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07/06/2012 11:21 BST | Updated 07/08/2012 06:12 BST

Science and Poetry

So, are scientific theories poetic? Mary Midgley, with her deep care for poetry and literature, talked so clearly and freeingly about the patterns that frame different scientific outlooks, and how scientists need to be aware that they are imbued with metaphors, and other aspects of cultural life (which include poetry) that the question seemed pretty empty by the end.

Before our 'Poetic Theories'debate at HowTheLightGetsIn I was very excited to meet and hear Mary Midgley. I love her book Science and Poetry, and was delighted to see her sitting in the green room, a small yurt lined with patchwork bunting, on a wicker sofa in a hat which reminded me of Marianne Moore.

We found we had a supervisor in common. She did Greats before the war, returned to Oxford afterwards and began a D. Phil. on Plotinus with E R Dodds. Idid Greats in 1969 and did myD. Phil. (on ideas of mind in Greek tragedy) with Dodds who became a close friend. He stayed with my family at Christmas, we went to Ithaca with his friend Kevin Andrewsand to Tuscany to see paintings of Piero de la Francesca, and he talked a lot about his friendship with Louis MacNeice.

I realized that the extraordinary blend of economy, common-sense, new thought, imagery, freshness and a profound drawing on literature as well as philosophy, which I admire in Mary's work, had reminded me of Dodds's book The Greeks and the Irrational. As I balanced on the coffee table in front of her and the yurt filled up with speakers, we found a lot of ground talking about science and metaphor.

The speakers were asked to do three things, To take off from Dawkins' book Unweaving the Rainbow, "Science is poetic, ought to be poetic and has much to learn from poets;" to discuss whether science and poetry aim at truth and can scientists learn from poets; and to open each with four minuteson the question,"Are scientific theories poetic?"

I started with David Hockney's comment that the West made a big mistake in inventing the single vanishing point. Trying "to depict reality," he brings multiple points of perspective into one canvas, because a single one "pushes you away". I thought science and poetry provide complementary perspectives in their attempts to "depict reality,"iethe stuff outside us in the world and inside us in our heads.

Mary suggested that for both science and poetry, truth acts as a motorway sign saying "To the North". Truth is where both are going but they often don't get there. There are lots of bad poems, for instance, that don't.

But she also pointed to Lucretius's DeRerumNatura. The first coherent vision of atomic theory was written in poetry, following pre-socratic atomists like Democritus. She also said many scientists today are not aware how culturally embedded their theories are.

I agreed. 'Science' is from Latin scire, 'to know'. 'Poetry' from Greek poiein, 'to make', and though knowing and making imply different relations to a thing (one a response to something already there, the other creating something that wasn't there at first) and so poetry and science have very different tasks, they have a lot in common. Aiming at truth is a vital part of it. If you try and write a poem that is not true to your own imagination, thought and feeling, it won't work. If you manage to finish it, it'll always be a dishonest poem.

Ken Binmore, mathematician, game theorist and economist,said Marydidn't know what "true" meant. 2+ 2 = 4 is true, he said, and it's true the Sun is 93 million miles from earth. And "there's nothing truthful in King Lear". He thought poets lacked discipline, if all poets disappeared science would get on fine without them - and what has poetry ever done for science? Well I said, in the West at least, poetry invented science. Even before Mary's atomists, presocratic philosophers were writing the first investigations of the cosmos and matter, in poetry.

Ken clearly loves poetry (he listens to Milton's ParadiseLost in the car, he told me afterwards) but though he spoke with a charming smile there was something oddly wilful about his narrow definition of truth. He felt he'd been invited to play "the villain" in this debate; he seemed to be playing up to the outrageousness of that.

I could have listened to Mary though for hours as she talked about the vital role metaphor plays in science. I responded with the role of imagination in both science and poetry. Darwin valued thepower of free-ranging reflection and imagination (including what he did so brilliantly, the imaginative appreciation of nature)as uniquely human. "The imagination," he wrote, "is one of the highest prerogatives of man. By this faculty he unites images and ideas and creates brilliant and novel results. Dreaming gives us the best notion of this power; "The dream is an involuntary art of poetry."

We could have spent the whole day on all this, there were so many spin offsand excellent audience questions. We'd been asked to discuss how poetry inspires and enhances science but I'm mainly concerned of course with the opposite, what poetry can learn from science. I quoted a piece which Darwin loved too: Wordsworth'sPreface tothe Lyrical Ballads. "Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge;it is as immortal as the heart of man. If the labours of the men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions we habitually receive, the Poet will be ready to follow the steps of the man of science. He will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the Science itself. The remotest discoveries of the chemist, the botanist, or mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the poet's art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us ... as enjoying and suffering beings. If the time should ever come when what is now called science, thus familiarised to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man."

So, are scientific theories poetic? Mary Midgley, with her deep care for poetry and literature, talked so clearly and freeingly about the patterns that frame different scientific outlooks, and how scientists need to be aware that they are imbued with metaphors, and other aspects of cultural life (which include poetry) that the question seemed pretty empty by the end.

I felt both 'scientific' and 'poetic' have been debased in opposite directions. 'Scientific' is often equated with 'objectively true' or worse, 'proven' though we know from the Guardian's Bad Science column how distorted that is. And 'poetic,' a word poets avoid if they can, is often popularly taken to mean woolly and pretty, useless except for vague longings which occasionally swim into consciousness then flicker away again. If the question meant'poetic' in that sense then I really hoped'scientific' theories were not poetic. But if you took 'poetic' in the original Greek sense of 'creative,'with all the fierceness, precision and responsibility to truth, and (whatever Ken may urge to the contrary) the discipline that I know my poetry colleagues bring to what they do then, yes, I'd say they are.