In the novel The Robots of Dawn, third in Isaac Asimov’s Robot trilogy, a preeminent scientist, the best on his or any other world in his field, says:
“You know it always bothers some of my colleagues when I tell them that, if a conclusion is not poetically balanced, it cannot be scientifically true. They tell me they don’t know what that means.”
Baley said, “I’m afraid I don’t, either.”
“But I know what it means, I can’t explain it, but I feel the explanation without being able to put it into words, which may be why I have achieved results my colleagues have not. …”
I made note of the quote as I re-read this classic novel last week because it echoes so closely something I myself have struggled to put into words for my entire adult life.
As a teenager, I chose the identical comparison for explaining my delight with certain physics experiments:
[The experiment’s demonstration of the concept] is so perfect. It just sings. It’s like poetry.
I know I’ve repeated the phrase, “it’s like poetry,” many times in conversation about great ideas. I have yet to find a better expression for “the intuitive sense of the rightness” of a theory. It’s definitely something to do with harmony and balance.
Having devoured Asimov’s Robot novels in middle school*, it is now obvious to me that I’d read the quote with which I began this post well before I myself used the poetry simile. I’m now begging the question, did I get this idea from Asimov, leaving it to quietly percolate for another half dozen or so years before I re-expressed it, taking a distant memory for my own idea?
Or is this notion a truth, existing in the intellectual universe, waiting to be uncovered by one likely mind after another?
Does anyone else find herself using this expression to express a certain balanced perfection in knowledge?**
If you do, did you also read Asimov at a formative age?
Is poetry as distillation of language from the prosaic to the artistic a fundamentally apt metaphor for great leaps in scientific discovery and the expression thereof, or does the comparison only resonate with creative writers? Pardon me, please, for lumping my humble efforts with the greatness of Asimov in this respect!
Finally, as an aside, I want to shout to the world that the Robot series holds up well for revisiting decades after their impressive effect on a young reader. Asimov was a genius, and these books remain a fantastic diversion.
*roughly age 12
**Here’s a person writing about science and poetry in a literary journal. She maintains that the disciplines aren’t mutually exclusive, though they might seem so to less perceptive thinkers. A search also shows me that someone once had an e-zine at poetryandscience.com, but the link appears to be broken so I can only wonder at what took place there.
2 thoughts on “Does poetry offer the best analogy for humanity’s greatest scientific breakthroughs?”
Beauty (symmetry, etc.) has definitely been used as a criterion for scientific theories; many great scientists have been Platonists and Pythagoreans in this sense. Check out Wigner’s great essay: https://www.dartmouth.edu/~matc/MathDrama/reading/Wigner.html . Penrose is another modern example.
I’m a big fan of the idea that the greatest scientists have had as much creativity and imagination as some of the greatest artists. one of my favorite examples has always been Arthur C. Clarke (a graduate of my old college–sorry, I usually add that after I write his name; means nothing of course, but I like it). Asimov is undoubtedly one of the greatest authors in his, or any other field (have you read the Foundation books?); but, poetry for me, is something that my school teachers went to great lengths to drive any appreciation of completely out of my system. Only in recent months have I begun to — tentatively — approach it once again. Sometimes I like what I read, others make me recoil and take solace in a little Richard Dawkins, Douglas Adams, Noam Chomsky, or Jerry Coyne.
But I think I can relate to that idea of a “balanced scientific theory”. That is, the full definition of a scientific theory, including the collection of laws, replicability, tentativeness, falsifiability, testability, predictability and so on; not the notion that any theory is “just an idea”. When something meets all the necessary criteria for an accepted scientific theory — like evolution, gravity, and the germ theory of disease — then there is something beautiful in that accumulated knowledge; it’s a way we have discovered of viewing a fundamental truth of nature, and that must be Great Art if anything ever could be.