Some visions, dreams, miracles and revelations in science

‘That is why all science grows out of philosophical thinking – out of the criticism of imaginative visions – why it takes that criticism for granted and always continues to need it. It is why the vision of an omnicompetent science – a free-standing, autonomous skill with a monoloply of rationality that does all our thinking for us – is not workable…All science includes philosophic assumptions that can be questioned and those assumptions don’t stop being influential just because they have been forgotten. They lie under the floorboards of all intellectual schemes…Scientists influence us by their imagery, by their selection of topics, by the terms in which they explain their theories, by the views that they express about what does and does not constitute a proper scientific attitude… What they need to avoid is fundamentalism – the conviction that the particular imaginative vision espoused by their own party of current scientists is a solitary gospel which must always prevail.’ Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

‘Biologists must take responsibility for the correct use of language in genetics. We think we think with words: too often, the words think us. Four centuries ago, Francis Bacon showed us how those who say they seek knowledge are prisoners of language. He proposed the doctrine of the four idols - objects of false worship that block our understanding. Of these four Bacon wrote: "The Idols of the Tribe lie deep in human nature. . . The human understanding . . . readily supposes a greater order and uniformity in things than it finds . . . [it] is infused by desire and emotion, which give rise to 'wishful science’ and attachment to preconceived ideas. The Idols of the Cave are your particular set, or my different one, of preconceptions and prejudices. The Idols of the Theatre are those ‘which have crept into human minds from . . . faulty demonstrations’ - experiments. They distort understanding because they take the representation for the reality. Then, worst, "There are also idols arising from the dealings or associations of men with one another, which I call Idols of the Market-place". He had in mind, evidently, the agora, where in ancient Athens men met to talk. "For speech is the means of association among men," he wrote, "and in consequence, a wrong and inappropriate application of words obstructs the mind to a remarkable extent.’ Horace Freeland Judson, Director, Center for History of Recent Science, George Washington University, US, Nature, 2001

‘I declare, in the first place, that the new truth, laboriously sought and so elusive during two years of vain efforts, rose up suddenly in my mind like a revelation.’ Santiago Ramon y Cajal,  Scientist, concerning brain nerve cells, Recollections of my Life,  trans, American Philosophical Society, 1937

‘May God us keep/ From single vision and Newton’s sleep!’  William Blake, Poem to Thomas Butts, ‘With happiness stretch’d across the hills.’

’He had made no direct experiments.  [Dmitri Ivanovitch Mendeleyev] had come to his conclusions seemingly out of thin air. There had gradually been born in the fertile mind of this man the germ of a great truth. It was a fantastic seed but it germinated with surprising rapididty. When the flower was mature, he ventured to startle the world with its beauty…. In 1875, the first of the new elements he foretold was discovered.’ Bernard Jaffe, Crucibles, 1930

‘Wolfgang Mozart confided that a whole new composition would suddenly arise in his mind. At convenient moments he would translate this entire fabric of rhythm, melody, harmony, counterpoint and tune into the written symbols of a score…’ Antony Smith, The Mind, 1984, Hodder & Stoughton

‘The idea [of natural selection] grew in both minds through extensive travel as natural historians, through detailed observations of natural phenomena around the world…and through dream and reflection.’ Gillian Beer, Introduction, Charles Darwin Origin of Species, 1859, Oxford University Press, 1998

Precision is a dream, an approximation

Precision is a dream, an approximation of how things are –

the dancing steps of an atom, score of a symphony can each

come down from heaven in neural flushes - blushing brain,

wired hands, with special energy; energy flowers, blossom,

some extravagance on an established theme - but startling

as the sudden blue flash of a kingfisher by a dreamy river,

among brown, ordinary birds; each its own miracle cluster,

but not risen to such avian heights - dreaming of peacocks.

All communication of science loses the purity of the science;

absolute knowledge is impossible without the mind of God -

who understands without matter - eyes and hands, brain;

mind free of organic anchors, genetic limitations, though

how the worm came to understand the quark is miraculous

beyond the dreams of mortal boundaries; random art found

in the solidity of being, its illusory nature; imagine Relativity

written without the word, equation, illustration, explanation –

somewhere maybe you think up there - in ink crushed, milked

from stars, shining; but even silver symbols require translation,

what mark could represent the thought without being a mark -

what body could the thought inhabit like a snakeskin capable

of re-invention by expansion, change; we can never see ideas

except by some species of art - filtration systems of the mind;

imagination, representation, expression, comparison, metaphor,

analogy; no sterile single concept stands alone, inviolable, apart

from everything else extant, possible; among the impossible

as we understand it to be – the scientist is a kind of visionary.


