and smoothed over, especially when addressing audiences who were not scientific specialists. In his lecture to the working men of Dundee, Tyndall uses Emerson’s poetry to reassure: scientific explanation is naturalistic and quantitative, but it is not reductive or mechanistic; it preserves space for wonder and mystery. The proof of this is that science can be communicated in, and made to sound like, poetry. Richard Dawkins, interestingly, does something similar in his popular science writing: poetic quotations are often found in his work in close proximity to celebrations of the ‘wonder’ of science. Poetry performed (and still performs) an active part in science communication: as a demonstration of the science writer’s cultural capital; as a means of conveying the aesthetic possibilities of scientific knowledge; and, perhaps most importantly and consistently, as a form of reassurance.

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.

Why Do Novelists Need (Victorian) Poetry?

I’ve been thinking about poetic quotation recently. More specifically, I’ve been wondering why prose writers in the twenty-first century, working in forms ranging from popular science to the novel, frequently use quotations from poems (typically, formally regular poems written before 1900) to reinforce, validate, or summarise their arguments or narratives. In the case of the novel, it seems counterintuitive that, at a time when the commercial prospects and cultural fortunes of prose fiction are so much more robust than those of poetry, novelists should refer (or perhaps defer) so persistently and so readily to poets. A recent example is the 2014 Booker winner, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (which I admit I’ve only just read). In this novel, which recounts the experiences of an Australian doctor in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during World War II, Flanagan quotes repeatedly from the poetry of Alfred Tennyson. He’s by no means the only contemporary novelist to do so: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (2011) and Sebastian Faulks’s Where My Heart Used to Beat (2015) both derive their titles from Tennyson’s elegy In Memoriam. Why, then, do novelists seemingly find Tennyson so irresistible?

The Narrow Road to the Deep North abounds with verse: there are quotations from Japanese poetry, allusions to Shelley’s “Ozymandias” (apt in a novel about the brutality and futility of empire), and a cameo from the Australian Modernist poet Max Harris. It’s Tennyson’s much-quoted dramatic monologue “Ulysses”, though, which dominates. This was noted by Michael Hofmann in his scathing review of The Narrow Road to the Deep North in the London Review of Books: “the Tennyson never stops”, Hofmann wrote, and in his view the frequent recourse to poetic quotation epitomises the ersatz, recycled quality of this novel, in which the characters, plots, and metaphors “are all quoted, all sampled, they are all well-loved items from a catalogue or anthology”. The book is not without its flaws, but I think Hofmann’s assessment is unfair, and I think that poetic quotation plays a more substantive role than he allows, both in Flanagan’s novel and in contemporary prose fiction more generally.

The non-stop Tennyson might perhaps be explained by Flanagan’s particular interest in Victorian culture: his 2008 novel Wanting includes Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens among its characters. It’s not immediately clear, though, why he is so determined to incorporate Victorian verse into The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a novel set in the mid-twentieth century. In his 2010 study Tennyson Among the Novelists, John Morton shows that novelists have been quoting Tennyson almost from the start of his career, and that, both in Victorian fiction and in more recent neo-Victorian novels, “Tennyson’s works often seem to have been invoked in order to evoke periodicity”, either “in order to make the novel look up to date” (in the nineteenth century) or “to date it specifically”. In Flanagan’s novel, it is the attitudes and opinions of the protagonist Dorrigo Evans that are dated, and dated specifically by his obsession with Tennyson (“obsession” isn’t too strong a word: Evans even recites “Ulysses” – amazingly, with some success – as a method of seduction). When Evans hears Max Harris read his verse, he is “unable to make head or tail of it”, stating his preference for “the Victorian poets and the writers of antiquity.”

Later, the novel’s narrative voice comments that “Dorrigo Evans had grown up in an age when a life could be conceived and lived in the image of poetry, or, as it was increasingly with him, the shadow of a single poem.” It seems difficult to imagine the first half of the twentieth century as such an age, and so it appears that Evans’s passion for Tennyson performs a specific, negative function in Flanagan’s construction of the character: it is a signifier of nostalgia, of Evans’s yearning for an unattainable past that is unattainable because it never really existed, of his refusal to come to terms with modernity.

