“Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art! / Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes. / Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart, / Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?”
Edgar Allan Poe, “Sonnet—To Science”
When I look up at the stars, I am generally enlivened and inspired. Even in apparent stillness, the constellations elevate my thoughts and mood. Except when I suddenly remember that the universe is fatally expanding, its luminous contents sliding elsewhere faster and faster, fleeing toward coldness and demise. In such moments I feel pangs, not pleasure.
Perhaps my fits of science-based melancholy are akin to the one which spurred Poe to write the above verse. This quatrain explicitly announces the thesis of the poem. Science preys upon the poet’s heart. Identifying science as Old Time’s daughter is no compliment, given Time’s frequent role as antagonist in poetry. The sonnet goes on to dramatize science assailing Greek and Roman literary figures. Science displaces their woodland homes and dreams, violently.
I encourage you to take a few moments to read Poe’s sonnet. The full text is available for free on the Poetry Foundation’s website:
Especially in the science enthusiasm circles I move in—space exploration and NASA in particular—we focus on the positives of research, development, academia, and industry. We evangelize for science. We see it as a key to the progress of humanity. Nevertheless, science can be a downer.
The best example that comes to mind is the heat death of the universe, which I described earlier in this post. The likely fate of all matter—the very death of energy even—is a gloomy and grave subject. Yet some scientists I’ve encountered suggest we grin and bear it. Inasmuch as the heat death theory is good science, I do suggest we bear it. Yet, I think grinning in the process smacks of denial and suppression.
Has science never made you sad? Never? Well, then perhaps you weren’t paying careful attention. From celebrity scientists like Brian Cox, in his documentary series Wonders of the Universe, I have in effect been told to chin up. Hey, at least we get to exist during an age of abundant life and knowledge on Earth. And bonus, we live during the Stelliferous Era, a time of countless galaxies and flourishing star nurseries. Ain’t it cool?
Perhaps some physicists are as right about their chin-up mentality as they are about their science. Nevertheless, I believe sorrow has a validity equal, and in some contexts much greater than, happiness. Brushing it aside could be a mistake. For instance, brushing sadness aside might have resulted in Poe failing to write his “Sonnet—To Science.”
Since at least the time of Galileo, science has sparked discoveries that displace or ruin cherished beliefs and dreams. Resulting grief is understandable. Granted, even if its proofs prove disquieting, science nonetheless merits respect. We ought to graciously take the sour with the sweet. It is only absolutist optimism I am speaking against. Let sorrow have its place and its poetry.
Has a scientific discovery ever left you sad or troubled? Why? How did you mitigate that sadness?