“Poetry and science have more in common than revealing secrets. Both depend on metaphor, which is as crucial to scientific discovery as it is to lyric. A new metaphor is a new mapping of the world. Even maths uses metaphor; and this is where more condensed forms of poetry join in. John Donne, living through exciting new scientific discoveries, relished the door-opening powers of science. “A mathematical point is the most indivisible and unique thing which art can present,” he said. His lyric uses science as image rather than exposition. (…)
Scientia means “knowledge:” science, it seems to me, is not about facts; it is about thinking about facts. Equally, poetry might or might not be driven by feeling but what it is “about” is relationships – between word and sound, word and thing, word and thought, sound and meaning, words and other words. So is science. Darwin wondered constantly about the relationships of organic forms – in earth, in stone, in what happens between red clover and bumble bees, orchid and moth.
The deepest thing science and poetry share, perhaps, is the way they can tolerate uncertainty. They have a modesty in common: they do not have to say they’re right. True, perhaps. Or just truer. “A scientist should be the first to say he doesn’t know,” a tiger biologist told me when I asked some detail of tiger behaviour. “A scientist goes forward towards truth but never gets there.”
Which is roughly what Donne said too. “On a huge hill, / Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and he that will. / Reach her, about must, and about must go.”