Thursday, 31st August, 2006

Simon Armitage: Where Science and Poetry Meet

New Scientist : August 26, 2006

AT THE university where I once taught creative writing, the physics department offered a course known in the common room as Astronomy for Poets. Being somewhat interested in both subjects, I got curious and phoned up the admissions secretary, who sent me a glossy brochure. It included the following bullet-points:

discover the secrets of pulsars and black holesfollow the evolution of the universe from the big banginvestigate the birth and death of stars and the origins of life beyond Headingly.

For anyone unfamiliar with the geography of the north of England, Headingly is a constellation situated towards the outer edges of the city of Leeds whose points of interest include a

It must be a great frustration to mathematicians to be faced with the perception that all things mathematical must express themselves as a number; it's the same for poets whose works are expected to add up to a single and precise meaning. Although I've begun with anecdotes that suggest friction between science and the arts, what I want to suggest is that poetry and science, for all their perceived differences, might well be attempting to accomplish the same thing and through remarkably similar means.

I was 10 or 11 when a gang of us found a tractor tyre on the moor and decided to roll it down into the village and burn it. In the poem that follows, I tell of how the tyre gained an unstoppable momentum as it careered down the road towards the village, and how we lost sight of it as it headed for destruction and carnage. When we arrived in the village, the tyre was nowhere to be seen. Because science - or what we knew of it at the time - had failed us, we were left to invent some other explanation:

Being more in tune with the feel of things than science and facts, we knew that the tyre had travelled too fast for its size and mass, and broken through some barrier of speed, outrun the act of being driven, steered,and at that moment gone beyond itself towards some other sphere, and disappeared.

I suppose what I'm trying to convey at the end of the poem is the sense of endless possibility that comes naturally to all children, just as it powers the imagination of most poets. At age 10 or 11, if a tyre mysteriously evaporates into nothing, the laws of the universe aren't suddenly thrown into confusion - it's perfectly acceptable. I'm not advocating a belief in fairy stories, but I am carrying a torch for that time of life when instinct and intuition still hold sway over logic, reason and law.

Science, it seems to me, is besotted with perfection. Poetry might seem to be in conflict with that position, since it goes out of its way to describe every occasion in a new and fresh and surprising way, but in fact it attempts the same thing, albeit through sensation rather than understanding. There are, presumably, an infinite number of ways of describing how a large, inanimate object such as a tyre can go missing, and presumably an infinite number of reactions. A successful poem brings about a kind of animal comprehension rather than its theoretical explanation, and comprehension comes from a common pool of experience. Some of us hope to remain open to that type of perception.

Science, like poetry, deals in likeness, similitude and equivalence. If you're gambling with the world and its actions, science gives you better odds, because its logic is linear, whereas the logic of poetry is radial, or at its very best, entirely spherical. Just as life, as we know, imitates art, science imitates life. I don't suggest that as a hierarchy, but to reinforce the interconnectedness of the two disciplines through the intermediary of the human presence.

In placing this kind of importance on poetry, I'm asking it to come forward and be congratulated for its achievements, but also to take responsibility for the error of its ways. Science didn't take men to the moon. It may have worked out the trigonometry, but it was a poetic dream that propelled us into the heavens. Science didn't drop the bomb on Hiroshima either. It was a poetic nightmare vision of hellfire discharged onto an unsuspecting city that opened the bomb-hatch over the Ota river delta on 6 August 1945, even if science guided it down to its target.

- Simon Armitage

Simon Armitage: Where Science and Poetry Meet
logged by alf at 12:08, Thursday, 31st August, 2006

Monday, 7th August, 2006

La différence : How women won the sex war

Larry Summers may well have been right, but men are done for anyway

ONE of last year's better entertainments was the Larry Summers show. The row over whether Mr Summers, the then president of Harvard University, was right or wrong to say that natural ability may be one of the reasons why there are fewer female than male maths professors at Harvard brought pleasure to politically correct and incorrect alike. It confirmed the prejudices of both about each other, and led to the downfall of a man beloved by neither.

Mr Summers may have been right. In most intellectual areas, such as vocabulary and verbal reasoning, the differences between men and women are statistically insignificant. But the long tail of mathematical genius does tend to be male, along with higher rates of idiocy and masturbation. While women show less mathematical brilliance than men, their scores are better in some verbal skills (see article).

These differences may or may not be innate, but the argument anyway misses the point. The interesting question is not whether men are more likely to be weirdly good at maths than women are, but whether the things that men are good at are more or less useful than the things that women are good at. And the answer, in the rich world at least, is no.

Technology and globalisation are undermining the usefulness of male skills. Take map-reading. The female tendency to call for five right turns while holding the map upside down, playing "I spy" with the children and remarking on interesting features of the local half-timbering has been attested to over many decades by impartial scientists as well as by irritated husbands. But once satellite navigation rendered the ability to tell the cartographic difference between a car park and a lake redundant, that aspect of male superiority disappeared out of the window, along with the crucial pages of the road atlas that the toddler removed while practising his superior hand-eye co-ordination skills.

Men, studies show, are exceedingly good at rotating three-dimensional shapes in their head. Perhaps women once stared open-mouthed in wonder as their mates juggled pyramids of imaginary polyhedra. Such tricks are also quite handy for engineers who specialise in building large bits of machinery, digging tunnels or slinging bridges across rivers. But, now that the rich world has about as many tunnels and bridges as it needs, and the large bits of machinery which aren't made by computers and robots are made by the Chinese, their usefulness is limited.

Modern professional life is dominated by management, which these days sets high store by emotional intelligence, empathy and communication. Wise chaps seeking professional advancement should therefore spend their free time with groups of women, boning up on how to undermine somebody's confidence while pretending to boost it, and how to turn an entire lunch table against an absent colleague without saying a mean word. Such skills are likely to have a greater influence on their lifetime earnings than the ability to spin an icosahedron. It's a girlie man's world, as Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't say.

Aug 3rd 2006
From The Economist print edition

La différence : How women won the sex war
logged by alf at 15:13, Monday, 7th August, 2006