Science Is Poetry: Teaching Students to See Science from a Different Lens

“There’s a real poetry in the real world. Science is the poetry of reality.”

—Evolutionary Biologist Richard Dawkins, The Enemies of Reason

Science is often perceived as being cold. Hard facts, calculations, graphs, and data analyses all being done by people in white lab coats, wearing glasses, and speaking in language so technical as to be totally foreign to the vast majority of people.

But for many of us, this writer included, science is poetic.

Let’s look at it from a different angle. For those of us lucky enough to have had a passionate teacher—and I’d wager that’s most of us at some point in our education—we remember that there was a look in their eyes and an edge to their voice when they expounded upon their favorite topics that excited everyone around them. Oftentimes, these teachers became our favorites, and we found their courses easy because their passion was infectious.

Similarly, scientists dive into an area of interest trying to find out everything they can; it’s not uncommon to find a scientist who spends their whole life researching just one topic. They are intense in their pursuit to understand. And if you ask them about their topic of passion, you will light a flame that roars to life and burns with an intensity of all-consuming excitement in being able to share what has so captured their attention and evoked their amazement.

It should come as no surprise, then, that descriptions from a passionate scientist often become poetic. After all, what is poetry if not the verbal expression of passion? As educators, encouraging our students to go deep into science can not only spark their passion and engagement, but also open up avenues for their creativity through artistic expression.

Here are a few of my favorite scientists’ writings and quotes that I would call poetic:

Naturalist John Muir on His Study of Glaciers

"The path of the vanished glacier was warm now, and shone in many places as if washed with silver. The tall pines growing on the moraines stood transfigured in the glowing light, the poplar groves on the levels of the basin were masses of orange-yellow, and the late blooming goldenrods added gold to gold. Pushing on over my rosy glacial highway, I passed lake after lake set in solid basins of granite, and many a thicket and meadow watered by a stream that issues from the amphitheater and links the lakes together; now wading through plushy bogs knee-deep in yellow and purple sphagnum; now passing over bare rock. . . . The sun gave birth to a network of sweet-voiced rills that ran gracefully down the glacier, curling and swirling in their shining channels, and cutting clear sections through the porous surface-ice into the solid blue, where the structure of the glacier was beautifully illustrated."

John Muir

Astronomer Carl Sagan
Cosmos

  • "The cosmos is also within us. We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself."
  • "We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever."
  • "We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers."
  • "Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries."

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson
The Cosmic Perspective and Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

  • "The day our knowledge of the cosmos ceases to expand, we risk regressing to the childish view that the universe figuratively and literally revolves around us."
  • "Science is a cooperative enterprise, spanning the generations. It's the passing of a torch from teacher, to student, to teacher. A community of minds reaching back to antiquity and forward to the stars."
Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astronomer Jill Tarter
"Join the SETI Search" (TED Talk)

  • "The story of humans is the story of ideas that shine light into dark corners."

Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor
"My Stroke of Insight" (TED Talk)

  • Information in the form of energy streams in simultaneously through all of our sensory systems and then it explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks like, what it feels like, and what it sounds like. And in this moment, we are perfect, we are whole, and we are beautiful.

Symphony of Science has even taken many of the powerful quotes of scientists and put them to music and video in an exceptionally stirring fashion. My favorites are "The Poetry of Reality" and "We Are All Connected."

The study of the natural world—science—provides ample substance for imagination. That substance is what can turn our work as educators from pushing students into learning science to instead guiding students as they are pulled by their own curiosity and imagination into exploring on their own.

After all, as physicist and Nobel Prize recipient Richard Feynman said in Fun to Imagine, “Nature’s imagination is so much greater than man’s. She’s never going to let us relax. But you gotta stop and think about it—about the complexity—to really get the pleasure. And it's all really there. The inconceivable nature of nature.”

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Learn more about HMH's K–12 science programs, which are designed to encourage student-directed learning and deeper understanding of concepts.