The Poetry of Science

Growing up I was always told that my gift was my ability to use words. In vocabulary and reading tests I nearly always scored in the 99th percentile while my math scores hovered above and below mediocre. In the fifth grade I wrote an essay about playful grass, streaming sunshine and how alive spring made me feel and my teacher showed it to my parents and told them he thought I would make an excellent writer one day and as their only child (together, I have a half-sibling) they delightfully agreed. It was in that moment that writing became a part of my being and I am still grateful to that teacher for pointing it out, but it was also around that time that science seemed to close off to me. I was a humanities person and not a math and science person. I read voraciously, wrote poetry and short stories, excelled in literature and foreign language courses and went on to get an undergraduate degree in Spanish and Portuguese. In college I took basic biology, nutrition and history of science courses which I loved, but those were considered “easy” and I didn’t think I’d ever be able to handle a chemistry or physics course. When I began to venture into herbal medicine I realized that I had missed my calling and this was  mainly because of the way science had been presented to me. Now, at 25 I am slowly taking steps to reclaim it. 

There seems to be a great concern about the US falling behing in math and science and there are a lot of reasons for that. Since this is my blog I am going to approach this personally because I’m sure there are a lot of people in my shoes, but I’m not going to attempt to give a general overview. One problem, is that we are categorized at an early age and as time goes on it becomes increasinly difficult to get out of that box. From the time we are tiny tots we are asked what we want to be when we grow up and if it doesn’t seem lucrative adults would often try and steer you away from it. School is not about learning, it is about training the next generation of consumers. I was lucky to grow up in a household where learning was considered a beautiful thing as long as it was applied to the betterment of humanity in some way, but even then I was categorized and expected to play my part. Sciences and humanties were presented as two very different paths and I would never been an engineer, chemist or doctor because that was not what I was good at so why bother? This type of attitude was reinforced by very bad science and math teachers (with a few exceptions that I am lucky to have) who, along with my classmates were probably tired of all the questions I asked. It was a problem throughout school, teachers either loved me or hated me because I asked questions, sometimes the same question multiple times because I just wanted to be sure I understood, but it was often interpreted as inattentiveness. Schools, especially low income schools do not reward this type of curiosity.

By the time I got to middle school I was surly, quiet, and asked far fewer questions. I still loved to learn, but I had pretty much given up on school and though my grades were decent they could have been much better if I had bothered to do assignments I didn’t care about. In the 8th grade I had a fabulous biology teacher who took it upon herself to pull my mother aside and tell her that she thought that if I tried a little harder I could be a scientist, “Science is just asking questions and investigating and she has that gift,” she said. Perhaps, a few years earlier I would have listened, but you try telling anything to an 8th grader. The point is, I shouldn’t have been hearing it for the first time at 14 and that by seperating sciences and humanities into very different universes we are doing a disservice to the discipline and to countless school children. Explaining that humanities is about creativity and analysis and science is about hard facts and memorization is a flat out lie, all you have to do is learn a little bit about the history of science to see that is not so. It is also dangerous. Science has become as dogmatic as religion, but the simple truth is that there is a lot we don’t understand and that findings can be molded as creatively as a lump of clay. If we were all a little more science literate we could see that behind the mask of empiricism there is just as much politicking going on as there is in Washington.

As a writer I concerned myself with nature, plants, and the motives of human behavior and as a scientist I will concern myself with nature, plants and the motives of human behavior. Who but the scientist and the poet have made the innerworkings of the world their life’s work? Who has marvelled more at a sunset or lover’s touch?

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