It’s possible that contemporary novelists more generally use poetry (and Tennyson’s Victorian poetry especially) in the same way: to mark a disjunction between the old-fashioned otherworldliness of verse and the clear-eyed realism of the novel. At the start of The Narrow Road to the Deep North Evans quotes lines from “Ulysses” – “The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep / Moans round with many voices” – that are rewritten, in the novel’s final section, to describe the monotonous, attritional hardship of life in a prisoner-of-war camp: “The long night waxed, the slow quarter-moon continued rising through black rungs, the night moaned with many groans and snores.” This seems to subvert Evans’s frequent quotations of “Ulysses” throughout the rest of the book, suggesting that the measured eloquence of Tennyson’s blank verse needs to be roughened or reworked if it is to have any chance of accurately representing the brutalities of twentieth-century history.

At the same time, though, the novel’s return to “Ulysses” in its closing pages indicates how thoroughly the poem’s language influences Flanagan’s characterisation of Evans, and the way in which that influence extends, through free indirect discourse, to the language of the novel as a whole. In the book’s penultimate section Evans is still thinking about “Ulysses”, finding “every word now a revelation, as if it had been written for him, a poem his life and his life a poem.” Throughout The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Flanagan utilises Tennyson’s poem not just to represent his protagonist’s conservative tastes but to encapsulate his character in its entirety. I’m not convinced that this method of characterisation is unambiguously successful, but I think it demonstrates one of the main reasons why novelists need poetry: the brevity of verse, the concision and precision of poetic language, enables poetic quotations to function as a kind of shorthand, a condensation of a novel’s concerns and preoccupations (or of one of its characters). Poetic quotations make good titles, but The Narrow Road to the Deep North shows that they can also permeate, and offer a kind of pattern for, the structure and texture of prose writing.

Poets and Readers in 1815 and 2015

Yesterday, The Conversation published a piece by the poet and Professor of Creative Writing Ian Gregson, which argues that poetry is ‘well and truly in the margins’ of contemporary culture. Poetry’s marginalisation, according to Gregson, is a relatively recent phenomenon, brought about by the ‘growing prevalence of popular music’, which stole poetry’s lyrical thunder, and most importantly by the ‘new media’ of 24-hour television, the internet, and social media. The development of these media technologies, Gregson concludes, and the modes of thinking that they encourage, have been detrimental to the ‘slow reading that poetry demands’. The ‘painstaking process’ of reading, rereading, and understanding a poem is beyond many readers, whose reading practices are shaped by the limitless availability of instant, fragmented, technologically mediated information. That’s why poetry now languishes in the margins of culture.

200 years ago, in January 1815, William Wordsworth set out a surprisingly similar argument in the ‘Essay, Supplementary to the Preface’ that he wrote for his 1815 Poems. Wordsworth’s essay was primarily written as a riposte to the critics who had slated his (very long) 1814 poem The Excursion, particularly the influential reviewer Francis Jeffrey. The essay opens with an attack on unqualified and undiscriminating critics which, Wordsworth regrets, is ‘of too ungracious a nature to have been made without reluctance’. His reluctance, though, doesn’t stop him from then scolding the general readers who also failed to appreciate (or even to buy) The Excursion. The minds of the majority of readers, he claims, are too content to be ‘passive’, and this is a problem for writers of verse, because the concerns of the poet – ‘the profound and the exquisite in feeling, the lofty and universal in thought and imagination’ – cannot be appreciated ‘without the exertion of a co-operating power in the mind of the Reader’. Like Gregson 200 years later, Wordsworth fears that readers are no longer up to the active and painstaking task of exerting themselves in order to study and think through a challenging piece of poetry.

The reasons Wordsworth gives for readers’ failings are also not dissimilar to those mentioned by Gregson. In his 1815 essay, Wordsworth argues that the intellectual inactivity of the average reader derives from ‘that selfishness which is the child of apathy, – which, as Nations decline in productive and creative power, makes them value themselves upon a presumed refinement of judging.’ This is an early expression of an argument that would become commonplace throughout the nineteenth century: that modern, industrially developed societies (exemplified, of course, by nineteenth-century Britain) inevitably suffer a decline in poetic sensibility. In Wordsworth’s view, ‘creative power’ has been replaced in British culture by an over-readiness to make quick, lazy, and shallow judgements about the writings of those who do still try to create and innovate. In his 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, he is more precise about the causes of the declining quality of British readers: ‘a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and […] to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the encreasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies.’ Both Wordsworth in 1815 and Gregson in 2015 attribute the marginalisation of innovative, challenging poetry to the increasingly rapid circulation of information that characterises modern society.

