Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sir Paul Nurse and Poetry

(Cross-posted with the Bristol University Science Faculty blog)

Photo: Royal Society
There were two great events held here in Bristol last night, one at the University and one at the Bristol Old Vic, and I was hoping against hope that I would find a connection between them to make this blog post flow! And... what do you know? I did. The first was Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, Nobel Prize winner, geneticist, president of Rockefeller University New York... all-round very very interesting scientist and excellent talker-about-science! He was giving the Sir Anthony Epstein lecture at the Wills Tower, in the largest, cathedral-like space, which was packed to the rafters... His topic was "Great Ideas in Biology" and he was quick to point out that these weren't THE great ideas in biology but his pick of great ideas... although he felt that most people would agree on 4 out of the 5.

So, what were his great ideas? Well: The Cell, The Gene, Evolution by Natural Selection, Life as Chemistry (and Physics) and the fifth, possibly contentious one, Biology as an Organized System, by which he meant looking at the biological networks and how they are structured, looking at the flow of "information", at the system as an information carrier.

It was all fascinating stuff, some of which I already knew a bit of, but always good to be reminded what a chromosome is, for example... with some great slides and historical perspective! I was then heading to a poetry event, so, I hear you ask, how are the two connected?? Well, it was at Great Idea Number 3, which you would assume centred around one Charles Darwin. But no, in fact Sir Paul wanted to focus on Charles' grandad, Erasmus, who was the first to talk about evolution (Charles later supplied the vast quantities of data to prove it). Not only that, apparently Erasmus - who was a colourful figure, so large that he cut an oval out of his dining table so he might sit rather nearer to his supper, and fathered 14 children - was a poet, at one time "one of the best known poets in England"! And not only that, he wrote much of his scientific reports in blank verse! (See Jenny Uglow on Erasmus Darwin's poetry in The Guardian). The Poetry Foundation gives us his poem, The Botanic Garden, and here is an excerpt:
 “You taught mysterious Bacon to explore
Metallic veins, and part the dross from ore;
With sylvan coal in whirling mills combine
The crystal’d nitre, and the sulphurous mine;
Through wiry nets the black diffusion strain,
And close an airy ocean in a grain.—
Pent in dark chambers of cylindric brass,
Slumbers in grim repose the sooty mass;
Lit by the brilliant spark, from grain to grain
Runs the quick fire along the kindling train;
On the pain’d ear-drum bursts the sudden crash
Starts the red-flame, and death pursues the flash.—
Fear’s feeble hand directs the fiery darts,
And strength and courage yield to chemic arts;
Guilt with pale brow the mimic thunder owns,
And tyrants tremble on their blood-stain’d thrones.

Stirring stuff! Now the poets I went to see after this lecture, Luke Kennard and Tom Philips,  did not deal directly with biology but I feel that Erasmus D would have enjoyed the evening, which moved from a searing critique/love poem about Portishead to a tale of the Murderer being taken for a haircut. I was immensely impressed by the whole event, organised monthly by Word of Mouth -  highly recommended if you are in the vicinity!

So, an evening of poetry, biology and biological poetry, what more could I have wanted?

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