The Poetry of Science and Wonder as an Antidote to Self-Destruction: Rachel Carson’s Magnificent 1952 National Book Award Acceptance Speech
“The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that… is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction… There can be no separate literature of science.”
By Maria Popova
A century and a half after Novalis declared that laboratories will be temples, the poet turned marine biologist Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) consecrated science in her lyrical writings about the natural world. At the center of her creative cosmogony was a vital symbiosis between literature and science in illuminating the nature of reality — a credo she formulated directly only once, in the acceptance speech, excerpted in Figuring, for the National Book Award her 1951 book The Sea Around Us had earned her: “a work of scientific accuracy presented with poetic imagination and such clarity of style and originality of approach as to win and hold every reader’s attention,” read the award citation.
At the ceremony held on January 29, 1952, the drama critic John Mason Brown welcomed Carson to the stage with introductory remarks that captured the unexampled allure of her scientific-artistic sensibility:
Miss Carson [has] made those odd creatures of the sea, those bipeds known as men and women, interested the world over in the mystery of our beginnings and the profundity and beauty of something far greater than mortals, with their petty egotisms and vanities, can hope to know… She has atomized our egos and brought to each reader not only a new humility but a new sense of the inscrutable vastness and interrelation of forces beyond our knowledge or control. She has placed us as specks in time and yet inheritors of a history older, and certainly deeper, than many of us realized… Where prose ends and poetry begins is sometimes hard to say. But I do know that Miss Carson writes poetic prose or prose poetry of uncommon beauty.
Rising from the table she shared with the poet Marianne Moore, Carson took the podium, looked softly, almost shyly, at the audience with her eyes the color of sea water, and spoke with confident composure about the animating ethos of her work:
The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience. It is impossible to understand man* without understanding his environment and the forces that have molded him physically and mentally.
The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction; it seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.
Speaking before we discovered the double helix, before we set foot on the Moon, before we heard the sound of spacetime in the collision of two black holes, Carson considers how science invites us to be wonder-smitten by reality, which is the ultimate poetry of existence:
We live in a scientific age; yet we assume that knowledge of science is the prerogative of only a small number of human beings, isolated and priestlike in their laboratories. This is not true. It cannot be true. The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience. It is impossible to understand man without understanding his environment and the forces that have molded him physically and mentally.
The winds, the sea, and the moving tides are what they are. If there is wonder and beauty and majesty in them, science will discover these qualities. If they are not there, science cannot create them. If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.
In a sentiment she would echo a decade later in her bittersweet farewell and challenge to posterity, she intimates that such a worldview can make us better stewards of this irreplaceable world — which means, invariably, better stewards of our own survival:
I wonder if we have not too long been looking through the wrong end of the telescope. We have looked first at man with his vanities and greed and his problems of a day or a year; and then only, and from this biased point of view, we have looked outward at the earth he has inhabited so briefly and at the universe in which our earth is so minute a part. Yet these are the great realities, and against them we see our human problems in a different perspective. Perhaps if we reversed the telescope and looked at man down these long vis- tas, we should find less time and inclination to plan for our own destruction.
Complement with Carson, at her finest, on the ocean and the meaning of life, the story of how she inspired M.C. Escher, and this stunning choral tribute to her legacy, then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin on the relationship between poetry and science.
Published November 30, 2022