Poetry in the lab

Poetry in the lab

Das ist die Sehnsucht: wohnen im Gewoge
und keine Heimat haben in der Zeit.

That’s the emotion: living in the motion
and having no still space in time.

Motto, Rainer Maria Rilke (from Früher Gedichte, and my own free translation).

The time in the lab is a space full of gaps. Experiments can be long and tiring, or short and sadly unsuccessful, but there is always that odd operation that requires waiting: during setup, or measurements, empty spaces open up before us, like potholes, or sinkholes. It’s up to us to decide how to fill them. One could easily get trapped, for example falling prey to that irresistible urge to have a look at their phones, sinking deeper and deeper into a whirlpool that drags us swirling around.
Yes, I often waste my time like this, too, but when I resist this temptation, I enjoy letting my mind wander, and wonder, unbridled and free. Letting myself drift away on a stream of random musings, images, flashes of memory, all wildly chasing one another in haphazard combinations. You bob in a sea of constantly changing currents, and the roof of the building you can see from the window becomes the jagged profile of a turreted castle wall. Losing myself in reveries halfway an experiment, when the alertness can be safely switched to standby mode for a while: what sheer pleasure! How many wacky ideas have flashed through my brain in the midst of this carefree state of mental frolicking! So much so that if I ever became group leader – something that, at the moment, looks like a pie in the sky that I won’t bake any time soon – I would encourage this useless daydreaming. I’ll be honest: I would even go so far as to forbid earphones and headsets in the laboratory. If researchers and students complained, I would mention that there seems to be evidence that the brain is geared to losing focus constructively1. Put the brain into neutral and the engine will enjoy taking a rest from driving. Another example? The positive effect of purposeless walking, as discussed in this article regretting the waning popularity of this useless pastime.

There’s another thing I would do as a group leader. The opening quote of this post is from a poem by Rilke that is painted on a wall in Leiden. Muurgedichten, wall poems, a gorgeous idea. You walk the alleyways the bridges the canals, and lines and verses are thrown at you, suddenly, from above. Original versions, sometimes with an English translation. The gaze leaves the level of the ground. Words rhythms rhymes take you away from the flat horizon of our daily chores.
I would ask the other group members to pick their favourite poem, and share it by posting it onto the walls of the laboratory, or elsewhere. No songs allowed, because they are two-legged animals standing on words and music: their lyrics will always sound maimed. Poems only: these fragile constructions striking a balance between the inner musicality of their texture and the need to convey meaning.

Dante Alighieri, Divina Commedia, Inferno, Canto III (Translation: from en.wikisource.org)

Here’s the question: can you write poetry while working in the laboratory? No. Not because experiments need your full attention. A truism, and too easy an answer. The real reason lies well deeper than this, and it may look elusive at first because poetry and scientific research are of the same stuff that all enquiry, or quest, is made on – “Well, here he goes again with his long tirades give me the remote control please to switch him off…” I hear you say. But I am not asking you to believe what I say. Instead, listen to someone who spent her life with pens and poems.

Wisława Szymborska, or the inspiration.

In her Nobel Prize lecture, Wisława Szymborska draws an interesting contrast between the photogenicity of poets and scientists:

“[…]It’s not accidental that film biographies of great scientists and artists are produced in droves. The more ambitious directors seek to reproduce convincingly the creative process that led to important scientific discoveries or the emergence of a masterpiece. And one can depict certain kinds of scientific labor with some success. Laboratories, sundry instruments, elaborate machinery brought to life: such scenes may hold the audience’s interest for a while. And those moments of uncertainty – will the experiment, conducted for the thousandth time with some tiny modification, finally yield the desired result? – can be quite dramatic[…]”

Instead, poets fare much worse on stage2:

“[…]But poets are the worst. Their work is hopelessly unphotogenic. Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down seven lines only to cross out one of them fifteen minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens … Who could stand to watch this kind of thing?[…]”

Looking at the notes from my recent ‘narrative and storytelling’ course, well, I can but agree with her. No pace, no (visible) daunting challenge to overcome, no real plot. A no-go.

Anyway, it is what Szymborska says later that matters most.

[…]inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It’s made up of all those who’ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners – and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know”.[…]

Yes, and I would add, love is built on these unsteady foundations, too. A common ground full of “I don’t know”, of “we don’t know”. Szymborska continues by taking us to the source shared by research and poetry:

“[…]This is why I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself “I don’t know,” the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself “I don’t know”, she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying “I don’t know,” and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.[…]

It is the one and only driving force. Genuine scientists, like genuine poets, as Szymborska remarks, “must also keep repeating “I don’t know”.” Yet, I believe, two diverging trajectories of inspirations take off from the same driving force: the inspiration of the wandering mind for the poet, the inspiration of the busy hand for the chemist. Yes, mind-vs-body is a fictitious duality, but as far as inspiration is concerned, it is very real. You cannot have them both in the same place. Such is the price to pay for facing the unknown.

Two sides of the same coin

To explain this, let me take what Szymborska says and flesh it out with my own words. Inspiration, for me, is a voice saying: “I don’t know, but now I feel I know“. It is a vibration. A resonance. You feel it , and you don’t know where this wave will take you. “I don’t know, but now I feel I know”. It is a special singularity that rips the fabric of space-time creating a white hole -and I am knowingly mentioning this technical term from general relativity. Spaces of decreasing entropy in the exciting turmoil shaking all matter, white holes are singular instants shining with escaping light. It is in this dazzling flow of information that the wandering mind, or the working hand, feel their own special resonance emerging. The poetic inspiration and its scientific counterpart share the same astonishing unpredictability. The same coin, yet with two sides. Here is the key point.