Single vision is to introduce sterility where none exists –

the world not better described thus but instead diminished

a little - made that bit more miserable – stripped, somewhat

of glory, evident shining that is not explained, nor banished

by lack of admission of existence - if something is not X

or Y, or any other letter known, it does not mean it is not.

The sparkling pathways of the mind are not dictated

by the man whose tissue feels its own commands -

but other impulse too; in starry-prickling other energy,

running current, that can lasso the stars, capture water.

‘He christened his remarkable substance penicillin…The accidental discovery in Fleming’s laboratory was close to being miraculous.’ Sarah R Riedman and Elton T Gustafson, Portraits of Nobel Laureates in Medicine and Physiology, Abelard-Schuman, 1963

"I would rather discover one scientific fact than become King of Persia." Democritus, Mathematician and Philosopher, 5th century BC

‘…here/ Even here, over the shining test-tubes/ The spirit of the alchemist still hovered/ Hungry for magic, for the philosopher’s stone.// His mind developed like an ancient chrch/ By the accretion of side-aisles and the enlarging of lights/ Till all the walls are windowns and the sky/ Comes in, if coloured; such a mind…a man…/ Deserves a consecration; such a church/ Bears in its lines, the trademark of the Kingdom.’ Louis MacNeice, 1907-63


‘We talked of many things but most often of our beloved chemistry. One fine summer evening I was returning by the last bus…. I fell into a reverie and lo, the atoms were gambling before my eyes! Whenever, hitherto, these diminuitive beings had appeared to me they had always been in motion; but up to that time I had never been able to discern the nature of their motion. Now, however, I saw how, frequently, two smaller atoms united to form a pair; how a larger one embraced the two smaller ones; how still larger ones kept hold of three or even four of the smaller; whilst the whole kept whilring in a giddy dance. I saw how the larger ones formed a chain, dragging the smaller ones after them but only at the ends of the chain.’ Friedrich August Kekule, Scientist, 1829-96

‘[Friedrich August Kekule (1829-96)] said that the fundamental theory of organic molecular structure came to him in a dream…. Kekule published his Theory of Molecular Structure in 1858, explaining how carbon atoms link together to form chains, just as his dream had told him.’ Faber Book of Science, 2005

‘Again the atoms were gambling before my eyes, this time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by repeated visions of this kind, could now distinguish larger structures of manifold conformation: long rows, sometimes more closely fitted together all twining and twisting in snake-like motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke; and this time also I spent the rest of the night in working out the consequences of the hypothesis.’ Friedrich August Kekule, Scientist, 1829-96

‘Kekule’s realisation that carbon atoms form rings as well as chains was made public in 1866… Later research has confirmed that all organic Nature is based on the carbon chain and the carbon ring, and that life itself depends on the capacity of carbon atoms to form molecular chains and rings as they did in Kekule’s dreams.’ John Carey, Editor, Faber Book of Science, 2005

‘…science, at its best, should leave room for poetry...Skill in wielding metaphors and symbols is one of the hallmarks of scientific genius.’ Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin, 1998

Life is dancing, Kekule dreamt

Life is dancing, Kekule dreamt, envisioned;

fixing his reverie in reality by calculations -

carbon atoms dance; pairing, twisting chains,

rings - circular motion of the whole Universe

tuning the heart of a flower, finger;

hair of a Polar Bear - eye and leaf,

into particular expression, shape and pattern;

organic movement - atomic art of chemistry.


Kekule saw the nature of things in a dream, reverie -

organic molecular structure revealed as dance of life;

linking of carbon, formed at the very start of everything,

connected in perpetual motion - some unheard harmony

coiling the rings, binding the chains; tuning reality

to huge music still resounding among stars - brain

cells; moving his waking pen to pictorial interpretation -

synthesis of thought, inspiration and divine composition.


Snakes and chains, dancing; how much better a description

of how things are than reductive symbols alone - especially

for sharing with other minds who understand these images,

can follow their meaning; share such important knowledge.

