Science, Poetry & Responsibility

By Lynley Hargreaves 29/04/2015


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The front cover of Gathering Evidence

The dissection of football-sized hailstones, the role of Newton’s first law of motion in long-distance cycling, and the ethics of some twenty tons of one woman’s cells posthumously grown in laboratories all feature in Caoilinn Hughes’ poetry book, Gathering Evidence, a finalist for the 2015 Royal Society of New Zealand Science Book Prize. Caoilinn tells us about her approach to science.

Where does your interest in science come from, and are you going to keep writing about science?

My tertiary education transformed my desire and capacity to learn, but it left me feeling aggrieved that the formative years of my education had been so inadequate. I didn’t take a single science subject at my all-girls school—run largely by nuns—which preferred to teach Religious Studies and Home Economics over the Theory of Evolution.

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Caoilinn Hughes

As a young adult, I had never been encouraged to spend time seriously thinking about what I believed in. I hadn’t much considered why the sky is blue, or what the statistical likelihood of my being born was. Scientists, I learned, were the ones dealing with all of the good questions! The ones basing their theories on observation and analysis, rather than on doctrine and decorum.

For half of my PhD, I wrote a novel about a scientist. In order to understand that character’s mode of thought and frame of reference, I read many biographies of great scientists he would have admired, from Copernicus to Oppenheimer. Through that reading, I began to connect key developments in physics over time. I found it a lot easier to form a rudimentary understanding of, say, quantum mechanics by going back a ways in the narrative to Rutherford and his gold foil experiment, rather than beginning with a diagram of an atom or the Hadron Collider. Aside from all that, I fell in love with a physicist, so that might have had something to do with it.

I’m currently writing a new book of poems and new novel. Some of the poems do seem to take up where Gathering Evidence left off, but I won’t know the throughline or theme of the collection until I’m a little further along.

Do you look at scientists, rather than science itself? You have a lot of wonderful details, such as your protagonist in the poem Gathering Evidence wearing ‘rhinegrave breeches’.

One of the things that drew me towards writing about scientists at work is that you can home in on the moment of discovery, and I am really interested in the whole technological, social, philosophical, political and personal implications of those moments. The science is inevitably there though. When Enrico Fermi declares that it’s time for lunch, moments before reaching ‘critical mass’ in the construction of the world’s first nuclear chain reactor in Chicago… well, that certainly speaks to Fermi’s personality, but it also gives you a little glimpse into what that experiment itself looked like and what it involved: cadmium-coated rods and caviar, apparently!

I’m not fastidious about historical detail—I’m far too impatient for that! But at the same time, I can’t write about a man in the late sixteen hundreds dissecting gigantic hailstones until I know vaguely how he would have captured them. In a box? Did they have cardboard, back then? That poem, “Gathering Evidence”, was inspired by an anecdote told in Kathryn Walls’ inaugural professorial lecture at Victoria University of Wellington, about Alexander Pope’s interest in science and how that interest entered into his own poetry.

Do you have a preference for historical science?

I’m not sure. I don’t have the benefit of perspective to understand some contemporary scientific discoveries. With hindsight, we can know the context of a certain discovery or experiment, and I find that context hugely interesting. For example, to know now that Marie Curie was the first women to be buried in the Pantheon cemetery on the basis of her own work—not because she was the wife of some great man—that speaks to the importance of her scientific discoveries almost more than any award she was granted within her lifetime. At least it would seem so to me. And in the “Gathering Evidence” title poem I just mentioned with this fellow of the Royal Society measuring hailstones, the context of that experiment is fascinating. Gravity was still a relatively (no pun intended) new concept at the time—the force compelling the hailstones to thrash a harvest’s worth of wheat to carpet wasn’t necessarily a force of Almighty retribution! What’s more: the idea of understanding the hailstones by examining the evidence and making deductions, that too was a newly important approach. So it’s not just the science itself that interests me, it’s the greater intellectual context of that science.

The poem about Henrietta Lacks, whose doctor turned her cells into the first immortal human cell line without consent, is disturbing. How do you feel about that situation?

It is disturbing. It’s very complicated ethically, because it’s difficult to say that the cells shouldn’t have been taken from Ms Lacks now, when we know all the amazing advancements that were made in the treatments of various diseases as a result of having that human cell line to work with. Also, the court made its ruling. But it’s complicated not just because there was no consent for the doctor to take cells from Ms Lacks’ body, but because of the racial issues involved. There should, I think, have been far more compensation for the family, and that’s a big part of the story. It was appalling how they eventually found out—that they hadn’t been informed earlier. Not one of science’s proudest moments. It’s a poem I’ve never read aloud publicly, because of the strangeness of the story. The social context of the poem took over, in the writing. The poem ended itself before it had reached any resolution, and while I think its discomfort is appropriate for the subject matter, I don’t know that it could tolerate the added drama of a reading.

Do you think it’s important what kind of messages your scientific poems send?

The thing with propaganda is that it needs to reach the masses, and poetry is not the way to do that! It’s never my aim to send messages with poetry. Like a scientific experiment, I make observations and—very occasionally—discoveries, but I try to present these directly and let the reader draw conclusions. If I am writing about science—and not all of the poems in this collection are overtly about science—I think there is an intellectual responsibility on the part of the poet not to misrepresent the evidence. That sounds like it would make for very dry poetry! An elegy of evidence! I’m always wary of writing about something I have a strong gut reaction towards, but don’t know a lot about. Fracking, for example, or Frankenfoods. I’m interested in ethical issues surrounding science, but I’m not interested in summarising ethical arguments by way of poetry. I wouldn’t want to write it, and I doubt anyone would want to read it! That’s not to say that poetry can’t communicate some story or truth very effectively, but I don’t think that should be its aim.

Caoilinn Hughes’ book Gathering Evidence is a finalist for the 2015 Royal Society of New Zealand Science Book Prize.

These interviews are supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand, which promotes, invests in and celebrates excellence in people and ideas, for the benefit of all New Zealanders.