Lucretius: Science in Verse

The second in a National Poetry Month series on the intersection of science and poetry.

Poetry and science go way back. Over 2,000 years ago, the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus (c.99 BC- c. 55 BC) declared in verse that the universe was made of an infinite number of atoms.  His epic De Rerum Natura, known in English as On the Nature of Things is considered to be a didactic or instructional poem, written to introduce Roman readers to Epicurean philosophy, one of the foundations for modern science.

Didactic poetry dates back to Hesiod, an 8th century Greek poet and contemporary of Homer. It was generally written in the dactylic hexameters (also known as epic meter) that typified epic poetry. In addition to De Rerum Natura, other surviving examples of didactic poetry include Hesiod's Theogony, Empedocles’ Purifications, Ovid's Ars Amatoria, Parmenides' On Nature,  Aratus' Phenomena, and Vergil's Georgics.

Like Epicurus, Lucretius was an atomist and a materialist who believed that nature consisted of two fundamental principles, the atom and the void. He also argued against supernatural causes of phenomena in favor of natural ones.

Classics scholar William Harris summarized the importance of Lucretius as follows:

In the pages of Lucretius we find:

1) A developed atomic theory, resembling that of the world of Dalton if not ours today, with serious intimations of what is to come.

2) Clearly spelled out laws of the conservation of matter and energy, essential to any understanding of modern chemistry.

3) A doctrine involving molecular "hooks" or attachments, which is remarkably similar, although the words may be different, to our understanding of molecular attraction and combination. He misses the role of electrical charges, but recall that the doctrine of electrons was publicly announced by Thomson only in l904.

4) A pellucidly clear statement about biological mutations, and selection of the fittest to survive. When Darwin was asked late in his life if he had ever read Lucretius, he stated to the incredulous questioner that he had not. But it is all there in Lucretius, whether Darwin had read it or not.

(Harris, William. "Lucretius: The Roman Epicurean Scientist." Humanities and the Liberal Arts. Middlebury College, n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2014.)

Flash forward to 1971. “Comparative mobility of halogens in reactions of dihalobenzenes with potassium amide in ammonia,” a scientific paper written entirely in blank verse is published in The Journal of Organic Chemistry (1971 36 (1), 184-186).  Perhaps the authors J. F. Bunnett and Francis J. Kearley Jr. were influenced to write their paper in verse by Lucretius and the other didactic poets?

In a footnote to the paper, the journal editors wrote "…we find the paper to be novel in its chemistry and readable in its verse." So too did Willamette University inorganic chemistry professor Andrew Duncan who shares his views on Bunnett and Kearley’s scientific paper in the blog Poetry & Popular Culture, concluding that “the choice to write in verse did not detract from the clear communication of the science.”

Here is an excerpt from the paper. You can read the rest in The Journal of Organic Chemistry

Reactions of potassium amide
With halobenzines in ammonia
Via benzyne intermediates occur.
Bergstrom and associates did report
Based on two-component competition runs,
Bromobenzene the fastest to react.
By idobenzene closely followed.
The chloro compound lagging far behind
and flourobenzene to be quite inert
At reflux. (-33°).

See also Celebrating National Poetry Month: Reflections on a Dinoflagellate.