‘I’d start off any crystal structure operation by taking the photograph myself and looking at it… I admit that I don’t like some modern improvements which cut out the photographs almost altogether and put everything through a counter. I got a lot of pleasure myself out of just looking at the photographs and guessing the answers even if I guessed incorrectly and got it wrong. Also some photographs are really very beautiful you know…it’s difficult not to enjoy just growing the crystals.’ Dorothy Hodgkin, Nobel Laureate, A Passion for Science, Oxford University Press, 1988

‘The poetry is in the science.’ Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, 1998

‘Art posters are everywhere in labs. Biochemists aspire to emulate Rothko with their polyacrylamide gels; developmental biologists respond to the rich patterns and symbols of fertility in Klimt.’ Nature Editorial,  2005

‘Science can pay its way but, like great art, it shouldn’t have to.’ Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin, 1998

‘Is art a luxury? Is there any connection between poetry and science? Academic specialisation usually divides these topics so sharply that it is hard to relate them on a single map. But there is one very simple map which does claim to relate them, a map which is worth looking at because it has quite an influence on our thinking. It is the map which the distinguished chemist Peter Atkins draws in the course of arguing that science is omnicompetent, that is, able to supply all our intellectual needs. He notes that some people may think we need other forms of thought such as poetry and philosophy as well as science because science cannot deal with the spirit. They are mistaken, he says, these forms add nothing serious to science: ‘Although poets may aspire to understanding,  their talents are more akin to self deception. They may be able to empasise delights in the world, but they are deluded if they and their admirers believe that their identification of the delights and their use of poignant language are enough for comprehension’. Philosophers too, I am afraid, have contributed to the understanding of the universe little more than poets…’They have not contributed much that is novel until after novelty has been discovered by scientists…while poetry titillates and theology obsfucates, science liberates’. (From ‘The Limitless Power of Science’, Nature’s Imagination, 1995). Though this view is not usually declared with quite such outspokeness and tribal belligerence, it is actually not a rare one. A lot of people today accept it, or at least can’t see a good reason why they should not accept it, even if they don’t like it. They have a suspicion, welcome or otherwise, that the arts are mere luxuries and science is the only intellectual necessity. It seems to them that science supplies all the facts out of which we build (so to speak) the house of our beliefs. Only after this house is built can we – if we like – sit down inside it, turn on the CD player and listen to some Mozart or read some poetry.  As we shall see, however, this is not how we actually live our lives, still less how we ought to try to live them.’ Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

‘Perhaps the kind of imagination it takes to conceive of a radical and complicated new scientific theory, and prove it, is not so different from what is required to envision, compose and successfully execute a great poem. The human mind may not be as compartmentalized or fractured as we tend to believe. If science and art have anything in common it exists in the resources of the human brain and our ability to create something unforeseen and revolutionary out of our dreaming.’ Kurt Brown, Verse and Universe, Milkweed Publications, 1997

‘A Keats and a Newton, listening to each other, might hear the galaxies sing.’ Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, 1998

Romantic Science

‘Romantic Science’ then? synthesising, connecting,

drawing the whole - mending division, monovision,

that will break the flower into a clutch of petals;

olfactory sensation, sexual organs, light systems

of photosynthesis, colour, sugar beloved of bees -

forget that it is beautiful, entire; present, interactive

with the human viewer who, in turn, is part

of such dependent and independent beauty -

will learn of sublime coloured chemistries,

green mechanisms evolving oxygen; stem

and head conducting light into nutrition, food -

flower eye combining beauty; such knowledge.

I enter these halls - austere, blinding white,

without shame; like heavy snow underfoot,

where poet footsteps have grown scarce,

yet what prints are frozen there in time -

leading poets on, even into hailstones,

specialisation, blizzards of ignorance.

Even these hard fields must be passed through -

for the real heart of things will never ever yield

to this particular view or that – dissection

of the rose can never deliver a rose entire;

biology of an eye will never explain how love

is written in its glass; what light candles there.

Chemistry is creative – cells, enzymes, proteins,

spiralling DNA; cold Science cannot fully know,

express, communicate this old dream factory,

mechanics of reality - existence, life, without

additional equations for wonder, poetry - connection,

that it cannot yet write. But Romantic Science would

allow such writing; melt these soporific, blinding snows

that suffocate the poet or the punter at the door, or spurn

his educational ignorance; will dissect a sonnet’s structure,

but not contend with awe and wonder on the mighty scale

of deoxyribonucleic acid - invisible Human Genome

unearthed now with far more treasures than a trillion

Tutenkhamens, all the human volumes of the world –

who has lack of imagination now, they say, to remain

ignorant, thickly unaware of such shattering implications,

this huge news; shuttling instead between Science Fiction

movies, unreal cartoon baddies hijacking magic technology

for evil, to take over the world, before Hollywood stoppage.

Or praying to the false god of Science as the single answer

to all sickness - human, animal and planetary; or now hurt,

disbelieving the evidence of CJD, Foot and Mouth;

healing drugs that murder, mutate, fail to save lives - 

sophisticated, plastic, feral technology advances,

leaving the vast majority of mankind far behind,

involved in struggles that they do not even understand -

conducted in a language more foreign than Click-tongue,

Martian - the babbling of monkeys, birds disputing bread,

to most; who take refuge in sofas, the fiction of reality TV.

