Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The imperfect is our paradise

I think I might have mentioned that I am clearing out the office I have been residing in at the college since my retirement. I discover that after a more than 30 years as a science writer I have nearly as many books of poetry as of science, including a shelf of volumes signed by poet friends.

I don't write often about poetry, but it informs my thinking about science, and creates a rich conceptual landscape in which scientific ideas can travel. In the current issue of Poetry, Hungarian-born British poet George Szirtes says this of poetry:
Poetry is useless as evidence. As far as I know, no poem has ever been adduced as evidence in court. The truths the poem deals with are not evidentiary truths. Truths they are, and deep truths at that, but they are not in the form of falsifiable statements such as science or law demands. They do not lead back to the real life outside the poem: their truths refer to the real life inside the poem.
So much of our present tension between science and religion derives from confusing the evidentiary value of poetry with the evidentiary value of science. It is not that we are faced with two contradictory realities, but -- as it were -- with two reflections of the same reality, one in the mirror of the heart, the other in the mirror of the mind. One doesn't take a poem apart on the lab bench. And one doesn't send one's lover the Second Law of Thermodynamics as a valentine.