B.C. poet illuminates pages of popular scientific magazine with verses about the nature of light

·3 min read
The night sky over Mayfield Lake in northern B.C. 'When I  can see the stars and the light of the stars, I feel like I'm part of something bigger than myself, and I feel comforted by that,' said Donna Kane, author of the poem On Visible Light. (Submitted/Wayne Sawchuk - image credit)
The night sky over Mayfield Lake in northern B.C. 'When I can see the stars and the light of the stars, I feel like I'm part of something bigger than myself, and I feel comforted by that,' said Donna Kane, author of the poem On Visible Light. (Submitted/Wayne Sawchuk - image credit)

On clear summer nights, poet Donna Kane sleeps on the front deck of her farmhouse in Rolla, B.C., in an old-fashioned bed under a blue quilt printed with crescent moons.

The writer draws inspiration from looking at the sky in this northern part of the province, more than 750 kilometres distant from Vancouver.

"I feel connected. I feel like I'm part of something bigger than myself, and I feel comforted by that. You're looking at the origins of light when you're lying there, looking up at the stars," Kane said.

Kane's musings about star light in the night sky inspired her to write a poem that blends scientific principles and the human experience of light's reflection — a poem that now appears in a respected U.S. science magazine.

The poem, On Visible Light, was published in the July edition of Scientific American magazine, alongside more traditional scholarly research on the thermodynamic limit, momentum computing and interstellar space.

For Kane, the inclusion of her poem is proof that literature and science are more closely connected than many people believe.

"I've always thought science and art are very, very similar, trying to discover the mysteries of the world and the universe. They both have that urge," Kane told CBC News.

"Poetry explores. Ideas can emerge from really good poems that maybe scientists hadn't really thought of in that same way."

Submitted/Donna Kane
Submitted/Donna Kane

Kane's poem is a villanelle, a structured type of poem with refrains and a strict rhyming pattern, a form that dates back hundreds of years. She weaves together science and imagery with lines like "Just a slice of electromagnetic/ wavelength and sight is ours, a blindness gone/ at the end of travelling through our nights."

Its appearance in the pages of Scientific American, which has more than eight million online readers worldwide each month, has brought Kane stratospheric exposure.

"I'm pretty sure I'm never going to get a bigger audience than that," said Kane. "Usually the reach of poetry is very small."

Submitted/Scientific American
Submitted/Scientific American

The editor of Scientific American's poetry column, Dava Sobel, told CBC News that Kane's poem is "gorgeous."

"It's emotionally evocative and yet scientifically informative. And it adheres to a very strict poetic form. So it's a difficult thing to achieve. But she's really done it," said Sobel, a former science writer for the New York Times who was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Sobel, who had astronaut Neil Armstrong write the forward to one of her books and also has an asteroid named after her, believes that poetry can illuminate science.

"Creativity flows smoothly between those two," she said.

Submitted/Glen Allsop
Submitted/Glen Allsop

Sobel said Scientific American published poetry in its very first issue in 1845 but only featured rarely since, until she launched a monthly science poetry column in the magazine in 2020.

Since then, in addition to Kane's villanelle, she's included poems written by Nobel Prize winners in chemistry and physics.

"Poetry should not be off limits to anybody, nor should science," she said.

Even though it's an imaginative work, Kane's poem still had to meet the bar for accuracy and was rigorously fact checked by Scientific American before it was published.

"They're pretty serious that ... what you've written is accurate. You can do playful things, but the poem has to stand up to the actual science," said Kane.

Submitted/Donna Kane
Submitted/Donna Kane

The poet said she's always loved science and has written other works about space.

Her 2020 book, Orrery: Poems, featured a number of pieces about Pioneer 10, a space probe launched to study Jupiter's moons. It was a finalist for a Governor General's Award for English-language poetry.

One of her space-themed poems will be included in a forthcoming anthology published by Cambridge University Press.