Chet Raymo Meets Matter and the Muse

Chet Raymo is a professor of physics and astronomy at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. He enthusiastically explores the relationships between science, nature, and the humanities. The author of ten books, including The Soul of the Night, Honey From Stone, and Natural Prayers, Professor Raymo spends his summers in County Kerry, Ireland; his winters in the Bahamas; and the rest of the year in Massachusetts.

Sarah Fox interviewed Mr. Raymo before the harvest moon in 2000.


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conduit: You obviously have a strong relationship to poetry, often referring in your essays to Rilke, Roethke, and many other poets. Can you remember your first encounter with poetry?

chet raymo: The first poet who had a strong influence on my intellectual life was Wallace Stevens. He taught me how to think about science and poetry. His poetry flits back and forth between "the thing itself" and the reflection of the thing in the mind. Scientists are generally not educated to think philosophically about what they do. This comes later, when they start practicing science. As a result, most scientists begin their careers as what you might call naïve realists: we discover reality. It turns out that science works somewhere between invention and discovery. It’s a territory I first explored with Stevens, in poems like "An Idea of Order at Key West" or "Poems of Our Climate." He is trying to pinpoint what the nineteenth century physicist James Clerk Maxwell called the condition of the enjoyable. Poetry and theoretical physics are alike in that they both use highly condensed and resonant languages. Change a sign in a mathematical equation and a theory goes askew; drop a syllable in a poem and the thing is less perfect. My mind is too relaxed, I think, to be successful at either mathematics or poetry.

conduit: Yet your essays are unusually lyrical for a scientist.

raymo: Yes, I strive for lyricism in my prose. But poetry is a much more condensed kind of expression than prose, more exacting. My own mind sprawls. It is the difference between a single exquisite blossom of the jewelweed, and the rank tangled bank. I am not a science reporter by nature. I love making connections, between science and everything else. Susan Sontag said something to the effect that the great thing about being a writer is that nothing is irrelevant.

conduit: "All thinking is metaphorical," you’ve written. How is this true for the scientist?

raymo: Did Christian Huygens’ notion of light as a wave spring from the fact that he was a Dutchman who lived beside water? Did Alfred Wegener’s idea of continental drift spring from his experience on iceflows in the Arctic? The mind inevitably moves from the known into the unknown and carries baggage with it. When Ted Hughes watches as the moon "sinks upward/To lie in the bottom of the sky, like a gold doubloon," he turns ordinary perception on its head, but sets us straight up and down. We weave a web of metaphors to catch reality. Both scientists and poets cast their nets.

conduit: Do you think poetry can inform contemporary science?

raymo: It is difficult to see how this can happen directly. Science rigorously maintains an autonomy from various forms of subjective experience and expression (poetry, religion, politics, etcetera). This is what gives us confidence in science. The (admittedly unachievable) goal of science is some sort of objective knowledge of the world. Science that cozies up too closely with poetry or mysticism can quickly lapse into pseudoscience. Indirectly, however, scientists can learn from poetry. All science is metaphorical. We explain the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar (the electron is a particle, the electron is a wave). I think any young scientist could profit by good courses in poetry, to help her keep her metaphors fresh. Maxwell said: "It is a universal condition of the enjoyable that the mind must believe in the existence of a discoverable law and yet have a mystery to move in." Science and poetry occupy opposite ends of this spectrum, and it is perhaps just as well that they stay there. But of course in each of our lives we try to embrace both poles. A scientist without an appreciation for poetry can be a drudge. A poet without respect for discoverable law is unlikely to find a universal audience.

conduit: What might "respect for discoverable law" look like in actual poems?

raymo: If a poet is to find a general audience, she must write about things that are common to many of us, so that we experience the shock of recognition in the poet’s words. Much student poetry, for example, is just a core dump of the student’s head. Ho hum. The great poets are able to get out of themselves and explore the world around them. Stevens can write about two pears and touch universal truths.