The Human Genome is a gift, being so tenderly and roughly

handled - grasped, touched, unwrapped; shining opportunity,

healing aesthetic motif encompassing, evidencing, explaining,

how beauty and science - art and science, chemistry and art -

mechanisms of life and how they come to be, are one, integrated;

more reflective of existence, what seems the true nature of things.

Romantic Science can be a label then; serve, amalgamate,

in service of the home Universe - illuminate this Creation. 

‘That positivitist claim – first made by Auguste Comte and repeated by many sages since – underlies many desperate attempts today in other studies, especially in the social sciences, to make themselves, in some sense, ever more ‘scientific’. This mysterious segregation of science can, however, just as easily lead to alienation and fear. Both the dangers of technology and the idelological distortions of scienttistic thinking lead people to declare  war on science itself. Thus we oscillate between idealising science and dreading it. Both these attitudes are equally wrong. Both deal in unreal abstractions. The sciences (which are many) are not cut off in this way from the rest of our thought but are continuous with it…The many scientific ways of thinking all flow out of common thought, draw on its imagery and share its motivations. Scientists do indeed aim at objective truth about the world and, like the rest of us, they sometimes achieve it. Water really is made of hydrogen and oxygen and the liver really does secrete bile. But scientists have to select for their investigation patterns which fit patterns in the world they are going to investigate…it surely is striking how deeply scientific thinking is pervaded by patterns drawn from everyday thought and, in particular, how strong an effect the imagery chosen has on what it conceived at a given time as being scientific…Irrelevant notions about how to make thought ‘hard’ and scientific by imitating physical science still constantly distort the social sciences and many other areas of our thought…In fact human life is rather like an enormous, ill-lit aquarium which we never see fully from above, but only through various small windows unevenly distributed around it. Scientific windows - like historical ones - are just one important set among these.’ Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

‘I once heard Jacques Monod, the great French molecular biologist, say that he gained chemical insight by imagining how it would feel to be an electron at a particular molecular juncture.’ Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin, 1998

‘In research the front line is almost always in a fog.’ Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989

The mind is a light -

an organic and metaphorical burning

in illuminated skull;

white bone lantern -

looking through pumpkin sockets,

leading through starry darkness -

roots unknown, unseen;

among growing trees fumbling,

dusty treasures in the future’s

amazing tombs -

and who will walk with them,

explorers drawing hieroglyphic maps,

stumbling, unsure,

into staggering vistas,

sealed temples,

this hallowed ground -

if not all of us.

And who will best describe

such journeys and gold,

index the spoils for us all.

‘What, for instance, about substance, necessity,truth, knowledge, objectivity, meaning, communication, reality and appearance, reason and feeling, active and passive, right  and wrong, good and evil? What, indeed, about life, which has only been excluded because people today don’t want to look at it? All these are basic categories of our thought. If physics were enlarged to accommodate all of them it would become continuous with the philosophy of science and through this with the central areas of metaphysics. This might not have worried some of its greatest proponents, from Galileo to Einstein. Perhaps indeed it needs this kind of outward connection. But such a move would run quite contrary to the Popperian limitation of the scope of science which most scientists seem to accept today.’ Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

‘Newton was…. In fact, acutely aware of the mystery of the universe. Colour itself, he points out in theOptics, is mysterious.’ John Carey, Faber Book of Science, 2005

‘To poets, the new technical language seemed a sterile sea of jargon, in which the imagination would freeze and drown. John Donne was the first and last English poet not to feel like this about scientific language. He was lucky, being born at just the right time (1572), after the beginning of modern science but before its specialized technical vocabulary had really taken off. So for him, scienntific language could still be warm, mysterious and sonorous, like poetry. He could think of love, and the scientific methods used for establishing latitude and longtude, as perfectly compatible and mutually enriching subjects.’ John Carey, Editor, Faber Book of Science, 2005

Earth turns in her half-eyed sleep

Can stars freckle night’s black face,

flashing messages of speckled light, 

or Earth turn slowly in her half-eyed sleep,

dipping her creatures in silver and shadow;

can waves breathe expiring cuffs, print

fish-flesh ribs on golden-atomed sand -

or autumn’s gooey light drip sweetly

through the hands of flaming trees -

burn sugared leaves to star-skeletons,

simmering the flesh in dragon-pools.

Could the Eagle rise in Celtic spirals -

plumbline dive, cry with a human soul;

spider knit her silver home, hidden until frost

exhibits her homecraft talent - understanding

of complex symmetry, mathematics -

function and aesthetics woven as one;

fairyish dandelion clock puff gusts of

starry flotillas - Bonsai seed galaxies.

