The Beauty of Science and Poetry

Back when I used to teach high school physics, my students seemed resistant to the idea that physics should be funded because of its poetic qualities. “We should fund physics because of possible future benefits,” they always replied.

Jacob Bronowski spoke more to my condition when he said,

The progress of science is the discovery at each step of a new order which gives unity to what had long seemed unlike. Faraday did this when he closed the link between electricity and magnetism. Clerk Maxwell did it when he linked both with light. Einstein linked time with space, mass with energy, and the path of light past the sun with the flight of a bullet; and spent his dying years in trying to add to these likenesses another, which would find a single imaginative order between the equations of Clerk Maxwell and his own geometry of gravitation.

When Coleridge tried to define beauty, he returned always to one deep thought: beauty he said, is “unity in variety.” Science is nothing else than the search to discover unity in the wild variety of nature – or more exactly, in the variety of our experience. Poetry, painting, the arts are the same search, in Coleridge’s phrase for unity in variety. Each in its own way looks for likenesses under the variety of human experience…

…The creative act is alike in art and in science; but it cannot be identical in the two; there must be a difference as well as a likeness. For example, the artist in his creation surely has open to him a dimension of freedom which is closed to the scientist. I have insisted that the scientist does not merely record the facts, but he must conform to the facts. The sanction of truth is an exact boundary which encloses him, in a way in which it does not constrain the poet or the painter…

From The Exploration of the Universe, Part One of the The Citizen and the New Age of Science (and with much appreciation for used book sales!)

Bronowski’s piece finished with these lines:

Science is the creation of concepts and their exploration in the facts. It has no other test of the concept than its empirical truth to fact. Truth is the drive at the center of science; it must have the habit of truth, not as dogma but as a process.

Comments are closed.