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Quantum Heresies - Mary Peelen - review

There's quite an industry these days in art/science crossovers, which can often be seen from one of two directions - as trying to make science more accessible or trying to make art more relevant in a scientific world. Mary Peelen's collection of poetry is not really trying to do either of these things - and as a result does a much better job than any of the other, often over-earnest, attempts I've seen.

The title might suggest that quantum physics is a linking theme, but though physics is perhaps involved more than the other sciences, even within physics Peelen brings in a wide range from thermodynamics to string theory, while her poems often also are entangled with mathematics (who can resist a poem titled dx?), chemistry and medicine.

Most of the poems are spare, frequently only taking up a single page and consisting of ten non-rhyming couplets. I liked the approach - it felt like it was giving me thinking space to absorb the words.

Despite titles such as Supernova, Chaos Theory, Redshift and Properties of Light, the poems don't attempt to explore the science per se, but rather make use of aspects and metaphors of science and maths as a way to help the reader relate better to the world around them and the human condition. It's hard to write that without making the whole exercise sound pretentious - but it really isn't, and it works wonderfully.

The only thing that would make it better for me would be to add a page of brief exploration of the science being used in this way after each poem, as I think it would help the non-scientific reader better understand why Peelen is using this particular science or maths concept - and perhaps genuinely add a touch of science accessibility.

If I'm honest, I've never been a great fan of reading poetry, other than the simply entertaining kind. But I think that Peelen has achieved something I've never seen before - poetry that makes you think both about being human and about science, and poetry where having an understanding of science actually adds to the enjoyment of reading the poems. Infamously, Keats in Lamia moaned that 'charms fly / at the mere touch of cold philosophy' and effectively told Newton off for 'unweaving the rainbow'. But in Quantum Heresies the natural philosophy adds charms.

This is a book of poems I will come back to again and again.

Quantum Heresies is available from the publisher Glass Lyre Press, or from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.
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