The poetic astronomer


Regular readers of this blog will know that I can on occasion be a stroppy, belligerent, pedant, who gets rather riled up over people who spread myths of science and who has a tendency to give such people a public kicking on this blog. This tendency earned me the nickname, the HistSci_Hulk in earlier years. The subtitle to a podcast that I stumbled across yesterday on the BBC website provoked my inner Hist_Sci Hulk and has generated this post.

The podcast is a BBC Radio 4 “Radio 4 in Four” four minute documentary on the work of the Indian mathematician and astronomer, Aryabhata: Maths expressed as poetry. The subtitle was: In 5th century India, clever man Aryabhata wrote his definitive mathematical work entirely in verse and long before Galileo, argued the world was round [my emphasis]. It was that final clause that provoked my HistSci_Hulk moment.

I’ve lost count of how many times over the years I have explained patiently and oft not so patiently that educated society in European culture have known and accepted that the world is a sphere since at least the sixth century BCE. This is the most recent account here on the blog. Bizarrely in the podcast no mention is made of Aryabhata’s cosmological or astronomical views, so it is real puzzle as to why it’s mentioned in the subtitle. What is interesting is the fact that as a cosmologist Aryabhata held a fairly rare position, although he was a geocentrist he believed that the earth revolved around its own axis, i.e. geocentrism with diurnal rotation. You can read about the history of this theory here in an earlier blog post.

Statue of Aryabhata on the grounds of IUCAA, Pune. As there is no known information regarding his appearance, any image of Aryabhata originates from an artist’s conception.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

More interesting is the correct fact that Aryabhata wrote his astronomical/mathematical thesis in verse form. As the podcast points out this is because the culture in which he was writing was an oral one and complex facts are easier to remember in verse rather than in prose. What the podcast doesn’t say is that Aryabhata was not the only astronomer/mathematician to express his results in verse and was in this sense by no means unique. In fact he is part of a solid tradition of mathematical Sanskrit poetry.

India was not the only culture to use poetry to express scientific content. Probably the most famous example is the Latin poem De rerum natura by the first century BCE Roman poet Lucretius, which is the most extensive description of the physics of the ancient Greek atomists. The poem played a central role in the revival of atomism in the early modern period; a revival that several historians of science, such as David Lindberg, consider to be a key element in the so-called scientific revolution of the seventeenth century.

In astronomy/ astrology there is a poem from antiquity that played a significant role in the Renaissance. This is the Astronomica probably written by the poet Marcus Manilius in the first century CE; the first printed edition of this was published by Regiomontanus in Nürnberg in 1473.

Many people are not aware of some highly significant scientific poems from the eighteenth century written and published by Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus.

Joseph Wright of Derby, Erasmus Darwin (1770; Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery).
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Darwin’s The Loves of the Plants was the first work in English to popularise the botanical works of Linnaeus in English. The poem caused something of a scandal because it emphasised the explicit sexual nature of Linnaeus’ system of botanical nomenclature and was thus considered unsuitable for polite society. The Loves of the Plants was published together with another poem, The Economy of Vegetation, a more general poem on scientific progress and technological innovation, of which Darwin as a prominent member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham was very much aware. The Economy of Vegetation expresses an evolutionary view of progress. A footnote to The Loves of the Plants contains the first outlines of Darwin’s theory of biological evolution, which he would then expand upon in his prose work Zoonomia. Erasmus Darwin’s is an adaptive theory of evolution and is thus oft referred to as Lamarckian, although as Erasmus preceded Lamarck, maybe his theory should be referred to as Darwinian! A posthumous poem of Darwin’s, The Temple of Nature, contains a full description of his theory of evolution in verse.

Writing this led me to the thought that maybe editors of modern scientific journals should require their authors to submit their papers in iambic pentameters or in Shakespearean blank verse, with the abstracts written as sonnets. It would certainly make reading scientific papers more interesting.




Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, Myths of Science

5 responses to “The poetic astronomer

  1. To write in iambs takes no special skill. It’s reading wooden verses that’s the pain. That’s just as true true in dactyls. Behind Lucretius who deserved his bays, stand serried ranks of Manilius, et. al. preparing an ambush of ennui. Darwin at least was bouncy if not suave in crafting his vegetal pornography; yet didactic poetry is, I fear, most often a make out session with your aunt. On this one point I claim some expertise. In high school, many years ago, I wrote a longish essay all in five foot lines to spite an English teach I despised. I typed it out in normal paragraphs to gull the ditzy pedagogue. That worked. She knew the writing was peculiar and yet could not quite guess the nature of my game. The take home lesson, Thony, is just this. Be careful what you ask for. You might get it.

  2. Check out Frederick Soddy and the Kiss Precise, in Clifton Fadiman’s collection The Mathematical Magpie (and other places).

    Then there is Updike’s poem about neutrinos, “Cosmic Gall”.

    If memory serves, James Maxwell also wrote quite a bit of verse.

  3. Edgar Allan Poe’s Eureka should be viewed as a sort of synthesis. See: “How Poetry will Supersede Mathematics in Science”

  4. Anthony

    Reading this post brings two examples to mind.
    The first is W.D. Snooke’s 1828 compendium “the calendar of the memory”. This work deals with solving calendarical/astronomical problems (e.g. date of Easter, rising and setting time of the moon, etc). But what is rather extraordinary, is that aside from writing the formulae in prose, he included versifications of the formulae. Here is one example, to find the difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendars
    One fourth of the centuries abate/
    And two besides, since that date/
    The rest are days of diff’rence due/
    For the Julian style behind the new […]

    Another, describing the equation of time:

    From the day before Christmas the clock is before/
    On St. Valentine’s day, 14 minutes and more/
    From the 15th of April, to June the same day/
    ‘Tis behind, by 4 minutes in the middle of may/ […]

    The whole can be found on Google Books:

    The second example appeared on facebook less than half a year ago ( . It is a rhyme describing the process of Long division. We are told it was invented by some schoolchildren. Unlike Snooke’s rather limp verse, this version is much more concise, and rhythmic
    “Divide, multiply and subtract
    Bring it on down, and bring it on back”
    Evidently the tradition of Metrical Mathematics has yet to die out.

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