The Boys in the Backroom

The Boys in the Backroom

This week’s poems celebrate the work of scientists and engineers who are often unrecognised and unremarkable, but who contribute so much to our lives through advances in medicine, technology and our understanding of the remarkable world in which we live.

We owe a particular debt, it seems, to the many thousands of men and women who have been working unceasingly to develop vaccines to fight the coronavirus responsible for the current pandemic. Their work offers hope not just against SARS-COV2 but perhaps for other diseases in the future.

Science is an unusual construct in that it progresses not by belief, opinion or democratic processes, but by conceiving a model of the way something operates (e.g. the action by which a virus infects a cell) and then testing that model until the scientist is satisfied that the model is correct within its limitations.

Once this has been done, the next part of the process takes place: the model is exposed to other scientists who understand the context in which it operates, and they review it and conduct further tests according to their own ideas and experience. If a fault is found in the model, it may be corrected to take account of the fault, or if the fault is a critical objection, the model is abandoned. Perhaps parts of the model are still useful in constructing a better model, or the idea is exploded and one understands that no part of it is valuable. This process is continually repeated so that even accepted ideas of the way the world works are re-examined in the light of new evidence, and that is the key word. Science is evidence-based and never proceeds to a conclusion unless credible evidence is presented that can be used to formulate a model.

A modern poem that comically compares the lives of poets with that of engineers is Wendy Cope’s “Engineer’s Corner” which was inspired by an Engineering Council advert in The Times.

This week’s title is a nod to the 1941 speech by Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister of Aircraft Production, who borrowed the phrase from the Marlene Dietrich song, “See What The Boys in the Back Room Will Have” to pay tribute to the members of his research team who were working ceaselessly to aid the war effort. He said, “Now who is responsible for this work of development on which so much depends? To whom must the praise be given? To the boys in the back rooms. They do not sit in the limelight. But they are the men who do all the work.”

This week’s scientific exploration starts with Margaret Cavendish’s “Of Many Worlds in this World”, and her life story is as interesting as her poem. Edgar Allan Poe complains in his “Sonnet – To Science” that all the mystery is being drained out of the world. Finally Alfred, Lord Tennyson ruminates on how scientific discoveries impact the human condition with “In Memoriam, Canto LVI“.


Poem 100. Of Many Worlds in this World

If every Atome a Creatures Figure beare.
If four Atomes a World can make, then see,
What severall Worlds might in an Eare-Ring bee.

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623—1673)
Just like unto a Nest of Boxes round,
Degrees of sizes within each box are found.
So in this World, may many Worlds more be,
Thinner, and lesse, and lesse still by degree;
Although they are not subject to our Sense,
A World may be no bigger than two-pence.
Nature is curious, and such worke may make,
That our dull Sense can never finde, but scape.
For Creatures, small as Atomes, may be there,
If every Atome a Creatures Figure beare.
If four Atomes a World can make, then see,
What severall Worlds might in an Eare-Ring bee.
For Millions of these Atomes may bee in
The Head of one small, little, single Pin.
And if thus small, then Ladies may well weare
A World of Worlds, as Pendants in each Eare.

I found this poem while trawling for others, and I was struck by how prescient it is and that it was written by a woman during a period when women, even of Margaret Cavendish’s station, would hardly be encouraged to take an intelligent interest in science—in the words of the Wikipedia article on her, “it was not common or accepted for women to be publicly intelligent.”

She imagines the world as being made up of smaller worlds, like nested boxes (or matryoshka dolls), each world “lesser and lesser in degree” to the point where they are intangible to our senses: she muses that Nature may make such things that the science of the day could never divine (she would, I think, be rather startled if she could see how accurate her imagination was in some respects).

The idea of atomism (that the physical world is constituted of fundamental components known as atoms) had been around since antiquity but scientific investigations by John Dalton and Robert Boyle lent credence to the theory and it was eventually accepted when modern atomic physics demonstrated their existence incontrovertibly.

The poem is somewhat reminiscent of Jonathan Swift’s lines:

So, naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite ’em,
And so proceed ad infinitum.
Thus every poet in his kind
Is bit by him that comes behind.

Swift, however, was a later generation.

Margaret must have been quite a character, since she is credited with one of the earliest examples of science fiction in “The Blazing World” as well as works on gender, power, manners, science and philosophy. She was the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society and actively engaged with Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes and Robert Boyle, though many of the members disparaged her abilities and intelligence—it is hardly surprising that the Society failed to induct a female member until 1945. It has also been claimed that she was an advocate for animals and an opponent of animal testing.

She was married to William Cavendish but they had no children except for the products of their pens—they formed a creative partnership, and when it was suggested that William was the author of Margaret’s works, he denied it and defended her, to his credit.


  • Read about “The Blazing World” on Wikipedia.

