This week reminded me of a definition of poetry that I heard paraphrased once and am now paraphrasing myself, like a game of definitional telephone gone amuck. Poetry at its purest is the stringing together of words such that they make little literal sense but resonate emotionally with truth. It’s similar to what humor is on a neurological level: it’s the eruption of mind joy at connections that have never been made before, but once established are undeniable.
And so Tyson takes us on this skipping and hopping trip, from plants, to the magic of carbon, to a boy touching a girl on her cheek, to the invention of art, to the heart of a star, to supernovas, heavy elements, neutrinos, and the beginning of the universe. In lesser hands this turns amateurish, just becoming a trivialized listing of how arbitrary things can be riffed into connections with other arbitrary things. But done right, and there’s a spark that makes the thing more than a sum of its parts. The distance between a list and poetry is the same leap made between a pile of carbon and a living thing.
The depth of science and the complexity of the universe is such a profound thing that anytime we carve off a piece of it, we lose sight of the whole. I think that’s a big thing that Tyson’s trying to do with this series: not just educating but using a particular tree here, and another there, to give a broad vision of a forest, one whose depths we are still only beginning to plumb.
I’m reminded of something that was said to me at the start of graduate school: everything you read for the next year, you’ll have to go back and read again five years from now. Not because we needed to learn how to learn, so much as the fact that with interconnected things there is no appropriate starting point. Linear knowledge is easy, if you need to understand A to understand B, then you learn A first. But most knowledge worth having is a synthesis of a dozen things. With those things you need to understand A to understand B, C, D, and so on, but you also can’t understand A without understanding all those other things. So you pick a starting place in the forest of learning, and pick your way in circles. Superficial learning is linear, but wisdom is recursive.
This is how a child learns intuitively, daisy-chaining the endless question “why” onto anything taught. As a random-walk this isn’t necessarily productive, just a chain of random wikipedia pages injected into memory (which is glorious fun in its own right). What a good teacher does though is what Tyson is doing, he lets the questions tumble into each other and jump across the span of all science, but guides them subtly, seeding each answer with a question for you to ask so that the study when taken as a whole leads to a view of the forest instead of a thousand trees. Here is how plants work, but to understand that bit of them you need to understand why carbon matters, but then you need to understand how atoms are constructed, and sooner or later you’re on a boat at the bottom of a neutrino detector.
And that’s poetry.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.