Thursday, 28 June 2012

Poetry, art and science: complementary or contradictory?

I've never had a problem with the idea of science and art being compatible. Before my current role as writer-cum-law-student-cum-charity-worker I worked for a number of years as a research scientist, exploring the chemistry/biology interface and working on projects such as cancer drug discovery and global food security. A lot of my leisure time involves enjoying music, modern art, theatre and comedy as well as the literary arts, and I've never really seen a dividing line between these and what people tend to think of as "hard science". But a surprising number of people seem to be taken aback at my having interests on both sides of the arts/sciences "divide". People seem even more surprised at the idea of my having had a career, of sorts, in both.

In 2011 The Speakers' Corner (the spoken word night I co-run in York alongside Helen Sant and Joanna Ezekiel) featured for the first time in the programme for the York Science Festival. Our special guest was one of my modern literary heroes: the wonderful Diana Syder. Regular Soapbox readers will know just how in awe I am of this superb poet. As well as having four poetry collections under her belt, Diana holds a Public Awareness of Science award from the Institute of Physics and has been poet in residence in the Engineering department at Sheffield University. Her poetry is filled with wonder at the mysteries of the natural world and the achievements of science. When I first read her work, it seemed to encapsulate an excitement and joy which I could all too easily lose in the day-to-day grind of the research lab. She helped me see science through new eyes.

I was able to have a lengthy chat with Diana about the difficulties that people have in crossing the arts/science divide. One anecdote that came up concerned a cross-disciplinary festival at Cambridge University a few years ago. The idea of the festival was supposed to be that university staff could go and attend lectures and demonstrations given by experts from disciplines other than their own. The intention was to deepen the participants' knowledge and stimulate new ideas for interaction across the traditional dividing lines of academia. Apparently quite a number of scientists went to talks on fine art, literature, music and the humanities. Almost nobody from arts disciplines came to events organised by the scientists.

Did that mean scientists were more willing to step outside the boundaries of their disciplines than artists were? I'm not really sure. If anything, the result of our being in the Science Festival programme was the opposite: not a single new person came along to Speakers' Corner because of it. There was an excellent turn-out from our regulars, many of whom made a special effort to be there to hear Diana read her poetry. But there was precious little evidence of anyone from the scientific community "crossing the divide" and trying something new.

I have to admit that if my scientific training ever strays into my poetry, it does so unconsciously. A lot of what I write is inspired by imagery from the natural world - birds, wild plants, rock formations and sunsets - and although I don't exactly labour the point, I'm sure that my appreciation of the science as well as the aesthetics enhances the imagery in my poems. But I've almost never consciously chosen to write a piece inspired by my science. The nearest I ever got was a back-of-an-envelope love poem that went

"My love's like butyllithium.
I handle her with care.
I keep her under nitrogen
'cause she inflames in air"

which isn't likely to win me the Bridport Prize any time soon... I've had ideas for "sciencey" poems, to be sure, but they've rarely ventured any further than the idea stage. So to find a writer like Diana, for whom the link between the science and the art is so instinctive, is an absolute joy for me.

Is it really so difficult for artists and scientists to find inspiration in each other’s work? Or could we all benefit from a little exploration outside our usual field of expertise?

(A version of this article originally appeared in the Vitae Research Careers blog in March 2011)
(Special thanks to Diana Syder for the thumbnail image on this blog post - more can be found at