Poetic inspiration resembles the act of finding ways to write resonant chemical structures of a certain compound that, at a first glance, defies all attempts to rationalise its properties. Suddenly, you spot possible resonance structures as if you were fishing them out of a rough sea teeming with nonexistent, yet plausible, entities and you lay them bare on paper. Taken together, these resonance structures are like moulds of what would otherwise remain unsaid, allowing the poet to cast verses from blurred shapes blinking their light amidst a chaotic flow. This poetic inspiration seems to combine quickness,  visibility and multiplicity, in terms of Italo Calvino’s literary ‘values’ (from Six Memos for the Next Millennium). Quickness, because one needs to catch sight of the elusive silhouettes before they disappear; visibility, because the poet’s representation in words must be clear-cut, though not necessarily unambiguous, hence the multiplicity.

Instead, chemical inspiration is much more similar to a hand shifting its position up and down on the fingerboard of a stringed instrument: it senses that there is a special vibration that will resonate if a string is pressed in the correct position, and so the fingers will feel their way and try. It involves finding the right pitch, and playing the note that the instrument was already primed to sing. I would say we can recognise exactitude first and foremost, and lightness of touch to avoid upsetting the temperamental system under investigation. The sixth missing value (Calvino died before finishing his lectures), consistency, would have completed the triplet defining chemical inspiration.

As a conclusion, this fundamental difference between the poet’s and the chemist’s inspiration explains why, in my view, the cliché of the poète maudit (accursed poet), or the dejected artist creating stunning masterpieces from sheer desperation does not apply to the chemist. Creativity in the chemical laboratory rests on the alertness that allows one to merge into the flow of information streaming from experiments. Serenity is the key to serendipity: a sense of harmony with the microcosm in our glassware is instrumental in perceiving the resonance that poises the chemist for that special inspiration.

The time of loss

Rainer Maria Rilke, Motto – and my own translation

The end of all inspiration is a separation of sorts. A loss. Written words stitched together into a frail shell encasing the emptiness within. Visible operations that conceal the impossibility to touch those invisible entities that seemed within reach.

That reminds me of another poem from Leiden’s walls, Loss, by the Syrian poet Adonis (translation retrieved here).

؛والضياعُ يوحِّدنا بسوانا
والضياعُ يعلّق وجه البحارْ
والضياعُ انتظارْ.

Loss unifies us with something other than us.
and loss fastens the face of the sea
to our dreaming.

And loss is just waiting.

This loss is what sparks that quest, Szymborska’s motto again.

“I don’t know.”

Leaving a place is a kind of loss, too. I will soon fly away, pack my luggage, and leave this lab. Another city, another country. Lots of poems in my bag.

So, after all, it is not so surprising that an powerful inner voice has told me to look for those lines by Kavafis, to read them once more, to learn them by heart. This time, however, in the original version. As if I wanted to swallow the printed page and eat it to let those words become part of me, never to forget them again; as if I wanted to challenge them, because there will be a new city, a new life, a new place, even amongst the debris that strew my inner space, so ravaged a country, so forlorn a city. I recite them aloud as if I wanted to cast a spell on me, on the life that I am leaving behind. Still another voice questions me in its mocking tone uttering those two syllables that hurt like wild lashes: “You said”, Είπες· . The voice keeps reminding me and I, relentlessly, I will always retort:

Μια πόλις άλλη θα βρεθεί καλλίτερη από αυτή.
Μια χώρα άλλη θα βρεθεί καλλίτερη από αυτή.

Another city will be, better than this.
Another country will be, better than this.

Better than this, where so much was laid waste, so much was lost, so much could have been but is no more. Like in the aftermath of a runaway reaction.

And still I will deeply miss those eyes who have seen me through this landscape of destruction. The rarest diamonds in a charred coalmine.

Carbon, too, can shine.

Vittorio Sereni, a poem from Diario d’Algeria – and my own translation


  1.  The book I am referring to is The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does When You’re Not Looking. If you can read Italian, there is a quite detailed review available online.
  2. How are chemists portrayed in films? This article in HYLE addresses this topic.

Listen to the blog


My chapped hands are wavering on the keyboard. They have weathered the storm.

The past is the bellowing voice of the wind and its gusts. It is blowing from a year ago, echoing a cascade of shed pearls spilling on the floor like tears, the piercing cry of a young tree felled by the howling gales, the creak of the brittle glass beaker that cracked, but that won’t break.

Listen, tonight, listen to the wind speaking.

It reminds me what I once wrote: I was sitting on an inflatable exercise ball, surrounded by scattered boxes, after a hurried relocation.

A year on, boxes and a ball once more, and an envelope I am holding in my hand. The most precious gift.

The hourglass turns, the sand grinds the glass down. Time is a rough substance, it trickles through our fingers, it scratches our skin, it won’t stop. This blog, too, shall go on. Drop by drop, what most counts is that what drips, but is not lost…

To mark this first year, here’s a collection of recordings (click and download, it won’t play otherwise). The voices of the laboratory where I work, sounds without men, voices of instruments, of appliances, of noises that speak.

Like this west wind, fierce and wild.

Can spring be far behind?