The basic researcher as poet-maker

In 1953, the NSF in its third annual report publishes a discussion of basic research. In its opening paragraph, the NSF associates scientific creativity with that of “poet or painter”:

A worker in basic scientific research is motivated by a driving curiosity about the unknown. When his explorations yield new knowledge, he experiences the satisfaction of those who first attain the summit of a mountain or the upper reaches of a river flowing through unmapped territory. Discovery of truth and understanding of nature are his objec- tives. His professional standing among his fellows depends upon the originality and soundness of his work. Creativeness in science is of a cloth with that of the poet or painter.

S.K. Heninger, in Touches of Sweet Harmony, argues that Sir Philip Sidney, with his Defense of poesie in 1595, moves beyond the idea of poet as versifier or feigner and introduces the idea that the poet “makes”or “invents” new concepts, new social forms, somethings out of nothing: “One may be a Poet without versifying, and a versifier without Poetrie” (Heninger, citing Sidney, 290). Sidney identifies three kinds of poetry–that of divine inspiration (vates), that of didactic knowledge (or didactic poetry), and a third kind, that of “making”:

These third be they which most properly do imitate to teach & delight: and to imitate, borrow nothing of what is, hath bin, or shall be, but range onely reined with learned discretion, into the divine consideration of what may be and should be.

The poet as maker does not consider the temporal world, but rather, as Heninger puts it, “the entire conceptual world, as well as the physical, is open to him, and is indeed his proper purview”(302). The divine enters here following the tradition of God as maker, derived from Plato’s Timaeus and transmuted through Christian thinking. As Sir Thomas Browne has it, “Nature is the Art of God” (Heninger, 292). God begins creation with “logos” or a plan, and it is given to humans to come to understand that plan in nature, that conceptual space, as they may. Such discoveries as may be made are not those of tradition or mere observation, but of the harmony behind appearances. In the terms of the Enlightenment, natural laws govern the physical world, with Newton’s depiction of gravity providing the link between terrestrial physical law and the physical law of the heavens. For the poet as maker, the analogy is not merely the discovery of divine design in nature, but to create new works such that “the initial conceit in the mind of the poet bears the same relation to the poem as the archetypal idea residing in the godhead bears to the extended universe.” The idea and poem pair of this third kind of poetry is a microcosm of the greater activity by which the university has come to be.

It is easy to get caught up in dismissing any discussion of poetry in relation to science, especially something with old spelling and still concerned with the relevance of Plato and a created universe. But something else is going on in what Sidney does: he re-introduces into English thought a concept of making tied to conceptual understanding, makes the activity superior to other activities, and presents as its sphere of operations the conceptual universe bounded by the rational and the true, excluding the irrational (regardless of origin) and the merely fanciful. It is difficult not to see this concept of making, ascribed to the poet, as the core of what is now discussed as “basic research.” This third sort of poetry-as-making is science, as distinct from natural history (a kind of didactic poetry–check out, say, Erasmus Darwin for instances that versify), and as distinct from unreasoned claims.

The maker-poet exhibits a conceptual architecture that has an analog in the work itself: this is the very architecture claimed for basic science, that of a conceptual understanding recorded by a theoretic notation. Basic science, we might muse, is a child of Elizabethan poetic theory made social. The “laws of nature” are the reasoned expression of conceptual insights made not out of accidents of observation or traditions of authority, but from a discovery of mind that in notation can be mapped to a proposed core of observation. Even then, observation always involves what is called “error”–that is, the theory is perfect (or, in Sidney’s word, “golden”) while the observation is merely brass. Physics abounds with such “counter-factuals” that are needed to create and manipulate notation–the point charge, the perfect sphere, the inelastic collision, the frictionless surface. The concepts are taken to be true (but subject to revision if a better theory wins out), and observations are taken to support the theory even if they can never match it perfectly. As long as the theory, the Artiface, is internally consistent (coherence), and has testable claims (notation) that can be observed (correspondence), then the theory has standing as science. Even after Newtonian mechanics has been displaced by relativistic physics, Newtonian mechanics still has broad use, and is taught long before anyone thinks to introduce quantum mechanics.

