- Unified Fields: Science and Literary Form by Janine Rogers
As a poet and a scientist, I often attempt to bridge (or perhaps untangle) the multiple pathways that weave through my own mind, and I am naturally drawn to works like Unified Fields. Much has been said before about the need for reunification of the arts and sciences, including wonderfully articulated pleas from scientists such as E.O. Wilson and writers such as Margaret Atwood, but it remains a very difficult thing to do. We are siloed. A great distance has evolved between the products and processes of science and those of literature. Unified Fields is an important step toward achieving reunification, and Janine Rogers takes this step with generous exploration and without compromising the complexities to be found within each field.
The book itself is a series of fascinating essays, case studies, a series of comparative analyses of scientific and literary form on the basis of single scientific theories or works, and single pieces of literature. In one there is discussion of a poem by one of my favourite poets, Robyn Sarah, who wrote a found poem entitled “A Brief History of Time: Digest and Subtext” based on text taken directly from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief [End Page 534] History of Time. Rogers explores a number of metaphoric connections and writes that, “in the end, the unifying principle is not the object of knowledge itself but rather the process of making knowledge; this is what brings form and meaning to us.” I also enjoyed the essay on the similarity of mathematical (e.g., the Fibonacci sequence) and biological (e.g., DNA) structural forms to the sestina, specifically, Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina.” Pattern recognition is, after all, the first step in knowledge creation. Rogers’s comparisons are on the basis of structural form (e.g., the inward spiral of both the DNA molecule and the sestina, Bishop’s use of letters assigned to the four base proteins of DNA) but also on the basis of metaphor and historical connections. She wonders, for example, whether Bishop, who wrote the poem in 1956, would have been following the scientific discoveries of her time, including James Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery in 1953. In the end one remains enthralled by such coincidences. Rogers argues that “the impulse to ask why and to set in motion a process that will bring us to an imperfect (in Frye’s sense) form of knowledge is what unifies the poet and the scientist.” Could it be that better understanding of what we respectively don’t know could lead to increased knowledge in each realm?
Rogers writes that “when poets articulate scientific ideas through poetic form, the result is not simply a literal paraphrase of scientific knowledge … [S]cience is mined for emotional and intellectual information that is built into the technical information.” However, Rogers places emphasis on what she calls “the poesis of popular science,” where she suggests that part of a scientist’s work is the vulgarization of science. It is not. Scientific communication, although very important, is not science in and of itself. Looking for reunification based solely on these sources will ultimately be futile. One must look to the raw materials of science, the scientific products and processes themselves, as one looks to the poems themselves, and not to their reviews or critical work. There are big and pervasive obstacles, but perhaps the real problem of unification may lie in the fact that it is not clear what we ultimately expect from this process. Is it progress? Is it sustainability? Is it higher consciousness? Until we lay down some hypotheses (and I must confess I don’t what they should be), I think we will continue to somewhat arbitrarily unify the parts of science and literature that are the most accessible to us, the low-hanging fruits, the lowest common denominators, such as those to be found in popular science, the Canterbury Tales of prose, the sonnets of poetry.
Unified Fields (which might more aptly be titled Unifying Fields) is a useful...