Monday, 12 December 2011

Science, poetry, funding and innovation

Two interesting articles in the Saturday Guardian struck me as worth mentioning. First, poet Ruth Padel, author of Darwin: a Life in Poems, talks about The Science of Poetry, The Poetry of Science:
"Poetry is about feeling, science is about facts. They're nothing to do with each other!" The A-level students in a school I visited last week were passionate on this point. Behind them was Keats, urging them on. "Philosophy," Keats said – meaning science – "would clip an angel's wings." Science was out to dissolve beauty, "Conquer all mysteries by rule and line, / Empty the haunted air and gnomed mine – / Unweave a rainbow …" Edgar Allen Poe agreed. Science was a "vulture" that shrivelled wonder. "Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood, / The Elfin from the green grass; and from me. / The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?" 
I think this over-romanticises both poetry and science, which have got on fine for two millennia and today are enriching their dialogue. Michael Symmonds Roberts's collection Corpus came out of a conversation with scientists mapping the genome. Jo Shapcott's collection Of Mutability is expanding poetry's audiences in the medical community.
Padel (who mentions Erasmus Darwin - see my previous post), sums up: "The deepest thing science and poetry share, perhaps, is the way they can tolerate uncertainty. They have a modesty in common: they do not have to say they're right. True, perhaps. Or just truer. "A scientist should be the first to say he doesn't know," a tiger biologist told me when I asked some detail of tiger behaviour. "A scientist goes forward towards truth but never gets there." (Read the full article here.)

This might not seem to be precisely the case if you head over to Philip Ball's article in another section of the newspaper, where he is bemoaning the conservatism of funding bodies:
The kind of idle pastime that might amuse physicists is to imagine drafting Einstein's grant applications in 1905. "I propose to investigate the idea that light travels in little bits," one might say. "I will explore the possibility that time slows down as things speed up," goes another. Imagine what comments these would have elicited from reviewers for the German Science Funding Agency, had such a thing existed. Instead, Einstein just did the work anyway while drawing his wages as a technical expert third-class at the Bern patent office. And that is how he invented quantum physics and relativity. 
The moral seems to be that really innovative ideas don't get funded – that the system is set up to exclude them.
As Ball says: "your proposal has to specify exactly what you are going to achieve. But how can you know the results before you have done the experiments, unless you are aiming to prove the bleeding obvious?" He talks about a new scheme being initiated by the US National Science Foundation to fund "'unusually creative high-risk/high-reward interdisciplinary proposals'. In other words, it is looking for new ideas that might not work, but which would be massive if they do." Read the full article here.

This fund, called CREATIV (not a very creative choice), might want to take some hints from poets about unknowns and uncertainties, perhaps?!  What are your thoughts - whether you are a poet, scientist or scientist-poet!

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