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The Poetry of Victorian Scientists

Daniel Brown
Cambridge University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Charles Ashbacher
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This book is almost exclusively about the context within which selected Victorian scientists created their verse rather than the verse itself. With the exceptions of the smallest pieces, when an item is referenced, only sections of the poems are quoted, and only after some explanatory context has been presented. That context is extensive; it includes the general social situation as well as the specific in the sense of the professional scientific social groups.

The descriptions of the verse includes understandable references to the science of the times, such as the growing understanding of electricity and the current “knowledge” regarding the ether, considered at the time to be the universal medium supporting the transmission of light. Mathematics, specifically geometry, is also mentioned, for this was the time of Bernhard Riemann and the creation of new geometries and models for space.

While many scientists/mathematicians are mentioned, two given the most ink are James Clerk Maxwell and James Joseph Sylvester. It will no doubt come as a surprise to many that these two men wrote a great deal of poetry, much of which was based on scientific/mathematical themes. It was a surprise to me.

While this book is certainly interesting and well worth reading as a history of some people in mathematics/science, the most significant consequence to me was the searches I conducted after reading it. I performed online searches for the writing of Maxwell and Sylvester and my opinion of their talents has gone up. I have no doubt that other readers will reach the same conclusions. It is also refreshing to have ammunition against the silly arguments that science/math people are so engrossed in the abstraction that they are incapable of doing anything “creative.”

Charles Ashbacher splits his time between consulting with industry in projects involving math and computers, teaching college classes and co-editing The Journal of Recreational Mathematics. In his spare time, he reads about these things and helps his daughter in her lawn care business.

1. Professionals and amateurs, work and play: William Rowan Hamilton, Edward Lear and James Clerk Maxwell
2. Edinburgh natural philosophy and Cambridge mathematics
3. Knowing more than you think: James Clerk Maxwell on puns, analogies and dreams
4. Red Lions: Edward Forbes and James Clerk Maxwell
5. Popular science lectures: 'A Tyndallic Ode'
6. John Tyndall and 'The Scientific Use of the Imagination'
7. 'Molecular Evolution': Maxwell, Tyndall and Lucretius
8. James Joseph Sylvester: the romance of space
9. James Joseph Sylvester: the calculus of forms
10. Science on Parnassus