Poem 101. Sonnet — To Science

How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies

Edgar Allen Poe (1809—1849)
Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car,
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

In this poem, Poe takes aim at Science and scientists who, he feels, have driven mystery from the world, substituting cold facts for fancy.

He starts by likening Science to Time, because both alter everything they touch and not for the better, he suggests. The wide variety of interests pursued by the scientists of his time is implied by his description of “her peering eyes”—a strong imputation that nothing is safe from her curious gaze.

Poe then describes her as a vulture preying on his heart. This is, I think, a reference to the legend of Prometheus, the Greek Titan who was credited with fashioning humanity from clay and stealing fire from the gods, giving it to his creation as civilisation. Prometheus is the patron of the arts and science and his propensity for defying the gods in the pursuit of his interests resulted in Zeus sentencing him to eternal torment in the shape of an eagle which would tear out and eat his liver every day; every night the liver would grow back. He therefore became the figurehead for scientific knowledge and an embodiment of the genius whose solo efforts to improve the human condition could lead to tragedy as often as success. This is the reason for Mary Shelley’s subtitling her novel Frankenstein as “The Modern Prometheus”.

Poe’s vulture replaces the eagle: a dowdy and disgusting bird instead of an emblem of nobility; his bird flies on dull and mundane wings rather than the magical wings of fancy. The poet can’t love such an unwelcome and humdrum companion who chooses to stay close to the ground instead of mounting on its wings to discover the treasures of the world.

Poe finishes with a series of accusations: Science has destroyed the world of fantasy and fancy he prefers; dragged Diana (the goddess of the countryside, hunters and the moon) from her chariot; driven Hamadryad (a tree spirit) away from the woods, Naiads (water spirits) from their rivers and elves from their grasslands, so that Poe considers that his dreams have likewise been stolen from him by the demon Science who denies their existence.

I like this poem because it contrasts the grim mechanisms of Science as Poe saw them with his incredibly inventive imagination and because it makes such clever references to mythology to reinforce its complaint.


Poem 102. In Memoriam, Canto LVI

Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809—1892)
“So careful of the type?” but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, “A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.”
“Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.” And he, shall he,
Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law—
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed—
Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?
No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match’d with him.
O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.

This is part 56 of Tennyson’s lament for his friend Arthur Hallam, who died suddenly in 1833. Hallam’s death cast a long shadow over Tennyson, and this part of the poem considers the scientific discoveries of the day and their meaning for human life. It is part of the poem known as the “dinosaur cantos”.

At the time the poem was written, the science of palaeontology was blessed with scientists such as Gideon Mantel, Charles Lyell and William Buckland who, aided by the fossils unearthed by the invaluable Mary Anning, were investigating the ramifications of these great prehistoric animals; Darwin was working on his theory of evolution but had not published it at the time Tennyson wrote these lines: it reflect’s Buckland’s theory of catastrophism (the idea that steady periods of time were interrupted by catastrophic events which would signally alter the course of the natural world).

The first and second stanzas personify Nature, who declares that no type (species) is special to her, none is protected from destruction as shown by the evidence of the fossils found in the scarped (eroded) cliffs and quarries (“A thousand types are gone: I care for nothing, all shall go”). Her inflexibility denies any right of appeal against death (“I bring to life, I bring to death: The spirit does but mean the breath: I know no more”).

The next three stanzas ask if this ruthlessness over the fate of animals extends to humanity, the only species that seems conscious of its state and hopes for deliverance and love, though Nature “red in tooth and claw with ravine” (I think this means rapacious rather than a narrow chasm) denies this belief in love. Could humanity suffer the fate of these prehistoric creatures?

In the sixth stanza Tennyson says that if humanity should become extinct, that would be a worse fate than these ‘lesser’ species: the “dragons of the prime” (the dinosaurs) “that tare each other in their slime” (another expression of the brutal competition between these monstrous animals, tare being an obsolete form of “tore”; Tennyson implying through this archaic word the immense antiquity of these creatures but also the violence of their contests).

The last stanza suggests that although we may not survive as a species, we should look to our faith as a means of eternal life: though our existence on Earth may seem futile, and the way in which we die seems arbitrary, perhaps in the afterlife there may be a deeper understanding of this mystery.

I have heard and used the expression “Nature red in tooth and claw” quite often—I used to use it when Nicola and I would watch a wildlife show on television: Nic would turn her face away if an animal was killed or injured at which point I would use the phrase to remind her that this is the way of the natural world. It was fascinating to discover a poem where the phrase is used (though similar phrases were in use before Tennyson wrote this) and to learn that it was a poem about life and the impact of scientific discoveries on humanity’s ideas of faith and belief in God.

Another common expression, which derives from Canto 27 of this poem, is: “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” One of my favourite M.R. James stories quotes a line from Canto 54: “with no language but a cry” so this one has been something of a hoard of recognisable quotes.