The similarity of these arguments suggests, to me, two key points. First, it seems that, since at least 1800, poets have feared that modern media and social relations, and the habits of thinking they enable and promote, are inimical to the appreciation of poetry. It’s tempting to search for some grand historical explanation for this view: perhaps the emergence and rapid commercial success of the novel as a rival form in the eighteenth century; or even the gradual shift towards a more and more literate society, in which the reading aloud of verses was inexorably replaced by the silent reading of printed texts. My hunch, though, is that specialists in earlier periods of literary history could provide plenty of pre-1800 examples of poets lamenting the marginalisation of poetry; readers ain’t ever what they used to be. Perhaps, then, poetry often seems to be marginalised because the poet is an inherently marginal figure, commenting on social life from the assumed position of an outsider. Or perhaps it could be argued that poetry, innovative and challenging poetry at least, is not just marginal but oppositional, demanding that readers think about things, or think from perspectives, that are destabilising or discomfiting, and presenting its demands in unfamiliar forms and complex language. That’s probably never going to be popular.

The second key point is that Wordsworth and Gregson agree in arguing that poetry demands the active participation of the reader; understanding a poem requires the patient exertion of the reader’s imaginative and critical powers. Gregson ends his piece with a rallying call to university teachers of English literature and of creative writing: ‘universities should be at the forefront of renewing interest in poetry. Instead the opposite is happening, because universities are responding to financial constraints by giving students more and more of what they want.’ I agree unequivocally with the first sentence: universities have a responsibility to help their students develop the critical skills needed to appreciate poetry. I’m not, however, as gloomy as Gregson about the future of poetry in academia. Although many of my students at the University of Surrey are initially wary of studying poetry, the overwhelming majority of them, in the end, find something of significance for themselves in the poems they read. As Gregson states, university teachers need to continue to stimulate students’ interest in poetry. They need to do more than this, though; they also need to act as vocal advocates for the invigorating difficulty of poetry outside universities, throughout society more widely.

Inconvenient Facts: Max Weber on the Goal of Education

Tomorrow sees the publications of the results of REF 2014, the assessment mechanism that evaluates the quality of academic research published over the last six years (and determines how much funding university departments will receive on the basis of that evaluation). I don’t want to get into the various problems of rationale and method that have dogged REF 2014; they are problems inherent in any system that attempts to reduce something as complex as research to a points system. Instead of anticipating the debates about league tables and the unfairness of the REF system that will ensue tomorrow, I’d like to recommend a piece of writing that I read recently and that encapsulates, for me, much of what universities are really for. In 1918 the social theorist Max Weber delivered a lecture in Munich titled ‘Science as a Vocation’. Weber has much to say in this lecture about the role of the scientific method in the development and dissemination of knowledge, but many of his key conclusions are relevant not just to the sciences but to all fields of education. In a statement that applies, in my opinion, not just to university teaching but to academic research and to all forms of education, Weber states that the vocation of the teacher, and the goal of educational work, is to ‘teach […] students to recognize “inconvenient” facts’. In a phrase which he acknowledges is ‘immodest’, but which he uses nonetheless, Weber asserts that enabling students to embrace the stubborn complexity of knowledge constitutes the ‘moral achievement’ of education.

For Weber, European culture in the early twentieth century is characterised by disenchantment and ‘rationalization’, by an irremediable loss of religious certitude. Education and academic study cannot be made to replace religion, but they can help students to make sense of this post-religious culture. Education demonstrates to them that knowledge can only be acquired through an honest consideration of the awkward difficulties of the subjects they study: ‘in the lecture-rooms of the university no other virtue holds but plain intellectual integrity’. This is as true for the humanities and the social sciences as it is for the sciences, and as true for research as it is for teaching. Academic work, at its best, unflinchingly reveals and interrogates facts, no matter how inconvenient those facts may be to those in power or to dominant ideologies or orthodoxies. Weber argues that the teacher ‘fulfils the duty of bringing about self-clarification’; by asking their students to consider difficult questions and inconvenient facts of all kinds, teachers can help them to think more clearly and critically about their intellectual assumptions and about their position within society. Again, this does not apply exclusively to students: academic work enables teachers and researchers, too, continually to rethink their own assumptions and beliefs.

