"The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way. The two are incompatible.”1 

Paul Dirac’s assertion to J. Robert Oppenheimer strikes me more as a witty aphorism than a heartfelt manifesto. Still, given that physicists and poets both strive for brevity and universality, it’s worth exploring the similarities and differences of their respective vocations.

One commonality is youthful talent. The psychologist Dean Simonton has correlated the productivity of people in various intellectual occupations with their ages. Physicists, poets, and chess players tend to produce their best work early in their careers; novelists, biologists, and historians take longer to peak. A plausible explanation for the finding is that everyone’s intellectual ability is at its highest in their twenties. Practicing physics, poetry, and chess entails following a small set of clear rules, which can be acquired before one’s peak is past. It takes longer to obtain biology’s greater body of knowledge and to become comfortable with its fuzzier principles. Novelists need to observe a wide variety of life before they convincingly fictionalize it.

Another property that poets and physicists share is an appreciation for symmetry. The rhyme and meter of traditional poetry make lines symmetric and therefore delightful to digest. Symmetry is an important principle in physics, as David Gross observed in his feature article “Symmetry in physics: Wigner’s legacy” (Physics Today, December 1995, page 46). Dirac and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar argued that mathematically neat formulations of physics were more likely to be valid than untidy ones.2 Richard Feynman shared Chandrasekhar’s appreciation for the beauty of mathematics—to a point. “If it disagrees with experiment it’s wrong,” he told students at Cornell University. “That is all there is to it.”3 

Favoring beautiful theories over ugly ones is, in my view, a prejudice. Conceivably, the theory of everything that unites the forces of nature could be, not a shapely, exotically dimensioned edifice, but a kludgy extension of the standard model of particle physics.

To research this essay, I trawled the Poetry Foundation’s online collection of poems for instances in which physical phenomena are put to poetic use. I found barely a handful. Metaphors and similes work by tying an abstraction to a concrete image. To convey the pain of ingratitude, Shakespeare had King Lear say, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” Physics is abstraction. Its use for metaphor and simile is limited.

The finest poem I found was “My Physics Teacher”4 by David Wagoner (1926–2021), which was published in 1980. The first verse describes a comically clumsy teacher’s failed physics demonstrations. The second and final verse continues:

He believed in a World of Laws, where problems had answers,

Where tangible objects and intangible forces

Acting thereon could be lettered, numbered, and crammed

Through our tough skulls for lifetimes of homework.

But his only uncontestable demonstration

Came with our last class: he broke his chalk

On a formula, stooped to catch it, knocked his forehead

On the eraser-gutter, staggered slewfoot, and stuck

One foot forever into the wastebasket.

Wagoner’s poem recounts a futile attempt to teach physics to someone who became a professional poet. Are Physics for Poets courses also futile? Jon Miller, with the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, and his collaborators have compared scientific literacy in the European Union, the US, and other countries.5 The US came second to Sweden, a high ranking that Miller attributes to compulsory science courses for nonscience majors.

Updated 14 March 2023: Cornell University was incorrectly described as Richard Feynman’s alma mater. Although he was a professor there, he was never a student.

H. S.
Dirac: A Scientific Biography
Cambridge U. Press
), p.
Truth and Beauty: Aesthetics and Motivations in Science
U. Chicago Press
The Character of Physical Law
MIT Press
), p.
, Poetry,
, p.
For a summary of Miller’s research, see
Phys. Teach.
D. J.
Physics Today