Could we dream an angel from swan

and man, paint candle halo on a saint;

showing what light and goodness mixed

by some arcane chemistries should be –

could any of it be; exist, be imagined,

seen - anything happen, without love.

‘That is why Descartes divided mind from body radically and ontologically – by declaring that they were unrelated kinds of substance, linked only by God’s external mediation in a perpetual miracle… This notion of a deep split in reality was the background that was taken for granted in the first days of modern science….Mind and body are still held apart. Their division tends to produce a poplution of one-eyed specialists on both sides, specialists who are mystified by their respective opposite numbers and easly drift into futile warfare…This divisive picture is really very odd; one which does not fit the actual history of thought at all.’ Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

‘Things would make but a poor appearance to the eye, if we saw them only in their proper figures and motions… We are everywhere entertained with pleasing shows and apparitions, we discover imaginary glories in the heavens and in the earth… Our souls are at present delightfully lost and bewildered in a pleasing delusion, and we walk about like the enchanted hero of a romance, who sees beautiful castles, woods and meadows… but upon the finishing of some secret spell the fantastic scene breaks up, and the disconsolate knight finds himself on a barren heath, or in a solitary desert. Joseph Addison, Spectator, 1712

‘How shall the muse then grasp the mighty theme?’ James Thomson, 1700-48, To the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton

From swimming atoms of a star

From swimming atoms of a star,

squirming light in volatile black,

translated to snowflake skeleton;

sparkling cosmic light to glitter-

glue in a plastic tube, or foil;

fuming, boiling Sun smiling

from a yellow crayon face

with saintly, lionish rays -

the world sky membrane,

an A4 strip of blue paint,

with dazzling white seagulls

as upside down circumflexes;

we will impose imagination

as filter to enormous things - 

symbolise, truncate; compress

the fabulous, vast and glorious,

to fold, vacuum-pack them in our minds;

even as life writes with just three letters -

and love is drawn

a simple red heart.

‘Poet and therefore scientist the latter, while the former,/ No scientist, was needs a worthless poet too.’ Hugh MacDiarmid 1920-76, Two Scottish Boys

‘One can’t tell how this fellow gets his effects; he writes as the grass grows.’ Joseph Conrad

“It is my thesis that poets could better use the inspiration provided by science… we need to reclaim for real science that style of awed wonder that moves mystics like Blake.’ Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin, 1988

‘Nor ever yet/ The melting rainbow’s vernal-tinctured hues/ To me have shone so pleasing, as when first/ The hand of science pointed out the path/ In which the sun-beams gleaming from the west /Fall on the watery cloud…’ Mark Akenside, Pleasures of the Imagination, 1744

‘Should our only reaction to a diamond be to explain that it is just carbon, and to a rainbow to point out that it is just water…’ Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

The rainbow is one

The rainbow, her principles and chemistry,

are one; her colour, beauty, light, reaction -

translucent chemistries of shimmer;

physics of refraction - beams, H2O.

Her being, nature, like the blue of an eye,

sight – more kinds of light shining there.

The leaf’s live chemistry

The leaf’s live chemistry,

art of turning green

in presence of light,

will never come apart

like a picked seam

from star skeleton

unfurling a shining lime

webbed fist -

shivering newborn

in wind -

from arms upheld, bent

like a ballerina.

‘In all periods, in responding to the natural world, poets have employed an intellectual framework derived from the science of their day and expressed in characteristic sets of images. These images have progressively been developed and altered or they have been discarded as others have taken their place…these larger cosmological discoveries have complements in those of evoution and the genetic code. Darwin, Crick and Watson have also altered our knowledge and our sense of ourselves as humans.’ Poems of Science, Edited John Heath-Stubbs and Phillips Salman, Penguin, 1984

‘A steady stream of imagery has in fact played a crucial part in the rise of modern science. In the early days that imagery centred on comparing the physical world with the clockwork machines of the early industrial revoution, an analaogy which, after proving immensely useful, is now running into trouble in many places, notably in particle physics. Darwin, for his part, notoriously relied greatly on the metaphor of slection, amother comparison which has been very useful but has proved to have drawbacks…. No picture should be allowed to become an imaginative monoculture.’ Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

Science has no immunity to metaphor –

Science has no immunity to metaphor;

indeed, leans upon it as a silver crutch

when language cultured for its everyday

is too precise, limited in scope, meaning,

to carry out the message of the work -

convey, interpret, relay, communicate.