Francis Bacon in 1620 publishes the Novum Organum, and with it sets the agenda for scientific research, modulated soon enough into the Royal Society, and from thence into the forms of scientific research that combined both the amateur scientist and the amateur inventor–Hutton, Darwin, Watts, Morse, Bell–leading to the creation of industrial science and academic science, and the “organized” science funded by government, for which the great turning point was Vannevar Bush’s Science the Endless Frontier and the formation of the National Science Foundation.

Bacon lays out a method of shaping the understanding that he calls “Interpretation of Nature” and contrasts this method with that of “Anticipation of the Mind”:

There are and can be only two ways of searching into and discovering truth. The one flies from the senses and particulars to the most general axioms, and from these principles, the truth of which it takes for settled and immovable, proceeds to judgment and to the discovery of middle axioms. And this way is now in fashion. The other derives axioms from the senses and particulars, rising by a gradual and unbroken ascent, so that it arrives at the most general axioms last of all. This is the true way, but as yet untried. (Book I, XIX)

With a mind conditioned to the glory of science and the relegation of poetry to pleasant escapism and academic activism, Bacon’s agenda would appear to have nothing to do with poetry. But it is–I argue–the space that Sidney opens for the poetry of making that Bacon exploits to develop a program for the interpretation of nature, a “true way” to discover truth. Just as Sidney aims to set aside visionaries and versifying, Bacon identifies four “Idols of the Mind” and contrasts these with the true way to interpret nature. The true way is not so simple as relying on experiment rather than authority:

There remains simple experience which, if taken as it comes, is called accident; if sought for, experiment. But this kind of experience is no better than a broom without its band, as the saying is — a mere groping, as of men in the dark, that feel all round them for the chance of finding their way, when they had much better wait for daylight, or light a candle, and then go. But the true method of experience, on the contrary, first lights the candle, and then by means of the candle shows the way; commencing as it does with experience duly ordered and digested, not bungling or erratic, and from it educing axioms, and from established axioms again new experiments; even as it was not without order and method that the divine word operated on the created mass. Let men therefore cease to wonder that the course of science is not yet wholly run, seeing that they have gone altogether astray, either leaving and abandoning experience entirely, or losing their way in it and wandering round and round as in a labyrinth. Whereas a method rightly ordered leads by an unbroken route through the woods of experience to the open ground of axioms.

The method of experience “lights the candle, and by means of the candle shows the way.” Note what comes next: the same analogy with divine logos to shape matter into form. In many ways, Bacon does for science what Sidney argues for poetry–and both forms seek a common ground in a conception that arises not either from authority and the past, nor from novelty, whether the claim is divine inspiration or simply the flight of fancy, but rather arises from the act of making new. For Bacon, there is a method for this making that runs through experiment to the “open ground of axioms.”

The NSF’s third annual report cites Vannevar Bush:

Basic research is performed without thought of practical ends. It results in general knowledge and understanding of nature and its laws. The general knowledge provides the means of answering a large number of important practical problems, though it may not give a complete specific answer to any one of them. . . .

Basic research leads to new knowledge. It provides scientific capital. It creates the fund from which the practical applications of knowledge must be drawn.

Essentially, Bush argues in the same path as Sidney as well as that of Bacon. The results of basic research are an “understanding of nature and its laws” and “scientific capital.” If there is a difference between Sidney and Bacon, it is that Bacon states a method by which “what may be” should be ascertained. But the fundamental of basic research occupies Sidney’s space of the the third form of poetry, of the maker of new concepts that allow a better understanding of nature and nature’s laws. As Alexander Pope has it:

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.

Basic research is a species of the third form of poetry.

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