British Columbia

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

Donna Kane's musings about starlight in the sky above Rolla, B.C., inspired her to write a poem weaving together science and imagery. Her poem has now been published in Scientific American, which has millions of readers.

Donna Kane's poem on visible light, which weaves together science and imagery, features in Scientific American

The Northern Lights are visible during a clear summer's night.
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)

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." 

Donna Kane smiles for the camera. She is a white woman with shoulder-length blonde hair, wearing a black top.
'Science and art are very, very similar because both disciplines are trying to explore the mysteries of the world and the universe,' poet Donna Kane said. (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."

The cover of 'Scientific American', whose lead story is 'Voyagers' Final Frontier'. It features an image of a satellite.
Kane's poem features in the July issue of Scientific American. The magazine has an online readership of around eight million each month. (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.

Dava Sobel poses for the camera in front of a sundial. She has white hair, cut short, and is wearing red-rimmed glasses.
Dava Sobel, poetry editor of Scientific American, has previously published poetry written by Nobel Prize winners in chemistry and physics. (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.

B.C. poet Donna Kane's face is shown reflected in the Pioneer 10 space craft during a visit to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.
Donna Kane's face is reflected in a prototype of the Pioneer 10 space craft during a visit to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. The B.C. poet is drawn to writing about science and space. (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.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener has won numerous journalism awards, including a national network award for radio documentary and the Adrienne Clarkson Diversity Award. Based in Prince George, B.C., Betsy has reported on everything from hip hop in Tanzania to B.C.'s energy industry and the Paralympics.

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