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Silkworms and star clusters, butternuts and alevins

How science and art teach us to pay attention.

They are tiny. Whiplash spines with two dark eyeballs and a sagging orange egg sac belly. They torpedo along the bottom of the pale blue trough, crowd each other. I can’t see the fins that beat invisibly, thin as a breath, as one by one, each in its own mysterious time, the tiny fish struggle up to the surface.

How does an alevin – a newly hatched fish – know that it wants air? Fish live in water. Would their journey be comparable to humans, flying into outer space for a gasp, only to fall back?

That is what the alevins do. They fight their way up; they break the surface; they gulp the foreign air, swallow it into their bellies and drift back down. That air inflates tiny swim bladders inside that will keep them buoyant for the rest of their fish lives. In the world of science, one gulp changes them from an alevin to a fry. An arctic char handbook describes the event as “the great swim up.”

Just one gulp. Imagine how one taste can change your life, your name, forever.

The meeting ground of poetry and science

I work on a fish farm. I have picked through many thousands of fish eggs, seen thousands of alevins move through water, but I still would have missed “the great swim up” were it not for science guiding my eyes. Poets say that if your work is not original, it’s because you have not looked long enough. You can open and open and open the same small space and find worlds there.

Pay attention.

Be astonished, said poet Mary Oliver in her instructions for a life.

Tell about it.

Both the poet and the scientist believe that there is far more to find than what meets the eye. In CC’s May Imagination issue, artist Klara Maisch pays attention to the movement in the landscape around her, to geology. She is astonished. She shares her attention and astonishment with us. Don Martin’s poem playfully watches the inventions of Leonardo da Vinci from the perspective of angels. Da Vinci engaged both art and science with the same wild curiosity.

This Spring I attended the inaugural L’Engle Seminar of Image Journal via Zoom. It is named in honour of Madeleine L’Engle, who said “science, literature, art, theology: it is all the same ridiculous, glorious, mysterious language.” This seminar was titled ‘Poetry, Science, and the Imagination’ and featured five guests known for the conversations they have sparked between disciplines: Tom McLeish (a theoretical physicist interested in medieval science), Mary Peelen (poet and mathematician and lover of physics), Malcolm Guite (poet, priest, and Coleridge scholar), Marilyn Nelson (poet, YA author, and reconciler of communities), Robert Cording (poet and educator).

Many of them spoke of string theory and quantum physics, perhaps because those require imagination and negative capability to understand and provide a meeting ground for art and science. I am no scientist, but here is my retelling of Malcolm Guite’s explanation of quantum theory: the kind of question you ask about nature changes nature. That is why he can go on to say, “our imaginations are actively shaping the world.” Mary Peelen said that quantum physics is about reality happening in interactions. And poetry is all about connections, inviting interactions. Tom McLeish said that science requires such a tight, disciplined form because it is nothing less than “to reimagine, to recreate in image in the human mind, the entire universe” and that “formulating the right questions, not answers, is integral to reimagining the universe.”

Making friends with nature

McLeish’s eyes sparkled as he spoke of his research currently underway on silk worms and silk molecular structure. Based on what we know from polymer fabrics, silk worms should explode with what they are producing. But they don’t. Why not? McLeish is renowned for research on the properties of soft matter. He spoke of how the gospel leads to a belief in reconciliation, not only between peoples but within our learning, across disciplines, across generations, and with the earth. Science is about “making friends with nature,” he said, moving from fear and ignorance to wisdom.

Butternuts Maaike found in her backyard and painted.

Can you love what you have not stopped to see? As I pick butternut halves from the grass outside my door, I think of mysterion, from which comes our word mystery. Mysterion is Greek for what the Latin church calls sacraments. And Robert Cording, whose poems are often lists of what he sees in his backyard, said a poet is a priest who sees the world in a sacramental vision. Poets and scientists and priests, probing the mysteries, being astonished. Telling about it.

The first work of humans in the Garden was naming: the human named the animals. And the next thing we read after they leave the Garden is that the woman is naming her son. A few beats down the storyline an Egyptian slave woman is naming God. She has seen the one who sees.

Is naming the final part of Mary Oliver’s advice, “tell about it”?If our calling to pay priestly attention ranges from the smallest creature to the human next to us to the Creator himself, this work of imagination is large enough for everyone to take a part.

Dark Matter

Rebecca Elson’s name comes up again and again in the L’Engle Seminar. Elson was a Canadian astronomer, born in Montreal to a geologist father. She was a genius. Her studies and research took her from UBC to Cambridge to Princeton to Harvard and back to Cambridge. She researched globular clusters of stars, dark matter, chemical evolution and galaxy formation. She was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 29 and died May 1999, 39 years old. She left 56 scientific papers. A book of her poetry was published posthumously. It is titled, tellingly, A Responsibility to Awe. These poems are bold and beautiful, with titles like “Theories of Everything” and “Explaining Relativity.” She was a scientist who explored possibilities and mortality in poetry. “Facts are only as interesting as the possibilities they open up to the imagination,” she wrote once.

Maybe science is daunting to you, as it can be to me. Science can appear rigid and inaccessible. I would hazard a guess that most of us lost the courage to experiment either in the lab or in the studio by the time we left school. Is it because art and science both involve many, many failures and dead-ends? Are we afraid to be fools?

Reality is a bewildering and beautiful thing; the world is sacramental. Science can be a teacher in this journey of paying attention: a blade of grass, a nut, a constellation, a name. A conversation with my scientist sister-in-law last week touched on what we still do not know: honeybees, time, those silk worms. Science can teach us both humility and curiosity.

Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.

Your imagination has a part in shaping our shared reality.

  • Maaike is a freelance writer from Ontario and raised in Africa, where her heart stayed. Her degree is in Intercultural Service and World Arts.

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