In the winter of this year, I was honored to serve as the guest editor for the Science issue of Little Patuxent Review. Until I became a poet and writer, I hadn’t thought much about how similar the process of writing is to conducting scientific research.
Below is an excerpt of prose and poetry I wrote for this remarkable journal.
The poet is to the human condition as the telescope and the microscope are to the scientist.
To this day, I remember the elation on my botany professor’s face when he peered into the microscope at my double stained section of a dicot stem and burst out saying– “Look, here is where art lies. No painter can paint something so beautiful. No words can describe it.” I was fifteen, a freshman in college. What did I know of science or art? I’ve forgotten my professor’s name and his exact words, but never that one moment we shared.
Science has always been an integral part of my life, not only because I love it, but because it was my financial gateway to America. Without scholarships and grants, the little V-shaped Indian peninsula on which I was born was as far from America as the furthest planet. At home, however, science and literature were, as Thomas Huxley says, two sides of the same coin.
My father was a botany professor; my mother was a geography and social studies teacher. As educators, they simply insisted that my siblings and I “learn” —at first, anything, and later, preferably something that would earn us a living. Asked to choose between science and arts, I chose science, of course, and botany as my major. No surprise there!
Since then, I have worked with viruses, bacteria, cells, tissues, and animals in academic research institutions and in the biopharmaceutical industry, and with young women as a high school science teacher. It was only then, when my summers were free, that I began writing. And that felt natural and complete.
Unfortunately, science seems to be more at odds with poetry than with other literary genres. Sometimes, poems invoke science-based images as metaphors that are incorrect, simplified descriptions of the science itself. Counterclaims that science robs the wonder of the natural world and of life itself, with its cold, formal, scientific methodology are equally rampant. In fact, poetry and science have always had a symbiotic relationship. Consider Erasmus Darwin’s long two-part poem The Botanic Garden (1789) which together total some 3260 lines structured in rhyming couplets with footnotes addressing, among other scientific issues, the beginning of his theory of evolution that his grandson, Charles Darwin, would later amplify.
Ultimately, scientific research and creative writing both seek to understand the mysteries of life (and death) on our own planet and beyond, and certainly in our imagination.
Here is my “science” poem first published in Persimmon Tree, 2012. http://www.persimmontree.org/v2/fall-2012/international-poets/
A Poet’s Calculations
By Lalita Noronha
Paired in vials of cobalt blue media,
they mate, metamorphose in ten days,
specks of eggs hatch squirming larvae,
rice-grain pupae, adult fruit flies.
My students chart sex ratios and the inheritance of traits,
black, round-bodied males, spiny oblong females,
sepia eyes, vestigial wings.
They record data, analyze, calculate gene frequencies.
It’s all done in a month.
My calculations: Should I live to be, say eighty,
a respectable age in these times,
that month of teaching, a thousandth of my life-span,
flew by before I stopped to count butterflies,
or wrote the last line of this poem.