Poetry, Science, and the Human Condition

In academia these days, it is hard to escape the seemingly stagnant binary set up between STEM and the humanities. For many people, committing to one of these worlds feels like a departure from the other in such a way that renders it ultimately inaccessible. This distance, this separation between STEM and the humanities is one that, as a student of both neuroscience and English, I straddle daily. When people find out about my dual course of study, I am usually met with blank stares, incredulous expressions, and eventually a reluctant response along the lines of,  “that’s an interesting combination” or, “I’ve never heard of that before.” And in some ways, their assumptions are right: writing a poem does exercise the brain differently than studying neural circuitry does. But in more crucial ways, they’re wrong.

This is the ending of Katherine Larson’s poem “Love at Thirty-Two Degrees,” featured in her 2011 anthology entitled Radial Symmetry


beyond pheromones, hormones, aesthetics of bone,

every time I make love for love’s sake alone,

I betray you.

These few lines encapsulate the dichotomy between science and the humanities that Larson disestablishes. Through her work in this collection, Larson successfully integrates science and art in such a way that highlights the overarching narrative of the exploration of the human condition. Larson herself has a background in science; she is a molecular biologist and field ecologist. She graduated from the University of Arizona with dual degrees in English and Ecology and Evolutionary biology. She then went on to obtain a Masters degree in Creative Writing from the University of Virginia. Her unique way of blending two different disciplines together into one unit, one form, one poem effectively blurs the seemingly stagnant barriers between the world of science and the world of humanities.

I love this poem. I love its ending. I love the way Larson seamlessly reintroduces soft, emotional facets to the perceived objective and cold nature of scientific artifacts. In her poetry, science has room to breach the rigid bounds of objectivity and to expand, to branch, radially and emotionally, into something breathtakingly artistic: a dissected squid has “gills creased like satin,” and its formaldehyde-preserved heart “blooms” like a flower, expanding “between cubes of ice.” In fact, she compares the squid dissection and the observation of its heart to her own heart, warmed by the touch of a lover: she writes “… I’m thinking / of fingertips on my lover’s neck / last June. Amazing, hearts. / This brachial heart.” Through her poetry, she highlights the underlying emotional fragility in science. Not only does she reintroduce emotionality into science itself, but also unto scientists, who are often portrayed as mad, coldhearted workaholics: “Last night I threw my lab coat in the fire / & drove all night through the Arizona desert /with a thermos full of silver tequila.” There is a sense of freedom in Larson’s poetry. She allows frozen hearts to bloom and scientists to burn their lab coats, drunk. 

At first, these images seem absurd, but the more you read her poems, the more they make sense. Eventually, the intersectionality between art and science becomes clearer. I think that the beauty in Larson’s poetry can be boiled down to this truth: 

All academic work, and, in fact, all of life, is an attempt to understand the human condition. Every discipline is a different lens through which we try to better understand ourselves, the world around us, and how we best fit into it. 

Take, for example, the feeling of anxiety. A poet would explore this theme through language and poetic form, creating a piece that evokes the inarticulable feelings associated with anxiety. The poet might mention the tightness in one’s chest, the tremble of one’s hands, the heaviness of each heaving breath … A neuroscientist attempting to understand the feeling of anxiety would explore this feeling through the manipulation of implied neural pathways, devising an experiment in which a hypothesized causal circuit could be isolated, visualized, and tested. The scientist would employ the scientific method and state of the art techniques like optogenetics and in- and ex-vivo neuroimaging to test the correctness of their hypothesis. 

While the poet and the neuroscientist explore anxiety in vastly different ways, they both have the same goal of understanding and externalizing this inarticulable, internal feeling; the goal of both poetry and neuroscience is to produce projections of a person’s internal state for the outside world. Poets and neuroscientists, mathematicians and novelists, you and me … we are all explorers of the unexplainable processes that make a human, human

Do you see it now? Can you spot the radial symmetry? It hides in the cracked asphalt of the path connecting Sci and Kohlberg. It is concealed in the shadows of the steps separating the first and second floor of Singer. It grows in the intersectionalities of your own interdisciplinary interests: you can sense it because you are a part of it. It’s the softest bend of an arch, the merest outline of a circle, the connection of two seemingly unconnected points … It’s the radial symmetry of the human condition. 


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