To the naked eye, one could easily be mistaken in thinking that the worlds of science and literature are poles apart; that from the moment one reaches for the test tube or the quill, the two paths will deviate forever. Can a literary journey of the human emotions ever coincide with explorations into cosmology and chemotherapy? Set in the Royal Geographical Society’s rather plush lecture theatre, this unique English PEN event, in partnership with the Medical Research Council, put a host of celebrated writers and scientists under the microscope in an attempt to bridge the divide between the two disciplines and shed light on one of life’s key mysteries: where exactly does creative energy, be it the drive to imagine or invent, come from?
For acclaimed novelist Ian McEwan, from some perspectives art and science exist as two utterly different domains. “Art is not falsifiable, science is not primarily undertaken for aesthetic reasons,” he contended. “You could have sixty years’ worth of copies of Nature and discover little about human passions, cruelty, kindness and love that have dominated affairs.” But he conceded that, for all their differences, when it comes to creativity and inspiration these two worlds share a pretty formidable range of characteristics. “What makes scientists or artists creative?: Persistence, tolerance of drudgery, luck, playfulness, ambition, ruthlessness and toleration to muddle.”
What better living example of persistence, playfulness and ambition than Dr Aaron Klug, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1982. While his array of diagrams to illustrate varied experiments and discoveries were at times alarmingly complex to the uninitiated observer, his fundamental message was clear. For Klug, creativity stems from an intense curiosity combined with an ability to look at things from different views. “You can find things in quite unexpected quarters,” he said excitedly. “The direct route of a solution often comes outfield.” Indeed, this notion of open thinking – “The imagination is key to much of our work in science” – combined with determination reaped the rewards when Klug experienced “a flash of inspiration” and discovered that a sequence of two-dimensional images of viruses taken from different angles could be combined to produce three-dimensional images of the target.
Ruth Padel, prize-winning poet and chair of the UK Poetry Society, was intrigued by the precise source of creative inspiration. “Where does it, whatever ‘it’ is, come from?” she mused. Mozart claimed his letters came from God, while for Seamus Heaney it came from a metaphorical ‘dig for finds’ to uncover – to quote Wordsworth – ‘the hiding places of my power.’ While Padel reinforced Heaney’s sentiment that creativity is an act of unearthing – “every poem is a discovery” – for her great great grandfather, the great Charles Darwin no less, creativity centred on the contradiction that it came from nothing. This paradoxical outlook is illustrated in her haunting new poem ‘Bleak’ – part of her forthcoming poetry book to commemorate the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth next year – which Padel read with much emotion: ‘End of September lamps are lit […] new life is born from famine, extinction, death’. She explained how Darwin was profoundly influenced by the death of his ten year-old daughter Annie, after which he put the Christian faith behind him forever as Padel’s ‘All Nature is at War’ reflects: ‘No more smells of prayer […] he sees indifference everywhere.’ She went on to explain that from the moment of Annie’s death Darwin still believed in a divine creator but not hers and not kind, as the poem stresses: ‘He sees violence under the bright surface all the time. All nature is war. Nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.’
“Where do you get your ideas from?” is a popular question faced, and perhaps dreaded, by many novelists and the answer to which, McEwan conceded, “no artist knows.” He alluded to the remarkable story of Thomas Hardy who, with just hours to live, still mustered the energy to dictate his final poem to his wife on his deathbed in January 1928. “What drove him to write it?” McEwan asked in wonder. He appeared equally in awe of Richard Yates’ ‘The Easter Parade’, where in one part of the novel a character, on overhearing her elder daughter talking about her husband, rushes into the room ‘uncertain lip glistening with breakfast bacon grease’. “Breakfast bacon grease mistaken for a gleam of excitement is incredibly undermining. How does he do that?” McEwan marvelled.
