The Burden of Swallows


Shortly after Seamus Heaney’s death, one lover of the Nobel Laureate’s poetry wrote in the condolence book in Belfast’s Linen Hall Library, ‘Famous Seamus, you’ve up and left us.’  There was affection, familiarity and even poetry in that simple lament.  And it’s the poetry — the poetry of life — that is worthy of reflection.

In his poem The Railway Children Heaney tells us that the wires stretching between the telegraph poles ‘sagged under their burden of swallows.’  What those darting, twilight visitors lack in size, they make up for in number.  As they sit in endless rows, these birds appear to weigh down those lines that are now so busy carrying other forms of twitter.  But, of course that’s the illusion — the poetic explanation of something rather more mundane.  In reality, when the birds rise to flight and vacate their roosts, the wires still sag almost in memory of their recent occupants.  However, that notion of memory is also a poetic one, for wires and telegraph poles, and even swallows, do not share our playfulness with the English language.

Poetry is seen by many as a rather unnecessary luxury in their lives.  It decorates the world with something unseen, but felt.  It creates an added sense that tries to express what we might otherwise struggle with.  But, we don’t need poetry in the way we need basic sustenance and shelter and love.  Nevertheless, expressions of beauty, and of horror, as well as all the emotions we strive so hard to keep away from science, do have a use.

Let me take the poetry out of Heaney and see what we have left.  I could tell you that the average mass of a swallow is 18g and that the average number of swallows per metre of a well-stocked telegraph wire might be about five.  This load, of around 90g per metre, is less than the weight of the wire itself, which of course is the real reason for the sag.  All this is true, but after I first read Heaney’s words, I have never been able to look at a sagging telegraph wire without imagining the flock of swallows that has just up and left us.  A poetic vision of the world does not just add colour, it also brings it into sharper focus.  And it adds context.  After all, we do not carry on our business of discovery in a vacuum, but in a very real world where consequences have hard and sometime sharp edges.

The scientist has a clear responsibility to the facts and may define his or her endeavours as a search for the truth.  With that sense of responsibility, often comes a sense of derision for poetry. But, it doesn’t have to be like that; one need not necessarily mean the demise of the other.

Science is a world full of ‘how’ and ‘why’ that begins with amazement.  This universe, this cell, this molecule have all possessed majesty long before they possessed meaning.  The American cosmologist Carl Sagan reminds us that every child who ever lived has gazed up and asked why the sky is blue.  Some, I suspect a tiny minority, receive the answer, while others are simply told to be quiet. Some might be offered a fable or a myth as a substitute for the facts.  But whatever the answer, the question was borne of wonder. And wonder is the stuff of poetry.

Another Nobel-prize winner, the immunologist Sir Peter Medawar, reflecting on the very nature of science, said of its paradoxes,

…a scientist must indeed be freely imaginative and yet skeptical, creative and yet a critic. There is a sense in which he must be free, but another in which his thought must be very precisely regimented; there is poetry in science, but also a lot of bookkeeping.

Those who forget to be poets, who see such a way of looking at the world as flimsy and unnecessary, are only seeing half of what the universe has to offer. And scientists who cannot appreciate the poetry of their work and who focus solely on that bookkeeping are only ever doing half the job.

© Allan Gaw 2018

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Testing the Waters: Lessons from the History of Drug Research

What can we learn from the past that may be relevant to modern drug research?

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