Ethical Considerations in Combining Poetic Research and the Scientific Method (or Notes from the Apothecary)
Carlos Soto-Román et al.
J. Med. PoEthics. 2013 May; 33(8):507-11. doi 10.177/0333102412468674.
I love science. I love it as much as I hate it. I love science because I’m far away from it. Now that I’m far away, everything is science. Before, when I was in the lab, mixing compounds in an Erlenmeyer flask, everything was poetry. I’ve tried to combine both for a very long time, but haven’t been satisfactorily capable. Have I? I’m not sure. But at least I have tried. And I have tried really hard. Statistically speaking, I don’t know if I’ve ever passed the Success/Failure Condition. But the result of my experiments (and my observations) is what remains. That is all I have to show.
1. Art is Science and Science is Art.
Think about all the chemical processes and physics phenomena that take place in different artistic disciplines, and how the understanding of the properties and characteristics of art materials has been a fundamental part of making art for centuries. Think about cave paintings, think about early Egyptian paintings and ceramics, think about Chinese papermaking, think about oil painting. Think about how Science helps art historians and museum conservators to unravel the story behind an art piece and also how it helps to identify the materials used in a particular work. Think about light and color. Think about what is light and how it is a factor in the visual experience. Think about how light creates different colors, think about how light interacts with matter. Think about matter, think about the elements. Think about how different chemical compounds are present in the materials used to create art (e.g. CaCO3, Fe2O3, C22H20O12). Think about alloys in sculpture, think about glass and ceramics, think about ceramics and clay. Think about pigments, think about paints, think about polymers, think about dyes. Think about the photographic process.
On the other hand, think about the strangeness and the bizarre beauty of a chromatography plate, a CT Scan, an X-ray, a DNA gel electrophoresis. Think about the magnificence of the images obtained through an electron microscope or the old medical and anatomical illustrations.
For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.
Fig.1: Close-up of the author, at the age of five, reading his first book.
I have always thought of Art and Science as water and oil. A mixture that doesn’t blend, an impossible alliance, an insoluble solution, which sounds more like an insoluble riddle.
But at the end, it’s just a matter of polarity. Polarity as orientation, and alignment but also as intimacy, as a way of affinity. Hydrophilic joins the hydrophilic to surround the hydrophobic so dissolution can take place. Dissolution as in dispersion or separation (disengagement, extrication, rupture) of one element (the self or ego) in order to achieve integration. The need to nest, protect, enclose, the urge to embrace what seems strange and foreign in order to integrate it. In order to assimilate.
I’m thinking now what would be the agent that makes possible such decrement of the surface tension.
… And now, dear reader, for your intellectual toilet, here is a little piece of soap. Well handled, we guarantee it will be enough. Let us hold this magic stone. – Francis Ponge.
Fig.2: Close-up of the author, receiving his Pharmacy degree
3. Trial and Error
I’m obsessed with Error. Error interests me more than failure. Error comes from the Latin errorem, which means “a wandering, straying mistake”. As in erratic, “having no fixed or regular course”, or in Mathematics and Physics, where error is the difference between a measured value, and a true or theoretically correct value. Error works for me more as a distance and movement, as oppose to failure that is just collapse, cessation, and defeat.
I’m also curious about “Trial and Error” as an unsystematic method of solving (poetic) problems. Forget about insight; forget about theory or any other organized methodology. Try to find the answer in the simplest way in order to discover a solution to your (poetical) dilemma. Not all solutions. Not the best solution. Just a solution, your solution.
Such mortal drugs I have, but Mantua's law is death to any he that utters them.
Romeo and Juliet, Act 5, Scene 1
Fig.3: Close-up of the author, working at the lab.
4. Scientific rigor and disbelief
My own private set of approaches that will ensure progress and accuracy. My dear sobjectivity. The objects of poetry must [always/never] be empirical, but they must occur in the observable world (Todo es real. Nada es real - Juan Luis Martínez). Its claims must be verifiable and repeatable. The findings of poetry must not be stated as proofs of something but rather as models of trends in the world that can potentially be falsified. Quantitative Poetry demands scientific rigor. Rigor means rigidity (to resist bending), inflexibility (unalterable, immovable), and severity (inexorable). As in rigor mortis; stiff as death. In the same way a line is the shortest distance between two points, scientific rigor is also a two-step program: Data collection and Data analysis. Poets should gather data through fieldwork (think, for example, on CA Conrad’s somatics). Once the poet has gathered data, analysis should be accomplished through the “writing process”.
The night is starlit and long. – George Trackl, Pharmacist.
