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The Poetry and Music of Science

The Poetry and Music of Science

Nick Spencer reviews ‘The Poetry and Music of Science’ by Tom McLeish. 06/09/2019

Imagine a scientist. The chances are you see a white coat, laboratory, tidiness, experimentation, equations, and a precise rational manner. And now an artist. Colourful attire, unmanageable hair, gesticulation, free spirit, the smell of tobacco or something a little stronger?

They are clichés and caricatures but that is precisely the point. We may know that plenty of scientists are creative souls, and that many an artist craves order and precision, but science itself is understood to be a very particular discipline – measured, precise, rational, methodical – and art a very different one – expansive, imaginative, creative, disordered. It’s an unhappy division, most famously crystallised by C.P. Snow, 60 years ago, when he argued that Western intellectual life had become painfully divided between science and the humanities, in such a way as damaged our ability to navigate the world successfully.

It’s also wrong, or at least highly misleading. Tom McLeish, a theoretical physicist by training and now Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of York, has a positively fizzing interdisciplinary interest, and his latest book The Poetry and Music of Science tackles with aplomb probably the deepest misconception here – namely that the practice of science requires little, indeed should actively avoid, imagination and creativity.

There are tried and tested ways of responding to this, usually by quoting from the memoirs of scientists themselves, when they describe the actual (as opposed to post hoc and theorised) acquisition of insights, development of hypotheses, design of experiments, etc. McLeish includes a number of these but this is ultimately a somewhat inadequate approach to this issue, a bit like introducing scientific creativity to the party, but leaving it to sit awkwardly in the corner, clutching a glass of wine in desperation, ignored by all the other, slightly embarrassed, guests. Yes: the practice of science is creative, and draws on inspiration, imagination and innovation. But how?

Here the book has a thesis that is explored through a wide range of scientific and artistic references. This is that creativity, in both art and science, “emerges from a tension between imaginative power and the constraint of form”. Or, as a Chestertonian epigraph to one chapter puts it, “the essence of every picture is the frame”.

In actual fact, this is an undue simplification of the book’s central idea, which finds in a range of different tensions or ‘dualities’ the energy of creativity in science (and art). The “creative interplay between conscious and unconscious thought”, the “deliberate exposure to the discomfort of unfamiliar fields of knowledge”, the “neurological lateralization of left and right hemispheres” (the work of Iain McGilchrist hovers in the far background of the book): all of these, McLeish argues, reflect and retain a pattern of the key duality between imagination and form.

McLeish pursues these ideas through three fields in particular: the visual, the narrative and the abstract. The first of these explores the two–way traffic there is, in both art and physics, between nature itself and the symbolic planes that both of those disciplines occupy. The second explores some fascinating connections between the emergence of scientific ideas of probability and experimentation, and the rise of the novel in the 17th century, seeing in the latter the creation of special, small, alternative worlds in which characters develop and chart possible paths. The third looks at mathematics and music, perhaps the best–known and most long–standing science–art nexus of the three; music, after all, stood alongside astronomy, geometry and arithmetic as part of the quadrivium, the first stage of studies in mediaeval universities. McLeish notes the longstanding observations concerning number, pitch, and volume, by means of which he explores the “ancient conviction” that “the universe itself is both numerate and musical.”

There is, it will be clear, a great deal of ground covered here, and in many ways The Poetry and Music of Science is not for the faint–hearted. Discussion of Emile Zola and the experimental novel rubs shoulders with the “hermeneutic stance” of chemist Robert Boyle; complex equations with musical scores. Few will be across all these examples – complex equations and musical scores leave me largely clueless – and the breadth of reference can be as much of a problem as an illumination for the reader.

But the book is nonetheless stimulating and successful in breaking open the stereotypes in a constructive way, and showing not only that the caricatures are wrong as they are right – as caricatures always are – but also suggesting why and how the practice of science and art occupy, ultimately, the same conceptual space. 

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 Image: iku4/

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

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Posted 6 September 2019

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