ernst_p_ppel's picture
Head of Research Group Systems, Neuroscience and Cognitive Research, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, Germany; Guest Professor, Peking University, China
Carpe Diem

Some 2000 years ago, probably 23 BCE, the Roman poet Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) published some poems, and they stayed forever as he predicted himself: “have built a monument which will last longer than ore” (Exegi monumentum aere perennius). Although these words about his odes were not exactly an expression of modesty, he was right. The most famous ode (number 11 of the first book) is also one of the shortest with only eight lines. Everyone knows the words enjoy the day (carpe diem); these two words imply more than just having fun, but to actively grasp the opportunities of the day and to “seize the present” as someone has translated into English.

This ode of Horace starts with the energetic advice not to ask questions that cannot be answered. This is an eternal reminder not only for scientists, i.e., very old news that have to be repeated regularly. Science is to discover right and good questions, indeed often unasked questions, before trying to give an answer. But what are criteria for right questions? How do we know that a question can be answered and does not belong to the realm of irrationality? How can a mathematician trust his mind that a proof will be possible, and then he spends years to find it? Apparently, the power of implicit knowledge or intuition is much stronger as we are usually inclined to believe. It is attributed to Albert Einstein to have said: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.

In poetry we often find representations of such implicit knowledge and intuition with high scientific value opening new windows of potential discoveries. It just has to be harvested. If read (better even spoken) with an open mind, poetry can serve as a direct bridge, an effortless link between the different cultures. Thus, poetry does not belong to the humanities only, (if at all); poems in all languages express anthropological universals and cultural specifics in a unique way, and they provide insights into the human nature, the mode of thinking and experiencing, often shadowed by a castrated scientific language.

After his warning with respect to questions that cannot be answered Horace suggests that one should not fall into the trap to gamble; one simply should accept reality (ut melius quidquid erit pati), and he gives the frustrating but good advice to bring our great hopes into a smaller space (spatio brevi spem longam reseces). This is hard to take as scientists always want to go beyond not accepting the limits of our mental power. But it is good to be always reminded that our evolutionary heritage has dictated limits of reasoning and insights which have to be accepted and which should be the basis of modesty.

Such limits are also pointed out in other cultures; for instance more than 2000 years ago Laozi in the Daodejing says: “To know about not knowing is the highest” (in pinyin with indication of the tones: zhi-1 bu-4 zhi-1, shang-4). To accept such an attitude is not easy, and it may be impossible to suppress the search for causality as expressed by the French poet Paul Verlaine: It is the greatest pain not to know why (C'est bien la pire peine de ne savoir pourquoi).

Apparently, poets (of course not all of them) have some knowledge about our mental machinery which can guide scientific endeavors. But there is also a problem which is language itself: Can poetry be translated? Can even scientific language be translated veridically? Of course not. Take the English translation seize the present of carpe diem. Does the English present cover equivalent connotations in Chinese, German or any other language? The English present evokes different associations compared to the German “Gegenwart” or the Chinese “xianzai”. Present is associated with sensory representations, whereas “Gegenwart” has a more active flavor; the component “warten” refers either to take care of something" or "to wait for something", and it is thus also past and future oriented. The Chinese “xianzai” is associated with the experience of existence in which something is accessible by its perceptual identity; it implies a spatial reference indicating the here as the locus of experience, and it is also action oriented. Although the different semantic connections are usually not thought of explicitly, they still may create a bias within an implicit frame of reference.

What follows? It is necessary to realize that the language one uses, also in scientific discourse, is not neutral with respect to what one wants to express. But this is not a limitation; if one knows several languages, and a scientist knows several languages anyway, it is a rich source of creativity. Some sentences, however, do not suffer from translations; they are easily understood and they last forever. When Horace says that while we talk the envious time is running away (dum loquimur fugerit invida aetas), one is reminded of scientific (and political) discussions full of words with not too much content; not exactly new news.