The Poetry of Science

A couple weeks ago, when I wrote about some of Bea’s favorite children’s books, I mentioned that, while we love The Very Hungry Caterpillar, I often change the wording from “cocoon” to “chrysalis,” as that’s the scientific name for a butterfly’s casing during metamorphosis. A friend who is an editor and amazing researcher commented that Eric Carle had addressed why he wrote cocoon:

My caterpillar is very unusual. As you know caterpillars don’t eat lollipops and ice cream, so you won’t find my caterpillar in any field guides. But also, when I was a small boy, my father would say, “Eric, come out of your cocoon.” He meant I should open up and be receptive to the world around me. For me, it would not sound right to say, “Come out of your chrysalis.” And so poetry won over science!

His response was so beautifully worded, it made me a bit teary. And, it got me thinking about the poetry of science and how often we separate the two, when really, they are so intertwined.

Photo: Sid Mosdell
Photo: Sid Mosdell

When I think about the science of metamorphosis itself, it’s mind boggling. A caterpillar disintegrates inside a chrysalis and comes out a butterfly? That’s crazy! (Have you read the full process? It’s amazing!) And, yet it’s used as a poetic metaphor for so much of life.

I think it’s fascinating that we are still in a place as a culture to distinguish between poetry and science. When it comes to the creation story or story of the flood, my strictly scientific friends scoff at the ignorance of religious folks who believe that sort of thing. And when it comes to the incredible mystery of the undiscovered realms of our universe, not to mention the depths we just don’t understand our own planet yet, some strictly religious people cannot believe anything that is not stated in the Bible. That either side has difficulty seeing the poetry in their belief.

During my first year of teaching, electricity was part of the science curriculum. I had to teach my first graders about electrons and how they align to create currents. Even though I was able to teach it to the kids (using an interpretive dance, of course), I still view electricity as a bit magical. I don’t fully understand how it actually works. Part of me loves that bit of everyday mystery. It helps me retain some of the wonder of the world and helps me remember that not everything needs to be figured out. (Though I am grateful for the people who have figured out electricity!)

I think we all have areas in our lives we view more scientifically or with more mystery. I can look at a painting and analyze its symbolism and meaning but look at a shooting star and think it’s a bit of magic in the sky; Frank can look at a tax return as a puzzle rather than incomprehensible frustration but look at Abstract Expressionism and think it’s simply about color on canvas; I can breeze through nonfiction, absorbing information thirstily but reading poetry takes time and brain-power for me to comprehend. I think it’s important to step back and look at the areas we’re comfortable analyzing with a lens of mystery. Sometimes, I walk through a museum to simply enjoy without questioning or I’ll read a poem for the way the words sound, without worrying about any deeper meaning.

As Bea is learning and discovering and asking about the world, we try to answer her as honestly as we know. If we don’t know an answer, we tell her we don’t know and then we look it up to see if we can find out. But, there is a mystery and poetry of life I want her to retain. The other day, she ran through the backyard yelling, I’m chasing the sunset! And I loved that in her world, she can chase a sunset and it can run from her into dusk. As easy as it would have been to tell her that the sun doesn’t move; that the earth’s rotation is why the sun was setting, I just laughed with her and let her chase.

Maybe it means I’m not as smart or well-read on many subjects, but I hope to retain that mystery of faith in the universe – that I can enjoy some of the scientific beauty without trying to figure out the why.

What about you? Do you have more of a creative outlook or an analytic outlook? How do you view the mingling of poetry and science?

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4 thoughts on “The Poetry of Science

  1. I love this Annie! Too many times it seems we have to choose sides but there is a beautiful merging as I believe God intended. Have you seen Louie Giglio’s whale and stars mashup? Teaching a group of men who often take a “strictly science” approach I find some of Louie’s teaching so helpful. Your post will be too.

    1. I’ll have to look that up! Sounds good!! I totally believe God is a god of science as well as art and creativity. The two are definitely not exclusive. (And, incorporating science into faith has usually deepened the mystery miracle for me.)

  2. Annie, I so enjoyed this post. It’s fun to see how different aspect’s of life mesh with who we are (accounting? I’m terrible at it! But writing? Love it!) I think I come at things sometimes with a creative outlook, but to other things I tend to look at them from an analytical outlook. I like the idea of meshing both outlooks in how I approach life. Now to figure out how to do it. 😀

    1. Right? Always the challenge – finding that balance… I’m trying to be more aware and figure those are the steps I can take now. (And yes! Whenever Frank refers to a tax return as an interesting puzzle, I look at him in disbelief. Can’t even imagine!)

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