The title of this column is actually not an organic compound, but rather the metrical pattern Homer used to write the Odyssey. While this column has focused mainly on modern science, it’s important to recognize an equally vibrant academic community at Stanford that studies history, the arts and other humanities. Stanford often plays up the “fuzzy”/”techie” divide as one of irreconcilable differences and cataclysmic proportions, but the truth is, we’re not so different. While poets may not publish a new metrical foot every month in Nature, and historians may not create new historical events (unless your last name is Hearst) each year, the creative process of discovery involved in each discipline is identical to the curious, industrious mind required for scientific exploration. With that in mind, I’d like to explore modern poetry as if it were a scientific discipline.
Poetry, as a science, is a fairly fluid discipline. When executed well, poetry captures the soul of a person or a culture as a lyrical verse. As a result, poetry evolves as constantly and as fluidly as people and cultures. Some would point to the fluidity of the field as an indication that it requires lesser acumen than the hard sciences. The sentiment is that there are no wrong poems, and therefore poetry is easy. This type of logic forgets that science, too, is a constantly evolving field, and that some of the most brilliant scientific discoveries were made only by bucking convention and prevailing wisdom. In fact, the development of modern poetry through the centuries has very closely mirrored the development of modern science.
Petrarch, sometimes called the “Father of the Renaissance”, was a 14th century scholar who probably did more than any single person to bring Europe out of the Dark Ages and into the modern era. He railed against ignorance, and strove to bring order to the universe. Perhaps he is best known for his sonnets, which have perhaps the most rigorously defined structure of any poetic form. His rigidly prescribed poetry reflects his rigidly prescribed worldview that order and discipline were essential to warding off ignorance and expanding human understanding. Accomplishments of the scientific community throughout the Renaissance reflected this sentiment, and were driven by the idea that scientific inquiry could bring order to the universe. And so Copernicus reimagined astronomy, Hooke laid the foundations for biology and Newton detailed the core of modern physics, all of which fit in rigorously defined models that could fit in a Petrarchan sonnet.
Curiously, the more scientists explained, the more questions they found to be unanswered. Poetic standards loosened over the centuries. Spenserian and Shakespearean sonnets still have a definite structure, but are notably less rigorous then Petrarchan sonnets. The discovery that rigorous scientific inquiry did not necessarily bring more order to the universe was powerful, and made people reexamine cultural values. Skipping ahead several generations, two major ideas near the end of the nineteenth century shook science at its core: Darwinian evolution and Planck’s quantum hypothesis.
Evolution was game changing because, as Copernicus had done 300 years earlier, it removed humans from the center of the biological universe, and placed them as merely another player in the game of life. Quantum physics was even more baffling in that it envisioned a universe in which, to some degree, nothing was certain. No amount of rigid, Petrarchan investigation could alter this fact, and art was changed forever. The defined realism of Bach, Raphael and Shakespeare morphed into the meandering and even absurd fascination of Beethoven, Picasso and e.e. cummings. Dadaism is probably the zenith of lawless poetry, a World War I era artistic movement that held free expression of all kinds in the highest esteem. The movement’s epicenter was in Zurich, the same city in which Einstein spent much of the early twentieth century becoming more and more puzzled by the mysteries of quantum physics. As an academic, it’s only right to point out that this has been a cursory overview of the last millennium of poetry and science and has only demonstrated a strong correlation between the two. Still, the story is telling, and it’s impossible to conclude that science and art are unrelated.
Both modern poetry and modern science lie somewhere between the two extremes. Science has reached a comfortable equilibrium where we are well aware that there are many things that we don’t know, but we actively try to achieve greater understanding through the scientific method. Modern poetry, too, generally falls within some general structure, though not nearly as stringent as Petrarchan standards. A healthy balance between order and adventurous rebellion is a key component to advancing any discipline, be it scientific or artistic.
The larger point is that intellectual investigation into “fuzzy” subjects can be every bit as valuable and insightful as investigation into “techie” subjects. And while developments in modern poetry may not come as frequently as those in computational biology, they can be analyzed under the same lens of the curious learner. Truly intellectually curious individuals would be wise to explore all disciplines with fervor and expediency, and there is no better atmosphere than Stanford to cultivate the curious mind.
If you have questions or comments for Jack send them to firstname.lastname@example.org, but only in verse.