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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Public Seminar - Recovering Connections: abstract and analogy in poetry and physics

8th March 2012, 19:00 to 21:00, Room 140, Elvet Riverside Building, New Elvet, Professor Don Paterson and Professor Giovanni Vignale

This is a public seminar which aims to explore the space between the worlds of poetry and physics. There will be presentations by both speakers on the nature of their disciplines followed by discussion and a question and answer session.

Giovanni Vignale:'The great theoretical physicist Paul Dirac once said: "the scientist wants to say something nobody knew before, in words everyone can understand - and the poet does the opposite". The quip was directed at Julius Oppenheimer, another top-notch theoretical physicist, who, unlike Dirac, loved poetry and later became famous as the "father of the atomic bomb". Like Oppenheimer, many physicists are strongly drawn to poetry. The relation between physics and poetry continues to

intrigue: witness the large number of college courses devoted to Physics for Poets or The Poetry of Physics. In this talk I elaborate on this theme. Just as poetry is a special mode of use of language - a "power language"- theoretical physics is a special mode of use of abstract thought (other uses are seen in mathematics and theology).

In both disciplines we see formal criteria (phonetic elegance or mathematical

elegance) guiding the process of discovery towards memorable formulations, which concisely summarize a large body of experience. I illustrate these ideas through the examples of Maxwell's discovery of electromagnetic waves and Dirac's discovery of antimatter. However, to clearly show the difference between science and poetry, I also give examples of theories that are formally beautiful, yet must be rejected, because they lead to predictions that are in contradiction with established facts.

Lacking this reality check, poetry has an extra degree of freedom, which allows the poet to experiment with ideas that do not yet have a legitimate citizenship in science. Poetry and physics are ways of experimenting with the truth, admittedly by different methods, both guided and sustained by a strong belief in the power of abstract form, and driven by a sense of urgency of the matter at hand.

Moreover, abstract thought, whether in poetry or in science, is by nature free and individualistic, and does not tolerate the imposition of authority. 

The event is hosted by Durham University Poetry Society and sponsored by the IAS and is free and open to all.