Words and Lyrics

16 Jul

Modern science is associated with many negative connotations. From the Hollywood pastiche of “the mad scientist” to Mary Shelley’s book “Frankenstein”. One of the effects of literature and poets, in particular, are to “help rebuild [the] image of [the] researcher as an honest character”.[1] According to Conerade, “Science verges on Poetry when it starts to make truly fundamental principles.”

Hoffmann sees the language of science as a “language under stress”. It is a specialised narrative that applies “in such carefully circumscribed pieces of the universe! Poetry soars, all round the tangible.” Further, “The role of poets in shaping opinion about science is key. In fact, scientists reject poets at their peril…”[2]

In common with prose, but inhabiting somewhere between sound and sense, poetry can help in linking scientists with their subject matter in the world on a metaphysical level through metaphor and emotional engagement.

One could argue, counter to the importance of poetry, that we are not talking about science and that there is no relevance here to science.

This, in my view, is a false argument. There is no science in trying to teach children (and scientists) about science – it is education. Similarly, in considering how politics, economics, societal issues and philosophy impinge on science, we are not directly involved in science itself. That is not to say that these issues are trivial in dealing with scientific matters, quite the reverse.

If a child can understand quantum mechanics slightly better by hearing a poem then so much the better.

In quantum mechanics, there is the notion of complementarity: two contrasting theories or entities which are relevant to the same phenomena under different conditions. An example is the wave and particle aspect of a particle.

Many poems, especially in the Bible, employ pairs of words which are complementary, as a poetic means of disrupting expectation of meanings. A modern example is the emotion expressed in some of the song lyrics of Hand in my pocket:


I’m free but I’m focused

I’m short but I’m healthy

I care but I’m restless[3]


I am confident that there are many scientists who can point to similar examples of poems or songs, which resonate meaningfully with scientific ideas, in ways that articles, textbooks or papers could never do.


[1] Conerade, Jean-Patrick, Science and Poetry, The fifth biennial Science Matters (SciMat) conference “Interdisciplinary Education & Teaching in the 21st Century” Cascais, Portugal, October 28-30, 2015.

[2] Roald Hoffmann “Science, language and poetry” Pantaneto Forum Issue 6, April 2002.

[3] Alanis Morisette Hand in my pocket (Lyrics Alanis Morisette and Glen Ballard 1995).