Gregory Tate interviews Poet and Physicist Iggy McGovern

Posted on: 5 July 2016 by Gregory Tate in Physics and Chemistry

In 2014 Gregory Tate recorded a documentary for Radio 3 about scientists who write poetry. One of the scientists whose work featured in the documentary was Iggy McGovern, a physicist at Trinity College Dublin whose most recent volume of poetry is A Mystic Dream of 4, a sonnet sequence based on the life of the nineteenth-century mathematician, astronomer, and poet William Rowan Hamilton.

GT: You’ve written a verse biography of William Rowan Hamilton. What drew you to writing about him?

IM: The idea of another scientist who was writing poetry interested me. I had been asked to give a talk about Hamilton; it was at a particularly busy time of my life, and I didn’t do a great job of that, largely because there’s so much material about him. There’s a three-volume biography of him written shortly after his death; I had not read it, and I promised myself that some day I would read it, and that when I did, I would respond. My response was to try to rewrite the biography as a sonnet sequence, picking up on his interest in poetry. The sonnet sequence is written in the voices of people who knew him: his family, his friends, his colleagues, other poets. And there are two outliers, people who couldn’t have known him. One is the former Irish president Eamon de Valera, who was a fan of Hamilton’s work, and the other is Erwin Schrödinger, who placed Hamilton’s mathematics at the centre of his wave equation.

GT: Why do you think poetry was so important to Hamilton?

IM: I don’t think it was so unusual in his time. I think people wrote poetry almost in the same way as we watch television. It was a very natural thing for people of his time to do, and I think he had some talent in it; he turns out well-turned Petrarchan sonnets that cover a wide range of subjects, including his own work.

GT: So, for a nineteenth-century scientific researcher such as Hamilton, poetry was just an essential part of his intellectual background. How do you think that compares to today?

IM: I think poetry has been forced into a little corner of culture for many years now, so it’s not something that people naturally turn to. But the interesting thing is – certainly it was true for myself – that if you do venture there, then you’re caught for life; it’s a mild disease, I think, and I certainly wouldn’t be without it.

GT: As a physicist, did you always feel comfortable writing and publishing poetry?

IM: Initially, no. This was something I kept to myself, partly because there was no real mentor that I was aware of, somebody who would give me permission to write poetry, but I then discovered one – Miroslav Holub, the Czech immunologist – and that was a significant moment for me. He infuses his poetry with scientific ideas, drawn from his work in the biological and medical sciences, but also straying into the physical sciences, the ‘harder’ sciences. And I ended up meeting him, and I enjoyed his company: a lovely man and a great poet.

GT: And his work showed you that scientists can and do write poetry?

IM: Yes it did. And the other element that I picked up on was that he used humour a lot, and that was a secondary permission, because sometimes humour is, well, not exactly frowned on, but not encouraged in poetry or in science.

GT: How did you first develop an interest in poetry?

IM: I guess it was a gradual process. I’d always written little rhymes, but never thought of them as poetry. And then in middle age my wife sent me to night school to become interesting; car mechanics was full, and I ended up on a creative writing course, and that changed everything.

GT: And why were you drawn to poetry specifically, as opposed to, say, writing a novel?

IM: I went into the course thinking I would write short stories; short stories are the Irish medium, and of course they’re extraordinarily difficult. At the end of the course I got my report card and it said ‘you will never be a short story writer, but you might try poetry’. I suspect it’s that scientific concision, wanting to make things fit on a page – that probably is what the tutor saw in my hapless short stories, and that’s why I turned to poetry.

GT: Do you think there’s something in that connection, the idea that science and poetry are both concise and structured?

IM: Yes I do, particularly the structural element. I’ve always been that type of poet, working with rhyme and formal structure, and I think that would be the main way in which the two disciplines map onto each other.

GT: They’re both ways of shaping ideas, and making sense of them?

IM: I think that would be true. Although there is a very damning statement by the Nobel Prize winner Paul Dirac about taking something which nobody knows and explaining it in a simple way, which is science, and taking something that everybody knows and explaining it in an incredibly complex way, which is poetry. And there is something in that as well, so the mapping isn’t exact.

GT: To what extent do you agree with Dirac?

IM: Well, it’s interesting, because Dirac is the ‘arty’ physicist, the author of beautiful equations, so I think he was being a little tongue in cheek, but you cannot get past the idea that the way in which scientists and poets use words is quite fundamentally different. Holub says it very well: he says that poets and scientists use the same tools – words; they share the same stage; but they move in opposite directions.

GT: In many ways, then, poetry and science are clearly very different, but are there some similarities as well, in terms of poetry and science both being concerned with observation, with studying and investigating the external world?

IM: I think so. There are, as Holub argues, three stages to the production of a poem or the doing of an experiment, and you can use exactly the same terminology to describe those three stages. There’s the preparation, when you go off and read the literature: the scientist must read the literature, and the poet really should be aware of what other poets have written. That’s the first stage. The second stage, the most important one, is the doing of it, when you have to be open to failure. I think that’s absolutely true of science, and it’s true of poetry as well. When you’re sitting down to work – Holub would say that you’re only really a poet at that moment; you’re not a poet for the rest of the day, and in truth you’re only a scientist at that moment as well. The third stage is the eureka moment: if you’ve properly done stages one and two, then you get the eureka moment of discovery, and there’s nothing like it in this world, whether you’re a scientist or a poet.

GT: Do you think writing poetry has changed the way you think about science? Has it offered an alternative perspective to the one that science offers?

IM: It’s hard to be concrete about that. I suspect I’ve become more careful in my scientific writing. Have I become more careful in my poetry because of my science? I think I’ve become more aware of possible audiences. In both disciplines, often, we don’t think too much about potential audiences. Of course, poets write for themselves in principle, but really they’re writing for an audience somewhere, and scientists are the same. Poets are able to move between their interior world and the real world; they’re very good at that, and I think that scientists are very good at it too.