But the metaphor must be acknowledged,

recognised as such - shorthand, imagery -

as the saying that something is something

that it is not by way of cogent illustration;

mechanism, artificial imposition - embroidery

upon the truth to make it more comprehensible.

Nowhere more so than in genetic metaphors;

script, letters, translation and transcription -

beautifully moulded, musically attuned, appropriate;

perfect metaphors - as is the Word, in the beginning.

And similes too will flower from scientific concepts,

needfully blurring edges because nothing in nature -

even those things once thought perfectly whole, alone,

are so cut off from all else in the interwoven Universe;

not one star among these flinging millions exists alone,

no blade of grass exists apart from us; being and planet,

systems and creatures - equations, natural laws, even Chaos,

all connected in a whole - and us taking pictures, snapshots,

breaking pictures into artificial chunks, digestible elements;

forgetting the total mirror - spherical, reflecting itself inside

and out, mistaking partial mosaic for smooth truth;

limits of our thought, perception – comprehension,

for the borders of what is, what could be; space, energy,

outward and inward, of biological force, presence of us.

‘A light exists in spring/…A color stands abroad/ On solitary hills/ That science cannot overtake,/ But human nature feels.’ Emily Dickinson, 1830-86

Kirlian photography shows

Kirlian photography shows how it feels

when you touch me - that light surging

from your fingers; energy prickling hair,

skin, entering my pores to my own dark

home of light, bright current – my heart.

How it felt when I touched my new son -

most alive I had ever been; life charging

through me - stunning, essential energy

pouring from my hands - covering him 

with a second eternal bright skin: love.

‘Fair thy renown/ In awful sages and in noble bards;/ Soon as the light of dawning Science spread/ Her orient ray, and waked the Muses’ song…’ James Thomson, 1700-48, The Seasons, Summer

The mechanism of the dandelion

The mechanism of the dandelion,

unplugging snug seeds

just at the moment their hair is grown -

starry crowns with something of the feather,

storyteller’s magical sail

spun from a fairy spell -

that she, such humble street flower,

despite her blazing yellow lion-head,

her sunny cheerfulness erupting 

toughest seams of city cracks,

bursting like small smiles at our feet,

should send forth these tiny galaxies,

airy ships, with such studied elegance -

Vasco da Gama souls drifting, searching

for that crumb of dirt,

nutrient nook,

to nursery their scripted burden,

cargo of seed-children -

is the meeting of natural technology,

urge and purpose, elemental force,

with a small, common, but

immeasureable kinetic beauty;

source of wonder at the glorious state,

creative and aesthetic adaptation of life,

discovered from whale to weed,

tiger to owl-eyed butterfly -

lifting a stone, finding even this

is home to some wee creature.

‘The Morgan Library has a very fine 11th-Century Launcelot….[I] turned to the rubric of the very first owner dated 1221, the rubric a squiggle of very thick ink. I put a glass on it and there embedded deep in the ink was the finest crab louse, pfithera pulus, I ever saw. He was perfectly preserved, even to his little claws…I called the curator over and showed him my find and he let out a cry of sorrow. ‘I’ve looked at that rubric a thousand times,’ he said. ‘Why couldn’t I have found him’.’ John Steinbeck, letter, 1962; A Life in Letters, Heinemann, 1975

‘Modern specialisation tends to cut off the physical sciences from the rest of our thinking. What we ‘lay people’ (as we are signigicantly called) mostly notice about the sciences is simply their power. Technology impresses us so deeply that we are not much surprised by the claim that scientific methods ought to be extended to cover the rest of our thought.’ Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

‘The son of semi-illiterate peasant farmers… [Jean-Henri Fabre 1823-1915] was almost entirely self taught… His accounts of the creatures he studied – wasps, bees, dung beetles, gnats, spiders, scorpions – grew into the 10 volume Souvenirs Entomologiques. Picturesque and informal, and enlivened by allusions to his eight children, the family dog, and other minor characters, these essays established Fabre’s greateness as both poet and scientist. To Victor Hugo he was ‘the insect’s Homer’, to Charles Darwin, an incomparable observer.’ A strain of callousness, even cruelty in his writing, accentuated by his tendency to describe his insects as if they were people, and contrasting curiously with his humour and charm, enhances its dramatic quality.’ Peter Carey, Editor, Faber Book of Science

‘The naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace recorded the intense excitement he experienced on finding a previously unknown species of butterfly. (His heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to his head, and he felt as though he were going to faint; so great was the excitement that he had a headache for the rest of the day.).’ Oxford Dictionary

