This Crastina Column by Mala L. Radhakrishnan, a professor at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, initiates the theme ”Science & Poetry” at the crastina.org website.
I usually comment on poetry as an educational tool in science – how it catalyzes learning by making science relatable, and how combining it with personification, storytelling, rhythm, and rhyme can make scientific concepts more accessible and memorable. As someone who has engaged audiences with educational, humorous poetry about chemistry in places ranging from bars to theaters to college chemistry classrooms, I appreciate poetry’s role in science pedagogy and communication for scientists and nonscientists alike.
But today I’m championing another reason why scientists should embrace poetry: While, as I usually argue, poetry can help bring science to humanity, it can also – perhaps more importantly — bring humanity to scientists. Many years ago, I was inspired by Alan Lightman’s essay “I = V/R” from his book Dance for Two, in which he eloquently argues that while presentations of scientific studies must maintain objectivity and reproducibility, they often come at the expense of dehumanizing the process and distilling away the struggles and excitement of the people involved. When we read a scientific paper, often written in the passive voice, we learn nothing about the scientists’ stories. Did they overcome obstacles? What mistakes did they make along the way? What were their most exciting moments?
Poetry, on the other hand, is purely personal. While two scientists might (and should) reach a similar conclusion about the world, their personal connections to it would certainly be different. How wonderful would it be to see, as a companion to a scientific article, a unique, personal, poem from each author? Perhaps one author would write a slam-style poem and another a sonnet. Perhaps one might describe the joyous emotions accompanying an “Aha!” moment while another might detail balancing health or family struggles with late-night experiments. Still, another might create a haiku about frustrating, broken equipment. Whatever the individual perspectives, such poetry could help us all remember that science is not a state function; the “truths” might exist independently of us, but the journeys to discover them make us who we are.
The beauty, struggle, passion, frustration, and camaraderie within science and the scientific community – while metaphysical – are entirely real and should be celebrated just as much as the objective findings and models for which we strive. Poetry serves as a perfect avenue for this celebration: Just as science involves creatively working within constraints to understand the world, poetry involves creatively working within our own constraints to understand ourselves, our emotions, and our relationship to that world. I ask that all scientists take time to write poetically about their personal scientific stories and share widely with each other, so we are regularly reminded that science is a human endeavor — and that it is more than ok to feel emotions and simply be ourselves while doing science.
Of course, poetry has the added virtue of brevity, also highly valued by scientists. Accordingly, the hundreds of words of text above can be summed up in a tetrameter couplet I previously wrote:
The reactant in chemistry that is the most relevant
Is not what we think—it’s the human element.
Mala Radhakrishnan is the Whitehead Associate Professor of Critical Thought and an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Wellesley College. As a computational biophysical chemist, her research involves developing and applying computational models to analyze and predict biomolecular interactions. She enjoys making interdisciplinary connections in both teaching and research and is the author of two books of chemistry poetry: Atomic Romances, Molecular Dances and Thinking, Periodically.
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