Fig.4: Close-up of the author, at the Mütter Museum, Philadelphia PA
4. The Rules of Causal relationships vs. The Rules of Casual relationships
We must acknowledge that Alchemy was a fraud. Sad as it sounds, nobody ever understood that instead of merely transforming garbage into gold, the whole deal was more about the transformation of the very soul of the alchemist during the process. Not the outcome but the procedure. Eureka! That’s why it’s so important, nowadays, to count with new rules, a new set of principles, more suitable to the endeavor of poets and scientists, who strive on a daily basis against terrible and generalized misconceptions, such as the illusion of the divorce between the analytical/rational/logical and the emotional.
We must reformulate then, the laws that used to define our perception of reality.
We must bring author into question:
• … that greater accuracy of achievement in one poem entails less accuracy of
achievement in another poem.
Proprioception is the sense of falling off - Pattie McCarthy
Thus my personal quest (and therefore delirium) is not only about an agent, an enzyme, a catalyst or the lapis philosophorum. It is about ethical tactics, it’s about techniques. It’s exclusively about standard detailed steps that prescribe how to perform specific tasks. And every tactic begins with a plan; and every plan begins with a question.
Now considering the “why” as forbidden from the scientific idiosyncrasy, we can only trust in more direct and effective ways of inquiry. “What”, “how”, “where” or even “when” are good starting points:
What is poetry made of? What is the biological basis of poetry? To what extent are poetic variation and poetic health linked? Can the laws of poetry be unified? How much poetic life span can be extended? What controls poetry regeneration? How can a prose cell become a poetry cell? How does a single poetry cell become a whole poem? How does the Poem’s interior work? Are we alone in Poetry? How and where did poetry on Earth arise? What determines poetic diversity? What genetic changes made us uniquely Poets? How are poetic memories stored and retrieved? How did poetic cooperative behavior evolve? Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Having a proper pool of questions already prepared, my first impulse would be then to enunciate a set of sacred rules in order to settle the problem. Just three will suffice:
Such experimental command, although clear and categorical, resonates somewhat strict and narrow. We can eventually break each of the previous points down to a more ample approach:
1. Make an observation
2. Ask a question
3. Form a hypothesis
4. Postulate a thesis
5. Describe an antithesis
6. Conduct an experiment
7. Accept hypothesis
8. Reject hypothesis
Finally, if you have a proper record of every single step and you are able to display the information gathered as well as the conclusions drawn from your own experiments and observations in a coherent and self-explanatory manner… Congratulations! You have written a poem.
Words are like atoms; they can combine and bond with other atoms in order to form more complex units (molecules/poems) – after Maggie O’Sullivan
1. Leonardo Da Vinci
2. Tycho Brahe
3. Giulio Casserio and Odoardo Fialetti
4. Jacques Gamelin, Noveau receuil d’ostéologie et de myologie
5. Thomas Eakins, The Agnew Clinic, The Gross Clinic
6. Nick Veasy, X-Ray
7. Damien Hirst, Pharmacy
8. M.C. Escher
9. Primo Levi, Il Sistema Periodico
10. Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle
11. Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat
12. Jules Verne
13. a. rawlings, Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists
14. Francisco Varela, From autopoiesis to neurophenomenology
15. Tomas Gabzdil Libertiny, Made by Bees
16. Paul W. K. Rothemund, Smiley Faces
17. Christian Bök, The Xenotext
18. Gunther von Hagens, Body Worlds
19. Susan Lowdermilk, Eaden Mutata Resurgo
20. Santiago Calatrava
21. Edward Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
22. Joseph Beuys, Energy Plan for the Western Man
23. Gaston Bachelard, La Poétique de L’Espace
24. Geroges Perec, Especes d’espaces
25. Henry Gray, Gray’s Anatomy
26. Frank H. Netter, Atlas of Human Anatomy
27. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Die Elixiere der Wissenschaft: Seitenblicke in Poesie und Prosa
28. Adran Bejan and J. Peder Zane, Design in Nature: How the constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization.
29. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age
Carlos Soto-Román is a Chilean pharmacist (químico farmacéutico), and poet. He holds a Master of Bioethics from the University of Pennsylvania. He has published in Chile: La Marcha de los Quiltros (1999), Haikú Minero (2007), and Cambio y Fuera (2009); and in the States: Philadelphia’s Notebooks (Otoliths, 2011). His work can be found in Crux Desperationis 3, Newport Review, Coydup 5, Summer’s Stock, P-Queue, Capitalism Nature Socialism, Where Eagles Dare, and Dear Navigator 4. He is also a translator and the curator of the cooperative anthology of US poetry Elective Affinities. He lives in Philadelphia, PA.