‘Where have Britain's moths gone? Our new report reveals that the moth population of Britain is in serious decline, causing concern for the future of many species of birds, bats and several small mammals that feed on them…Changes in the extent and quality of suitable habitat are amongst the prime suspects driving the declines of many once common moths, with pesticide use, eutrophication and light pollution perhaps contributing in some or many cases. Climate change also seems to be affecting moth distribution, abundance and phenology and has been implicated in the only case of moth population decline that has been investigated in detail thus far (the Garden Tiger Arctia caja)…. 62 moth species became extinct in Britain during the twentieth century and many more species are considered now to be nationally threatened or scarce. The UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) lists 53 moths as national priority species for conservation. Survey work, ecological research and habitat management over the past few years has benefited at least 27 of these priority moths. However, eight species are considered to be in a worse position now than at the beginning of the BAP process a decade ago.’ Butterfly Conservation, 2007

‘That summer I had been collecting assiduously on moonless nights, in a glade of the park, by spreading a bedsheet over the grass and its annoyed glow-worms, and casting upon it the light of an acytelene lamp…into that radiance, moths would come drifting out of the solid blackness all around me, and it was in that manner, upon that magic sheet, that I took a beautiful Plusia… I got even with the first discoverer of ‘my’ moth by giving his own name to a blind man in a novel.’ Vladimir Nabokov, autobiography, Speak,  Memory, Penguin Books, 1969

Setting a lamp to capture luscious moths

Setting a lamp to capture luscious moths

in love with darkness - night perfumes -

what flowers are luminous under the Moon -

blind on a white blanket, stumbling over light,

clouded stars of galactic glow-worms

in their universe of darkened grass -

the heart turns fluttering, shudders

at first landing, gentle thud; thump

of body hinges plopping tremendous wings,

antennae, to earth, irresistible phenomenon

of drugging light, body of an angel, bright door

into heaven; whatever has lured, they’re hooked.

No name exists for this thrill of touching the wild,

being in presence of an unspoiled child of Nature -

looking in the red eyes of a startled stag,

in thrall of his nobility, sparking hooves,

steaming flanks; branched spires of his head

pointing heavenward to the god of all Stags -

a discovered nest, cupping blue eggs in gold grass;

pine marten startling, galloping a dry stane dyke -

grinning otter, self conscious performer in water.

The charge and shivering of the human observer

is not just fruit of discovery, noting of characteristics,

behaviour - this particular manipulation of Evolution

alone; but subterranean thrill, in blood that was sea

turned red in the far time of being joined with them,

surging at these brethren, charging; feeling

some silvery genetic hook of recognition –

similarity; unarticulated, but somewhere beneath

the skin, like a forgotten poem that keeps reciting.

‘…it may be affirmed that scientific accomplishments are creations of the will and rewards of ardour….In proportion as new facts appeared in my preparations, ideas boiled up and jostled each other in my mind. A fever for publication devoured me.’ Santiago Ramon y Cajal, Scientist, Recollections of my Life, trans, American Philosophical Society, 1937

‘Obviously, what we are dealing with here is not a simple duel between feeling and reason – nor one between science and the arts – to be resolved by a victory for one side. We need somehow to value and celebrate scientific knowledge without being dragooned into accepting propaganda which suggests it is the only thing that matters.’ Mary Midgley, Philosopher, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

‘Art is the Tree of Life. Science is the Tree of Death.’ William Blake, 1818

‘…what Blake objected to was single vision - the inability to look at things from any angle other than the scientific one. It was not Newton’s discoveries themselves.’ ref

Most suitable terms

That it does, and how, is known - but why does life occur

when this and that come together; what is the spark, force,

energy?  I’ll say God – Love - as the most suitable terms;

being as good, more comprehensive even, than equations.

How does the script record in seed or cell; build itself

in chemistry - divide, multiply, differentiate, maintain?

Why by magic I’ll say, being the word most appropriate,

more accurate to describe the process than a description.

‘Galileo, however, rejected that explanation and the whole idea of gravitational attraction that went with it because he was committed to the rival mechanistc model which saw the cosmos as a collection of separate particles interacting only by collision. As Descartes put it ‘There exists no occult forces in stones or plants. There are no amazing and marvellous sympathies and antipathies, in fact there exists nothing in the whole of nature which cannot be explained in terms of purely corporeal causes totally devoid of mind and thought’… Since the mechanists held that particles must remain radically separate, the whole possibility of electric connections between them would have been unthinkable for them, though not for Kepler. This is why Galileo could not accept Kepler’s two vital discoveries, of the elliptical orbits of the planets and the moon’s influence on  the tides, viewing them both as superstitious and irrational. In the end, of course, mechanistic thinking led to dazzling successes in some areas of science. But its glory was marred for a time by embarrassing failure in other cases where mechanistic methods simply failed to work – notably over gravitation…as well as over the development of embryos. Mechanists were extremely uneasy about these awkward examples. Their unease may partly explain the brutal rhetoric with which they rejected any suggestions of a more reverent, holistic view of nature which might claim to explain them better. Accordingly, when Newton first proposed his doctrine of gravitational attraction, the dominant mechanist consensus of his day rejected it as incomprehensible. He was only able to get it accepted eventually by suggesting tactfully that what made this mysterious attraction possible was a divine miracle.’ Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

