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The Convergence of Science and Art

From science to poetry and back again

In a country-western bar over a steamy cattle barn in the Alps, I once sang all night for a few drunk Swiss mechanics who spoke no English. I’ve played packed clubs where unruly crowds were waiting for Suzanne Vega or John Mayer to appear instead. In the tourist-filled Kennedy Center lobby I’ve sung left-leaning folk songs that in another time might have gotten me dragged in front of Congress.

But now that I’ve set aside my career as a performer to become a family physician, the notion of a tough gig has taken on a whole new meaning. Fodder for funny stories has given way to tales of life and death. So on a drizzly December evening, I find myself standing before a hundred mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers who have gathered at the hospital chapel to commemorate the all-too-brief lives of infants who died before or soon after they were born.

The path that has brought me here seems obvious to me, but it sounds complicated. The arrow, I think, flies true; it’s just the space that’s curved. I came to MIT in 1975 as a pre-med student and spent a year working on molecular enzyme factories for George Whitesides, who has since become a nanotech guru. But in my sophomore year, literature professor Irene Tayler led five budding scientists through the poetry and art of William Blake, and nothing was the same after that.

This story is part of the July/August 2012 Issue of the MIT News magazine
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Blake felt it was his job to restore the balance between reason and imagination, to save humanity from a reductionist science that limited reality to the realm of our poor senses—what he called “Single Vision & Newton’s Sleep.” He even invented his own engraving process—not duplicated to this day—in his quest to re-create the almost hallucinatory visions he hoped would open “the doors of perception” in the minds of his readers. It’s the same challenge Einstein faced when he allowed himself to experience the Lorentz equations for correcting near light-speed calculations not as mere mathematical corrections but as actual expansions of space, time, and matter. Both Blake and Einstein relied on what T. S. Eliot termed “a quality of sensuous thought”—the source of metaphor and that elusive “elegance” mathematicians are always talking about.

Their mirror visions are evident in these two quatrains:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the Palm of your Hand

Eternity in an Hour

(Blake, “Auguries of Innocence,” 1803)

l‘ = l√1 − v2/c2

t‘ = t/√1 − v2/c2

m‘ = m/√1 − v2/c2

E = mc2

(Lorentz/Einstein, 1905)

It’s not so much that they say the same thing—they do the same thing. If you take the time to imagine, they place you in the “zone” where time slows, the smallest things reveal their endless complexity, matter and energy become one.

Suddenly, strangely, everything I read coming out of MIT, supposed home of the one-dimensional nerd, pointed to the idea that imagination is as central to the scientist’s attempt to understand the world as it is to the artist’s attempt to express the human condition. Thomas Kuhn argued for “paradigm shifts” by which scientists accepted revolutionary theories before there was enough evidence to prove them, and engineer turned linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf coined the term “linguistic relativity” to explain how profoundly our perception of the world depends on the language we speak.

I graduated with a bachelor of science in the humanities, a metaphor for this union of disciplines. Instead of pursuing medicine, I did graduate work in poetics, taught literature, and continued writing poetry, all with a vague notion that the soul needed more healing than the body. But more and more I turned to song, leaving academia to become a singer-songwriter, a kind of literary engineer. Each song I wrote was like some weird 2.70 project: take some wires, wood, and a handful of words in a language that thinks “love” is a noun, and create small vehicles capable of moving people between laughter and tears in three minutes or less.

On becoming a father and deciding to hang up my traveling shoes, I felt that finally it made sense to enter the world of medicine, where I hoped to become the kind of doctor who healed the soul as well as the body. Music and medicine are both about suffering, about crossing the gap between who we are and who we might become. In medicine, however, the final leg of that journey leads from life to death. And so I find myself in front of these families whose grief for lost children has no words, and I pick up my guitar and sing.

Hugh Blumenfeld ’80, who concluded his PhD dissertation on William Blake with a chapter on chaos theory, is now a family physician in Hartford, Connecticut.

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