Weber is no idealist, however, and I hope that I’m not either. He recognises that, in the Germany of the early twentieth century, academic careers are inescapably determined by what he calls ‘plutocratic prerequisites’, by the need to earn money and to attract as many students as possible to any given programme of study. He is painfully aware of the distorting effects of this focus on profitability and popularity over intellectual integrity – ‘I have a deep distrust of courses that draw crowds’ – but he also recognises that it is ‘unavoidable’. It is this recognition that arguably makes Weber’s lecture as relevant in 2014 as it was 100 years ago. The work of British universities is now more than ever shaped by ‘plutocratic prerequisites’, by the necessity of making money through the enrolment of fee-paying students, through the securing of external research funding, and through the application of research to ‘economic impact’. In a November 2014 survey of undergraduate students run by Which?, a majority of respondents expressed a wish, not to be treated as passive consumers or customers, but for more challenging and demanding academic work. A spokesperson for the National Union of Students commented that the survey ‘highlights the damaging effects of the market principles imposed on higher education by politicians’. Despite the ongoing marketisation of higher education, students still wish to engage in the difficult struggle with intellectual challenges and inconvenient facts. And it’s still the job of teachers and researchers to help them to do so.

Thinking about Thinking: Teaching Literature and Science

On Saturday 8 November the British Society for Literature and Science (BSLS) ran a symposium on ‘Teaching Literature and Science’. Hosted by the University of Westminster’s Centre for the Study of Science and Imagination, the event brought together humanities academics, scientists and engineers, and undergraduate students to discuss the pleasures, difficulties, and value of learning about the historical and contemporary links between science and literature. The symposium revealed how interested students in higher education (and pupils in secondary schools) are in literature and science, and it showcased some of the diverse and innovative approaches that tutors and lecturers are using to share the latest thinking in the field with their students. The scope and ambition of literature-and-science teaching was manifested on ‘the wall’, where participants posted module syllabi, reading lists, and accounts of their experiences of teaching the subject.

2014 BSLS teaching symposium

‘The wall’ at the BSLS symposium on teaching literature and science.

The first question asked at the symposium was also the biggest: ‘why teach literature and science?’ For me, perhaps the most persuasive and thought-provoking answer to this question was that teaching literature and science helps students to develop a ‘critical appreciation’ (the phrase was Charlotte Sleigh’s) of science. English Literature as a subject trains its students to read literary texts in ways that combine admiration with critique, a sensitivity to the linguistic and aesthetic richness of literature with a sceptical awareness of the strategies writers use to manipulate language for rhetorical or political ends. A similar approach is needed today in relation science. In a culture in which scientific models of understanding, and the technological applications of science, are powerful determinants of how people live and think, it is vital that humanities graduates (and science graduates too) can grasp the intellectual complexity and the social value of science, while also being able to question and analyse the political dimensions of scientific research, and the various ways in which science can be represented, marketed, and misrepresented. The interdisciplinary teaching of literature and science can equip students with just this double-edged skill of ‘critical appreciation’.

Several participants at the event (among them Josie Gill) also suggested that literature-and-science courses may sharpen students’ critical appreciation of English as a subject, helping them to think in new ways about what the term ‘literature’ means. English Literature students working on literature and science at university have often not studied science for several years, and the shock of being reintroduced to different models of enquiry can strengthen their self-awareness about what is involved in studying literature. To give one example: as John Holmes pointed out at the symposium, English Literature students can sometimes assume that literary analysis is straightforwardly a matter of personal opinion. In my courses on literature and science at the University of Surrey, I find that students often begin with the view that there is a clear distinction between the empirical and objective methods of science and the aesthetic subjectivism and moral relativism of literary writing and reading. Studying the scientific method, though, helps to remind students that their own work (and their opinions on literature) also need to be based on evidence, in their case the evidence provided by the language, form, and contexts of the texts they read.

I also find that many students on my courses feel that, during their school education, they were forced to choose between the humanities and the sciences, and so they are now unsure about whether and how they can discuss scientific questions. As Michael Whitworth observes in his blog about the BSLS symposium, studying literature and science can help students to place their own experiences in a broader historical context. By examining discussions of literature, science, and education by figures such as C. P. Snow and F. R. Leavis from the twentieth century, Thomas Henry Huxley and Matthew Arnold from the nineteenth century, and Margaret Cavendish from the seventeenth century, students can historicise current educational practices and contemporary debates about the respective places of the sciences and the humanities in education and society.