Perhaps more intriguing still is the idea that, in order to reach a lucid literary epiphany or a startling scientific truth, one has to endure a stage of uncertainty and create an astonishing amount of mess in the process. “Creativity is being able to bear muddle and mess. Knowing a lot of details,” Padel asserted. “When teaching I always suggest two stages. One: gather everything in like wax or clay in a mess and two: block off the stuff that’s not right and pare away.” McEwan’s allusion to V. S. Pritchett’s thought-provoking maxim that “to float in a determined stupor” is fundamental to creativity, reflected this. But this concept is not exclusive to the literary world. Siân Ede, Arts Director of the Gulkenkian Foundation and chair of the event, referred to a part in her book ‘Science Not Art'(a remarkable collection of ten scientists’ diaries) where a biologist describes the creative process as “crashing out chords on the piano in my head […] suddenly ideas collide to create a sudden harmony.” In a similar vein, Padel described how Darwin “glimmered” through the years to reach conclusions. “He wrote amazing notebooks, that was the most creative time gathering, full of little insights.” Likewise, for Dr Sheena McCormack, senior HIV researcher at the MRC Clinical Trials Unit who since 1994 has been dedicated to work on HIV vaccines, brainstorming “with one idea flying off the other” is crucial for creating new ideas and solutions. “I’m constantly looking at data, blips. There are regular obstacles, I see it as my job to solve problems.”
Padel reinforced Klug’s affirmation that “there is never a direct route to a solution” with the apposite quote from Donne’s ‘Satire III’, which describes the road to Truth as a circuitous one. ‘On a huge hill,/Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will/Reach her, about must, and about must go.’ But McCormack argued that there is a certain subjectivity associated with truth. “Truth is your perception, not necessarily what one person thinks. Even in a tightly controlled lab, you can get a slightly different answer which is the truth. However we’re still in search of the holy grail.”
From crashing chords to Truth standing on a cragged hill, the theme of metaphor was one that ran through the discussion. Indeed, Padel insisted that metaphor is crucial to both science and writing and described it, with a nod to the Spanish poet Lorca, as ‘the leap that unites two worlds.’ “If you see something in terms of another it releases all sorts of echoes and resonances and frees you to go forward,” she said. Just as Coleridge described poems as ‘hooked atoms’, so neurophysiologist Mark Lythgoe (from Ede’s ‘Science Not Art’) used poetic metaphor to describe scientific exploration: “I’m hooked on exploration, like approaching a summit”. A prime example of the poetic and scientific worlds uniting is when, as Klug explained, Coleridge tried to learn chemistry from his friend Humphry Davy in a bid to build his stock of metaphors. “In those days, there were words like ‘affinity’, ‘repulsion’ and ‘exchange’ [when referring to chemistry terms]. The language of modern chemistry is very different!” Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ could well be a reflection of this, Klug suggested.
Just as use of metaphor is not exclusive to the literary world, so aesthetics can relate to science. Scientists of yore have long echoed Keats’ sentiment that ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’, as McEwan illustrated. He cited James Watson, the American molecular biologist best known as one of the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA, who wrote in his book ‘The Double Helix’: ‘The structure [of DNA] was too pretty not to be true.’ Similarly, the American physicist Steven Weinberg shared Einstein’s belief that beauty was the prime requirement of any theory if it were to be taken seriously. McEwan explained how Weinberg set out to see starlight diffracted by the gravitational pool; while the experiments were understood to be only 10% accurate, Weinberg suggested that the theory was “too compellingly beautiful” to be resisted.
Status anxiety is also painfully familiar to both worlds. Ede discovered that a huge fear of failure comes out of both her books ‘Art not Chance’ and ‘Science not Art’, “particularly in science where success is so prized” – one scientist’s diary entry described the “elation vertigo” as data makes sense. McEwan agreed, “Paranoia of status anxiety is common to both, otherwise novelists and scientists would be faceless and nameless,” while McCormack suggested that intellectual property and patent is so coveted that some will avoid collaborating to find the ultimate result in favour of “the glory of the new.”
Glory or no glory, this evening’s event made it dazzlingly clear that science and literature are not mutually exclusive by any stretch of the imagination … less apparent is where this spark of imagination comes from. It looks set to remain one of life’s most irresistible mysteries.
With warm thanks to all the beautiful speakers for their compelling thoughts and revelations, and to the staff of the Royal Geographical Society.
Report by Alexandra Masters
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/creativeenergy/