Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Science and Metaphor - Why Poetry in Science Matters

In the spring I wrote an entry about selecting literature for science instruction. In it, I mentioned the book A Seed is Sleepy by Diana Hutts Aston. Here's a portion of what I had to say.
The one guideline that students struggle most with in its use and application is: Are the animals/objects portrayed naturally? In this case, I like to encourage them to think more broadly about "living things," since often times plants and animals are anthropomorphized.

I'll admit, that I find this difficult myself. Take for example, the new book by Dianna Hutts Aston entitled A Seed is Sleepy. I love the artwork and the sheer poetry of the language. It is a glorious book. I bought it and I plan to use it with my students. However, somewhere between the strong science and the poetic language is this nagging feeling that the seeds are just too "human."
Since writing this in March, William and I have been reading and re-reading and re-reading (you know how 6-year old kids are) A Seed is Sleepy and An Egg is Quiet (the 2006 Cybils winner in the nonfiction picture book category). Both books are beautiful to look at (the illustrations by Sylvia Long are gorgeous and beg to pored over) and lyrical in language. In addition to the "story" that leads the reader from each beginning to end, there is quite a bit of scientific information sprinkled throughout. Our numerous readings have inspired William to ask lots of questions about birds, eggs and seeds. We have been to the library to check out other books on these topics, planted a variety of seeds throughout the yard, and experimented with eggs.

All this new exploration has me thinking more about the value of poetry in science. I have long been a fan of using poetry to teach science (read more here), but often get caught up in the uneasiness expressed above. However, while recently revisiting some of the essays of Chet Raymo, I've come to the conclusion that I need to let go of this concern and simply enjoy the words while thinking about how much the poetry can teach us. Here's an excerpt from the article that convinced me that poetry in science should not just be encouraged, but required.
Make no mistake, I am not dismissing the scientific way of seeing. Weighing, measuring, abstraction and dissection have proved their worth as royal roads to truth. But the poet's eye guides us to truths of another kind.
Metaphor is a way of seeing non-causal connections, as when Ted Hughes speaks of April "struggling in soft excitements/ Like a woman hurrying into her silks." On the face of it, there's nothing in the metaphor of use to a scientific student of the seasons, yet the words significantly alter our perception of spring. "Struggle," "soft," "excite," "hurry," and "silk" force us to think in layers and levels of meaning.

Scientists, especially those working in narrow areas of specialization, are often trapped by tunnel vision. Metaphors have a way of exploding the bounds of perception. Some of the best, most creative science occurs when likenesses are perceived where none were thought to exist. Life is a "tree." The electron is a "wave." Thermodynamic systems are "information."

You can read the essay, Science and Metaphor, in its entirety here.
Raymo is right. As a teacher, I know that metaphor and analogy are often the most appropriate tools to help students understand complex ideas. I now believe that when I review new science books, I will be less concerned about anthropomorphism, particularly when the metaphor and the science are good. I have Diana Hutts Aston and Chet Raymo to thank for that.
While I am at, I should also thank Randall Jarrell, Joyce Sidman, Douglas Florian, Kristine O'Connell George, Marilyn Singer and too many other great writers and poets to mention. They've all helped me to see the poetry of science and nature, while inspiring me to learn and read more.


  1. Great post full of insightful questions and thinking. I like the idea of using "metaphor" to develop layers of meaning and get at complexities in science. My favorite science writers use metaphors expertly. Although Diane Ackerman and Natalie Angier's are more poetic, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker are also masters of metaphor and are able to explain very abstract and difficult science ideas as a result. Perhaps this is a way to think of metaphors in children's non-fiction---it's kinda like how adults who haven't mastered particle physics need the metaphor of a vibrating string to understand something about quarks. Or the metaphor of computers to understand something about brains.

  2. Thanks, Tricia, for the link to the Science and Metaphor essay. I'll go there and read it.

    I taught religions of the world at Chattanooga State for 10-12 years or so, as an adjunct. Here in the south, especially, it is hard to get across the idea that the Bible stories are metaphorical, NOT literal, but I try!

    ~~~ Bonnie

  3. Maybe you would like to see how I used the Science and Metaphor article in my blog:

  4. Tricia,

    It's interesting you published this post at this time. For Poetry Friday, I'm reviewing a new book of poems by Joanne Ryder that would be great to use in the science curriculum. I think it's a collection you'd like.

  5. I enjoyed reading this. As a first grade teacher I think that I had planned to teach my students that scientists and poets are a lot alike because of their observational qualities. I plan to compare the two equally and chart it for them to see. Modeling and then allowing them their independence.
    Thanks for sharing this.