When the literary ape became scientific

A poem by Walt Whitman (1819–1892)…

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause
in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

I’m reminded of Whitman’s 1865 free verse* by an article in the June issue of Communicating Astronomy with the Public. In their discussion of the separation between literature and science, authors Matthew McCool and Pedro Russo trace this separation back to the transition from natural philosophy to empirical science, and the cultural backlash against this paradigm shift, which is beautifully illustrated in Whitman’s poem.

Until the mid-19th century, scientists – or rather natural philosophers – would routinely use literary periodicals to share their work, but the focus then shifted to a more arid presentation of data in the form of tables and graphs in scholarly journals. Today’s science communicators, whether they be jobbing researchers or specialist writers, would do well to recapture some of the natural philosophical approach of old.

* Whitman’s “When I heard the learn’d astronomer” is often described as ‘free verse’, but look closely at the words and what is immediately apparent is the poet’s clever use of slant rhyme. There is subtle pattern and regularity in the verse, despite the lack of a standard metre pattern, and its literary power hinges on this internal structure.