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Poems of Science

Good quotes are rare in the history of science. The striking utterances which scientists have managed to produce are often over-used.

Newton, Darwin and Einstein provide a slim range of comments on God and Nature which crop up in almost every anthology. So historians of science are always on the look-out for potent means of encapsulating their subject-matter and capturing their audience.


Theirs is the dilemma which Swift satirised in A Tale of a Tub: 'whoever hath an Ambition to be heard in a Crowd, must press, and squeeze, and thrust, and climb with indefatigable Pains, till he has exalted himself to a certain degree of Altitude above them'. 'Altitude' is a tough problem for the historian of science. This is partly because of the apparent intellectual elevation of the subject matter, and partly because of the difference between the technical work of scientific practice and the literary forms the historian uses to analyse and present it. Epigraphs, such as snatches of verse which stand imposingly at the head of the text, are thus invaluable. They work like 'brute facts' in science, which command assent by their deliberate isolation from context. Hence historians might welcome a new collection of Poems of Science just published under the editorship of John Heath-Stubbs and Phillips Salman (Penguin Books, 1984), if only for the rich store of excerpts now available for pillage.


It has been argued, for example, that the response to the dramatic achievement of the late eighteenth-century astronomer William Herschel was due more to the wonder of his gigantic telescopes than to an understanding of the theories which he developed about the 'construction of the heavens'. These theories were quite out of tune with the assumptions of the astronomy of his age. This argument can be summarised more pithily in a poem of 'Peter Pindar':  

The fame of Herschel is a dying blast:

When on the moon he first began to peep,

The wond’ring world pronounced the gazer deep:

But wiser now th'un-wond'ring world, alas!

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