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RetroScience: The Evolution of Science Poetry

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Want to travel back in time? In our weekly “Retro Science” series, we’re digging up visual artifacts that capture fascinating moments from science history, including surprising studies, outdated inventions, and breakthrough achievements. By recapturing science’s impressive feats and most amusing flops, RetroScience will remind us of how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go.

Today, scientists communicate their work to the public using TV shows like NOVA, Youtube, or their own blogs. But at the dawn of the scientific revolution, scientists needed other tools to reach the masses.

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Erasmus Darwin.

Enter poetry. In the late 1800’s, scientific poetry was at its prime, but poets and scientists were not simply answering the call of the muse. They also used poetry to help their scientific findings find an audience. When poet-naturalist René Richard Costel wrote about botany, his aim was “not to teach and advance science as much as to show its advantages and make it loved.”

Relationships between scientists and poets were mutually beneficial. Poets, who had long relied on classical literature for their subject matter, received a new resource for inspiration. Scientists loved having their work promoted and in exchange, endorsed the writers’ work.

One scientist/poet planted the seed of a theory that would change science forever. English physician and poet Erasmus Darwin wrote a poem that foreshadowed the modern theory of evolution. The Temple of Nature (originally called

Origin of Society – more on that later), contained his own conceptualization of evolution.

Here is an excerpt:

When Time’s cold hands the languid senses seize,
Chill the dull nerves, the lingering currents freeze;
Organic matter, unreclaim’d by Life,*
Reverts to elements by chemic strife.
Thus Heat evolv’d from some fermenting mass*
Expands the kindling atoms into gas;
Which sink ere long in cold concentric rings,
Condensed, on Gravity’s descending wings.

But REPRODUCTION with ethereal fires
New Life rekindles, ere the first expires;
Calls up renascent Youth, ere tottering age
Quits the dull scene, and gives him to the stage;
Bids on his cheek the rose of beauty blow,
And binds the wreaths of pleasure round his brow;
With finer links the vital chain extends,
And the long line of Being never ends.

Darwin’s grandson, Charles, later wrote a book with a title that is strikingly similar to the poem’s original title: The Origin of Species .

Read more in the American Scientist .