Whitman

I recently came across the following Whitman poem:

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

This poem beautifully captures the feeling that when you quantitatively analyze something (be it Nature or literature), it often feels like some of the initial beauty and magic of the phenomenon disappears [1].

As a scientist, the position that a scientific viewpoint somehow diminishes ‘beauty and magic’, is something you run into once in a while, so it’s good to have an answer. My own reply is that while it’s true that analysis tends to strip many phenomena of some kind of immediate (and often trivial) appeal, digging deeper almost always reveals new layers of beauty.

I had developed some examples to go along with this argument, based on my own experiences, but a couple of years ago, I watched an interview with Richard Feynman [2], and his answer is so much better than mine that I’ll leave the rebuttal of Whitman to him:

Postscript

After writing the above, I googled the poem – I guess I should have done that before writing – and found a lot of fun/interesting discussions. One commenter pointed to a modern version of Whitman’s standpoint courtesy of the Insane Clown Posse (from Miracles, 2009):

Water, fire, air and dirt
Fucking magnets, how do they work?
And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist
Y’all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed.

Check out the pages below for more. Particularly the comment thread for the first post is a treasure trove:

References

[1] My own favorite example is that – when conditions are good – there are 9110 stars visible to unaided human eye. I’m pretty sure that bringing up this factoid could ruin a romantic evening under the stars. Anyway, I’m rambling.

[2] From the BBC program Horizon. Interview recorded in 1981 – the whole thing is highly recommended.

Published by

Sune Lehmann

I’m an Associate Professor at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Computer Science, at the Technical University of Denmark.

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