Energy is necessary to the biological

Energy is necessary to the biological;

the Genome cannot be written, write,

without that surge at birth; embryology

unspooling the creatures in the womb -

echoing on through ticking hearts -

years that come; distances to death.

As Big Bang shivers still through every cell,

life batteries sparked from the start of time -

charged with the underlying power, canvas

of energy spreading out the Universe - first

elements always dancing, responsive to life;

its patterned calling among anonymous dark,

through water, air, earth - rippling out among stars -

four billion years calling; messages as codes of light.

‘Quantum Leaps - It is interesting to speculate about potential revolutionary technical developments that might enhance research and clinical applications in a fashion that would rewrite entire approaches to biomedicine. The advent of the polymerase chain reaction, large-insert cloning systems and methods for low-cost, high-throughput DNA sequencing are examples of such advances that have already occurred. During the course of the NHGRI's planning discussions, other ideas were raised about analogous 'technological leaps' that seem so far off as to be almost fictional but which, if they could be achieved, would revolutionize biomedical research and clinical practice.The following is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but to provoke creative dreaming: The ability to determine a genotype at very low cost, allowing an association study in which 2,000 individuals could be screened with about 400,000 genetic markers for $10,000 or less. The ability to sequence DNA at costs that are lower by four to five orders of magnitude than the current cost, allowing a human genome to be sequenced for $1,000 or less. The ability to synthesize long DNA molecules at high accuracy for $0.01 per base, allowing the synthesis of gene-sized pieces of DNA of any sequence for between $10 and $10,000. The ability to determine the methylation status of all the DNA in a single cell. The ability to monitor the state of all proteins in a single cell in a single experiment.’ A Vision for the Future of Genomics Research, US National Human Genome Research Institute, 2003

Note from the author
exploring the project

    Gene Story
    Romantic Science
        Some visions, dreams,
        miracles and revelations
        in science
        Brief romp through the 
        relationship of poetry and 
        science, now largely, and
        sadly, estranged
        Brief romp through the 
        relationship of poetry and 
        science, now largely, and
        sadly, estranged (contd.)
    Some Special Genes
    X & Y

Leave a comment
About the author
Make a contribution
Legal note on copyrightHome.htmlNote_from_the_author.htmlExploring_the_project.htmlQuotes.htmlIntroduction.htmlContents.htmlSEQUENCE_ONE.htmlSEQUENCE_TWO.htmlSEQUENCE_THREE.htmlGene_story.htmlMaps.htmlSequence_3_Sequencing.htmlRomantic_science.htmlBrief_romp_through.htmlBrief_romp_through.htmlBrief_romp_through.htmlBrief_romp_through.htmlBrief_romp_through_%28contd.%29.htmlBrief_romp_through_%28contd.%29.htmlBrief_romp_through_%28contd.%29.htmlBrief_romp_through_%28contd.%29.htmlMedicine.htmlSome_special_genes.htmlCloning.htmlX_%26_Y.htmlSEQUENCE_FOUR.htmlComment.htmlAbout.htmlContribute.htmlCopyright.htmlshapeimage_5_link_0shapeimage_5_link_1shapeimage_5_link_2shapeimage_5_link_3shapeimage_5_link_4shapeimage_5_link_5shapeimage_5_link_6shapeimage_5_link_7shapeimage_5_link_8shapeimage_5_link_9shapeimage_5_link_10shapeimage_5_link_11shapeimage_5_link_12shapeimage_5_link_13shapeimage_5_link_14shapeimage_5_link_15shapeimage_5_link_16shapeimage_5_link_17shapeimage_5_link_18shapeimage_5_link_19shapeimage_5_link_20shapeimage_5_link_21shapeimage_5_link_22shapeimage_5_link_23shapeimage_5_link_24shapeimage_5_link_25shapeimage_5_link_26shapeimage_5_link_27shapeimage_5_link_28shapeimage_5_link_29shapeimage_5_link_30shapeimage_5_link_31shapeimage_5_link_32