It was salutary to hear the views of several undergraduate students at the symposium. One of them, Jonathan Craig, summarised what was for me the key conclusion of the day. A science student, Jonathan took the literature-and-science course run by Janine Rogers at Mount Allison University in Canada, and he told us that Janine described the aim of the course as ‘thinking about thinking’. Studying literature and science encourages students to rethink how they think about their subject and other subjects. And the field asks the same of teachers, pushing them to experiment and innovate in their teaching practice as they investigate, with their students, the various and interlinked meanings of the terms ‘literature’ and ‘science’.

Research and Radio: the Humanities outside Academia

There are two striking things in Iggy McGovern’s physics lab at Trinity College Dublin. The first is a piece of equipment, industrial and steampunkish in appearance, called a vacuum chamber. This apparatus is used for experiments on surfaces: when a sample of material is placed inside the chamber, a pump extracts the air surrounding it, leaving a sample free from air and other impurities—a surface, in Iggy’s words, which is ‘clean at an atomic level’. The second striking feature of the lab are the piles of volumes of poetry, and the box files labelled ‘poetry’, spread around it.

2014 Iggy McGovern vacuum chamber 2

The vacuum chamber in Iggy McGovern’s lab.

I met Iggy McGovern while recording a documentary, ‘The Poetry of Science’, to be broadcast as part of BBC Radio 3’s Sunday Feature on Sunday 2 November, at 6:45pm. ‘The Poetry of Science’ asks why scientists engaged in experimental work might also choose to write verse, and it considers how scientists’ poetry relates to their scientific thinking. The documentary grew out of my research interest in poetry and science in the nineteenth century, and so interviewing contemporary scientist-poets such as Iggy McGovern and Mario Petrucci was a step outside my research comfort zone. I’m glad I took the step, though, because it helped me to place my nineteenth-century research in a new context: ‘The Poetry of Science’ identifies some important differences, but also some surprising similarities, between scientists’ poetic practice in the nineteenth century and today. The documentary combines the text-based scholarship that typifies English Literature as a subject with other forms of research. Some of it was recorded at the Royal Institution in London, where I studied the poetry manuscripts of nineteenth-century figures such as Humphry Davy and John Tyndall. Visiting the lab at Trinity College Dublin offered a different perspective on the subject, one not available for research on the nineteenth century: I was able to ask Iggy specific questions about his verse, and also to see directly how poetry related to his working life as a scientist.

The opportunity to make ‘The Poetry of Science’ arose out of my work as one of the ten AHRC/BBC New Generation Thinkers for 2013. The New Generation Thinkers scheme is designed to give arts and humanities researchers a chance to share their work with non-academic audiences: the 2014 class of New Generation Thinkers will be speaking at the BBC’s annual Free Thinking Festival in Gateshead this weekend. Public engagement, as the UK’s research councils term it, is increasingly expected to be a prominent part of the work of humanities scholars, but it isn’t necessarily an easy task for researchers trained in the very precise methods and procedures of academic scholarship.  In 2013, when I was named as one of the New Generation Thinkers, I wrote a blog about some of the challenges involved in putting humanities research on the radio. I think I still agree with most of what I wrote, particularly about the difficulty of finding the right balance between the big ideas in which broadcasters tend to be interested and the complex details on which academic research largely depends. This was a significant issue when making ‘The Poetry of Science’, a programme which is only 21 and a half minutes long; not a lot of time to go into all the complexities of the relations between poetry and science in the nineteenth century and now. Nonetheless, the programme gave me a chance to introduce the key themes of my research on science and poetry to a wide audience. And it still finds time for close readings of particular poems.

In addition to their challenges, then, initiatives such as the New Generation Thinkers scheme offer tremendous opportunities to humanities researchers. Like blogging, tweeting, and to some extent teaching, radio broadcasting enables (and compels) academics to communicate the findings of their research, clearly and concisely, to audiences outside their research specialism. More than that, by introducing these audiences to the complex questions underpinning their research, academics can use the media (social, print, and broadcast) to foster debates which in turn help to publicise the central relevance of the humanities to education and to society.