Polemicscat's Weblog

Examining settled and unsettling questions.

Poets, Astronomers, and Superstition

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A common opinion among poets has been that science somehow diminishes people’s appreciation of the natural world.  The English romantic poet Wordsworth, in a derogatory reference to scientific analysis, says, “We murder to dissect.”     

Another English romantic, John Keats, in one of his letters, tells about a gathering of his writer friends.  They had discussed Sir Isaac Newton’s experiments in optics through which Newton had discovered that a rainbow is formed by the refraction of light passing through spherical droplets of water.  Keats and his friends drank a toast to the memory of Newton but lamented his “unweaving the rainbow.” 

Among American authors, both Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman wrote poems which disparage the work of scientists.  In his “Sonnet–To Science,” Poe says,

    Science, true daughter of Old Time thou art!
    Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
    Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
    Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?

Whitman’s poem, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” recounts a lecture by an astronomer who gives “proofs” and “figures” using “charts and diagrams” to talk about the stars.  Whitman then says that he (a listener) “grew tired and sick” and wandered off into the “mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,/ Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”

Must it be that having a scientific knowledge of the natural world interferes with a person’s appreciation of its beauty?  I haven’t found that to be the case. 

Whitman and Poe seem to believe that the kind of thinking that scientists do is entirely different from the mental processes of other people.  But, really, all factual knowledge of nature IS scientific.  Even the simplest observation about nature–let’s say, for instance, that maple leaves turn various colors and fall from the trees in autumn–is not different from a scientific observation.  It is a conclusion based on evidence.

What scientists do is not different in kind, but just in degree, from what every sane person does every day. Anything a poet knows about nature has come through the same kind of mental processes that a scientist uses.  True, poets write about people’s emotional responses to the natural world.  But any poetic feeling for nature must begin with factual knowledge of nature.  Only a poet who has observed nature can write a poem about it. 

I find that nothing else is quite so exhilarating and awe-inspiring as to look at the stars and to know that they are vast distances from us. That knowledge does not detract from the beauty of a clear night sky.

The sun is the closest star to us and is about ninety-three million miles away.  Light (the fastest thing in the universe), coming from the sun at 186,000 miles per second, takes more than eight minutes to reach us.   Light from the outer-most planets orbiting about the sun can take as much as an hour and a half to reach us, depending on what position the planets occupy in their orbits. 

Since radio signals travel no faster than visible light, a radio conversation between someone on earth and someone on Neptune would be difficult.  The person on earth might ask, “How’s the weather there?” and then would have to wait a couple of hours to hear the person on Neptune say, “Oh, about the same as yesterday.”

Light coming from the next star beyond the sun takes more than four years to reach us.  Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is so large that light needs a hundred thousand years to traverse it.  The sky is filled with such galaxies of stars in every direction we look, and the closest significant galaxy beyond our Milky Way (visible through the constellation Andromeda) is a gigantic pinwheel of stars more than a million light-years away.  Yet, despite this vast space and this enormous number of stars, we are–as far as we know–the only creatures ANYWHERE who look out at the stars and wonder about them. 

Whatever these facts of science are, they are certainly not “dull realities” as Poe puts it.  Of course, Poe and Whitman were largely ignorant of the true nature of stars.  Only in the twentieth century have people had any inkling of what they were seeing when they looked at the stars. 

But even today some people are unmoved by the grandeur of the universe as we find it and prefer instead to study the superstitions of the horoscope or other pseudo-science.  Why?  Maybe such people are interested in only what relates directly and personally to them.  Perhaps, like the poet Keats, they resist learning what causes a rainbow because they want to believe that a rainbow is magic.  For whatever reason, some people seem to prefer fantasy to knowledge, without being aware of how fantastic reality is.


Written by polemicscat

June 25, 2008 at 4:21 pm

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