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The Poetry and Music of Science: Comparing creativity in science and art, by Tom McLeish

22 November 2019

Emotion is native to science as well as the arts. Andrew Davison applauds

TOM McLEISH holds a fascinating university appointment. Having been Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at Durham, he recently moved to a chair at York which was created to reflect the breadth of his interests (all of which are on display in this book): marvellously, he is the first professor for a long time in Natural Philosophy.

The business of being a scientist, McLeish argues, is not as different as we might suppose from that of being a poet, novelist, or composer.

He explores that proximity in three ways: through scientific examples, artistic examples, and a more general foray into philosophy and theology. Underlying much else is McLeish’s contention that, too often, we are presented only with the end products of scientific theories and insights, and not with the stories that lie behind them. Look at those, however, and we will find plenty of emotion, the labours of the subcon­scious, and — above all — attention, imagination, and creativity.

Taking a second sort of wider view, McLeish wants us not only to appreciate those immediate stories behind discoveries and insights, but also to see that natural science has a long history of development. It didn’t all start with modernity, as his favourite interlocutor, Robert Grosseteste (c.1175-1253), amply illustrates. Theodoric of Freiberg (c.1250-c.1310) does the same, having tracked down the source of the rainbow in the refraction of raindrops.

Beside colour and rainbows, the science here otherwise gathers around soft-state physics (the study of polymers and their behaviour) in which McLeish is a considerable leader. Quite apart from the important lessons that McLeish draws from his vignettes, this a fascinating area of science on its own terms, and one that few readers are likely to have encountered before. A couple of pages feature mathematical notation, which was perhaps a mistake. Readers should not let it bewilder them: it is possible to read those pages for the feel of the thing, not the detail.

Among the arts, McLeish comes across as an appreciative reader and listener, and eager to draw on the insights of others, in print and in conversation. The music of Robert Schumann is prominent, as are the novels of Henry James, among others. The decision to reproduce musical examples may leave some readers drawing a blank, but, as with the maths, it is again possible to attend to the sweep, not the detail.

The argument that human life is all about imagination, creativity, and attention is of no small theological consequence; that we find them in science, and not only in the production of works of art, nicely presses that point home. For that, the theologian has a good deal for which to thank McLeish.

As a work itself of explicitly theological or philosophical analysis, however — the third strand to this book — the book is a little less successful. It is not so much that there are missteps, although there are one or two, but, rather, that the prose moves too quickly to count as fully grounded humanities writing. It jumps from quotation to quotation without much by way of context in the writer’s work: from Arendt to Kant, for example, to Husserl, and on to Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, Whitehead, and Sartre.

McLeish moves the discussion of science and religion on rather profoundly. Enough has been written about how theology might relate to science in general, abstractly conceived. Far better to think theologically about particular scientific examples, set out with a historical and human back story. That is exactly what we have here.

Canon Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and Fellow in Theology and Dean of Chapel at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.


The Poetry and Music of Science: Comparing creativity in science and art
Tom McLeish
OUP £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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