Issue Date: April 22, 2013
Ambiguity As Fuel
The notion of there being a divide between the two cultures of art and science has simmered since the time of the ancient Greeks. We as a society have gone so far in perpetuating this belief that we commonly label each other, saying a person is “right-brained” if prone to gravitate toward being expressive through the arts or “left-brained” if prone to find solace in the technical details of the sciences.
But there are brave souls who have been willing to try dispelling such notions and nudge art and science closer together. One of them is environmental scientist and poet Arthur J. Stewart, who has just published his fourth book of poetry, titled “.”
Through his work as a scientist and as a creative writer Stewart has been encouraging his fellow scientists and students to become more comfortable and accepting of the use of metaphors, analogies, and similes. And he encourages poets to not be shy and to drill down into scientific topics to see what they might discover to write about. Who says either side of the preconceived cultural divide should have an exclusive claim, whether analyzing evidence for existence of the Higgs boson or wondering why a lover is being fickle?
“Communication is the means of getting us from here to there, either in science or the arts,” Stewart told C&EN a decade ago when his first poetry book came out. “The delightful vocabulary in science can, and in my opinion should, be brought into poetry. The expressive language of poetry should be used more often by scientists.”
Stewart has an eclectic background. He studied chemistry and biology, served in the Peace Corps in Ghana, earned a Ph.D. in aquatic ecology, and ended up at Oak Ridge National Laboratory as a toxicologist. Stewart gradually acted on his pull toward poetry by publishing his first collection in 2003. He also acted on his interest in science education, going back to school for a master’s degree on the topic.
Although he continues to research greenhouse gas emissions from hydroelectric power reservoirs, Stewart spends the bulk of his time now as a science education project manager for the consortium. In that capacity, he works on multifaceted projects for high school, undergraduate, and graduate students. He also runs the postdoctoral program for Savannah River National Laboratory.
In his first three poetry collections, Stewart addressed interrelated themes. First, he considered how scientists, in becoming more familiar with poetry, could improve how they communicate science to the public. He next explored the idea that respect, truth, and sincerity in science and in daily life are essential ingredients in advancing science, in particular because of their importance in science education. In the third collection, Stewart looked at how science education itself is an integral aspect of science: Science stems from personal experience and is transferred in part to the next generation of scientists through parents, science mentors, and teachers.
In “The Ghost in the Word,” Stewart’s central idea is to remind scientists and poets that ambiguity can be a powerful driving force.
Ambiguity is the lifeblood and basis of both science and poetry, Stewart explains. Science is pushing forward in multiple directions at an increasing speed, and the leading edges of these progressions are entering new territories of the unknown, the guessed-at, and the not-understood, evolving as they go. Ambiguity is what these leading edges find and is what fuels them. In science and in poetry, big things start from ambiguous little things bumping into each other.
Throughout the 60 poems in this book, Stewart touches on his real-life influences, or “ghosts.” Key among them is his diagnosis and, knock on wood, cure of prostate cancer by radiation treatment.
Cancer is scary, Stewart says, generating unmitigated ambiguity aplenty. “Cancer can push an individual to think hard about scientific things such as physiology, genetics, medical technologies, risk assessment, and statistics.”
Stewart rarely makes science the focus of his poems. That would seem forced and uncomfortable, too analytical. Rather, he cleverly leaves the science as a platform for the poems or as a thread running through them. The focus tends to be on the personal insight he takes away from the emotive moment, or what social impact the insight might conjure up.
For example, he begins one poem asking a question, “How big is a proton?” The train of thought evolves to the conclusion that people really just don’t know how much we don’t know. In another poem, he dwells on how scientists stitched spider genes into silkworms to make a new type of silk, not for making kimonos but for making bulletproof vests. Throughout the collection, as he had hoped, Stewart uses a little ambiguity to hook thoughts together in provocative ways.
Stewart’s writing serves to remind scientists that we need to open our minds to a broader worldview as we go about our daily work. Creative writing and doing science aren’t easy. If they were, everybody would be doing them. For anyone who is unwilling or unable to engage in one or the other of these endeavors, Stewart’s book offers a way to fill in the gaps. If you haven’t read any poetry in a while, maybe since you had to in high school, Stewart’s latest collection is a good place to get reacquainted.
Steve Ritter is a C&EN senior correspondent.
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