The New Age of Wonder: Freeman Dyson on the Future of Science and Why Biologists Are the New Poets
By Maria Popova
“Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge… the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science,” William Wordsworth wrote as he contemplated the shared heart of poetry and science in 1798. And yet sometime in the two centuries since, poetry and science seceded from this shared kingdom of knowledge into wholly separate, if not warring, countries.
In one of the twenty-one excellent essays in his Dreams of Earth and Sky (public library), physicist, mathematician, and venerable sage of science Freeman Dyson (December 15, 1923–February 28, 2020) argues that bridging this rift between poetry and science holds some of the most thrilling and even life-saving possibilities for the future of our species and our world.
Dyson — one of the most blazing minds of our time, who enters his nineties as a kind of modern-day Bertrand Russell of science, with Buckminster Fuller’s daring genius, Einstein’s firm grip on science, and Goethe’s gift for enchantment — writes in a beautiful piece titled “When Science and Poetry Were Friends”:
The Age of Wonder means the period of sixty years between 1770 and 1830, commonly called the Romantic Age. It is most clearly defined as an age of poetry. As every English schoolchild of my generation learned, the Romantic Age had three major poets, Blake and Wordsworth and Coleridge, at the beginning, and three more major poets, Shelley and Keats and Byron, at the end. In literary style it is sharply different from the Classical Age before it (Dryden and Pope) and the Victorian Age after it (Tennyson and Browning). Looking at nature, Blake saw a vision of wildness:
Tyger, tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Byron saw a vision of darkness:
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air…
It was during the Age of Wonder that science and poetry first began communing, perhaps nowhere more so than in Goethe’s poetry inspired by the then-groundbreaking science of clouds. Dyson contemplates the circles of influence during this singular epoch of creative cross-pollination:
The scientists of that age were as Romantic as the poets. The scientific discoveries were as unexpected and intoxicating as the poems. Many of the poets were intensely interested in science, and many of the scientists in poetry.
The scientists and the poets belonged to a single culture and were in many cases personal friends. Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin and progenitor of many of Charles’s ideas, published his speculations about evolution in a book-length poem, The Botanic Garden, in 1791. Humphry Davy wrote poetry all his life and published much of it. Davy was a close friend of Coleridge, Shelley a close friend of Lawrence. The boundless prodigality of nature inspired scientists and poets with the same feelings of wonder.
Among the most substantive differences between that era and ours, Dyson points out, is the stark contrast between the “standing army of many thousands of professional scientists” today and the mere handful back then. But there is also one notable similarity — in both eras, ordinary citizens, or “amateurs,” were welcomed into the scientific world, be it the amateur meteorologist who classified the clouds in the eighteenth century or the DIY genetic test kits available to us today.
Indeed, Dyson suggests that the discovery of DNA and the bioengineering it made possible opened up the most exciting frontier of science — a remarkable opportunity to fully understand life and reimagine it at its highest potential, which ultimately requires an act of the poetic imagination. And because any technology of thought can be used toward both good and evil, this new frontier is one where we urgently need to reengage the poetic spirit with the enterprise of science. Nearly half a century after Ray Bradbury, perched on another major scientific precipice, remarked that “it’s part of the nature of man to start with romance and build to a reality,” Dyson envisions a renaissance of the Romantic spirit in modern science:
One feature of the old Age of Wonder is conspicuously absent in the new age. Poetry, the dominant art form in many human cultures from Homer to Byron, no longer dominates. No modern poet has the stature of Coleridge or Shelley. Poetry has in part been replaced in the popular culture by graphic art.
If the dominant science in the new Age of Wonder is biology, then the dominant art form should be the design of genomes to create new varieties of animals and plants. This art form, using the new biotechnology creatively to enhance the ancient skills of plant and animal breeders, is still struggling to be born. It must struggle against cultural barriers as well as technical difficulties, against the myth of Frankenstein as well as the reality of genetic defects and deformities.
If this dream comes true, and the new art form emerges triumphant, then a new generation of artists, writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses, might create an abundance of new flowers and fruit and trees and birds to enrich the ecology of our planet. Most of these artists would be amateurs, but they would be in close touch with science, like the poets of the earlier Age of Wonder. The new Age of Wonder might bring together wealthy entrepreneurs [with] academic professionals … and a worldwide community of gardeners and farmers and breeders, working together to make the planet beautiful as well as fertile, hospitable to hummingbirds as well as to humans.
Dreams of Earth and Sky is an immensely stimulating read in its entirety. Complement this particular thread of thought with sociobiologist E.O. Wilson and poet laureate Robert Hass’s beautiful conversation about science and poetry.
Published September 4, 2015