The Scream, Toronto’s yearly literary festival is in full swing this week. This year the festival’s theme is “Science and Poetry”, and Wednesday night I attended “Strange Alchemy”, a panel discussion about science and poetry, followed by the launch of the latest issue of Matrix Magazine, also with a science poetry theme.
The panel discussion was held at Supermarket, a bar in Toronto’s hip(pie) Kensington Market neighbourhood. The tables in the backroom were decorated with erlenmeyer flasks and each had their own element.
The discussion was moderated by science writer Clive Thompson, who warmed up the audience by telling the story of how he almost got an automatic poetry generating software program accepted into The League of Canadian Poets.
The panelists came from a variety of backgrounds: Christian Bök, a.rawlings, and Ken Babstock are all poets with a particular interest in science. Lisa Betts, a postdoc in the neuorscience of vision at York University, was the only professional scientist on the panel, but, being married to poet Gregory Betts, she was familiar enough with the other side of the discussion.
Science and poetry use a different kind of language when communicating, and the panel discussed the merits of both. In a scientific publication, Lisa explained, you need to be very clear because the experiments need to be reproducible. There can be no confusion about what you mean. Poetry uses language for the way it sounds, and a.rawlings is especially fascinated with learning and saying words that are normally reserved for science. In the reading following the panel discussion she read a fragment from Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists that sounded like a protocol for butterfly mounting. But she also recounted that at a recent retreat for sound ecologists, someone mentioned that there are relatively few words to describe sound, and they called on her and the other attending poets to find more words.
Other than finding new words, can poetry can do anything for science? Lisa said that poetry can make scientists think about different ways to communicate an idea. Christian Bök and Ken Babstock both reminded us that scientists often revert to a lot of metaphors and similes when they explain difficult concepts to the public. Ken brought up the term “dark matter” as example.
But are scientific publications more or less personal than poetry? To someone outside of the field, a scientific article might seem impersonal, but as Lisa told the audience, if you are familiar with a specific field and read between the lines you can even see people put each other down in the literature. The authors are very emotionally involved with their work, and have to be very careful when publishing. Of course they think it’s amazing, but they can’t say that, they have to be as objective as possible, and describe all the limitations.
Poetry and scientific literature use language differently, and most people only specialize in writing one form. An exception is Jim F. Johnstone, a PhD student in reproductive physiology at UofT, who read some of his poems during the reading at the end of the night. You can find his poetry, as well as that of Christian Bök, Ken Babstock, a.rawlings and other science-loving poets, in the science & poetry issue of Matrix Magazine.