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Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science

Published 2011 by the University of Alberta Press

ISBN: 978-0-88864-595-1

Also available in e-book format

About this book

Interesting things happen at edges.

We are living in one of the most exciting ages of science, shifting from the mechanistic universe that made science seem so cold a century ago to a world shaped by unfolding complexity and fractal wiggles. The probing of brains and the sifting of DNA are helping humans to truly understand how we are related to the natural world in which we evolved.

As a poet, Alice Major practices an art that humans have been sharing since the dawn of language, from the campfires of the OMO people to today’s rappers. All this time, poetry has been used to understand and respond to the world’s patterns and to explore our central questions—who are we? How did all this begin? What is change? What is time? (And what time is it, anyway?)

These are the two sets—the work of poets and the work of scientists—that she allows to intersect in this book, like spots of coloured light overlapping to form new shades of illumination for every reader who is engaged with the world. These essays are part memoir, part ars poetica, part wonder-journey, in a wide-ranging and insightful amalgam.

Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science received the Wilfrid Eggleston Award for non-fiction from the Writers Guild of Alberta. Alice Major also received a National Magazine Award for one of the essays in the book, “The Ultraviolet Catastrophe”, which was excerpted in a special “Quarc” issue of The New Quarterly.

Read from the book

Read an excerpt from the book’s introduction.

Brain Surgery, or the Schooling of Poets – What kind of brain does it take to write poetry?

Metaphor at Play – Metaphor is serious play, central to thinking.

Poetry and Scale – What does poetic reputation have to do with fractals?


“For the elegance and precision of its language, the encyclopedic reach of its knowledge, and the daring of its thought, this book is a winner. Every page offers fresh insight and challenging intellectual vistas, yet the text never loses itself in a fog of abstraction. There’s always someone or something—a cat named Pushkin, a bird on a credit card, an old man walking, walking, reciting his poems—to ground the conceptual universe in the sensory world. Measured against the writer’s intentions and the pleasure it offers to readers, this book is practically perfect.”

– Jury Comments, Wilfrid Eggleston Award

The book itself is a lovely object: no surprise that it has won design awards. And reading the essays inside feels like visiting with a curious, thoughtful friend—one who has always just read something interesting and leaves you with lots of new ideas to consider, a friend who also has her feet on the ground, plenty of experience, and an easy playfulness that makes her company a pleasure….

This book is an obvious fit for courses in science writing or creative science writing. Teachers of poetry (and poets) might find it very useful. For courses in prose, it would make an intriguing partner with books like Chet Raymo’s The soul of the night or James Gleick’s Chaos. It would make an excellent gift book, too, for curious friends who take an interest in the sorts of big questions that both scientists and poets sometimes ask.

– SueEllen Campbell ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, November 2012

Alice Major, a Canadian poet, has brought the two worlds together very nicely. I loved the way she plays science and poetry off one another. Metaphor relates to Mandelbrot sets. Holograms on credit cards help explain the building blocks of language. Artists’ color wheels and mixing colors relates to black holes.

Major’s writing is both clear and lyrical. Readers who, perhaps, have never heard of either Mandelbrot sets or dactylic meter will find those and other concepts explained in ways that are entertaining and related to every day life.

Sharon Wildwind, Story Circle Book Reviews, November 2012

“Canadian poet Alice Major considers confluences between science and poetry in this lyrical and insightful meditation on perception, language, and creativity. Her motivation, she says, was to bridge the artificial divide between literature and science—the so-called ‘two cultures’—that has dominated intellectual life since the Romantics… Drawing on a broad range of scientific inquiry, including neuroscience, mathematics, physics, biochemistry, astronomy, psychology, and botany, Major argues that emotion is central to both poetry and science, and that the cognitive processes of scientists and poets are fundamentally aligned…. Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers.

– L. Simon, Skidmore College, Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, March 1, 2012

“I have not done justice to the delight I felt in reading these essays—it was a joy to take in their looping, fractal structure. Major offers us the pleasure of watching another writer’s mind in motion at every scale, from conversation with her cat to theories in cosmology, from the personal questions of why we write or practice science to the evolutionary questions of what makes us human and where language comes from. As a scientist, I wanted to research and debate one question after another. As a poet, I encountered the questions I ask myself, along with wise advice about writing.

– Robin Chapman, American Scientist, May, 2012

“[Alice Major] dissects the principles of science, spreading them on the page alongside elements of poetry. She effectively uses literature as a language for making scientific ideas clearer. And the skill with which she integrates the two points of view demonstrates such careful precision it’s hard not to think of her as the smart girl you’d have wanted for your lab partner. Inversely, she also uses the language of science to define poetic concepts. Anyone who enjoys juxtaposing ideas, or who thinks it might be possible to toss thoughts back and forth from one hemisphere of the brain to the other, probably needs this book. It could well lead to a change in the way you see the world.

– Heidi Greco, Prairie Fire, July 2012

“The essays do not form a rigorous argument as to any one “side” but rather range widely and expose the reader to new ideas as they arise in many contexts. I liked this approach, as it provided room for the reader to graze and discover things that they might not even realize they were interested in.

– The Indextrious Reader, April 30, 2012

“Intersecting Sets deals with some complicated philosophical questions, but manages to do it in a direct, readable way. With chapters that begin with touching poems, including personal narratives and strong metaphors woven throughout, anyone standing on the cliff of the art vs. science chasm might just find a bridge with Major’s newest work.”

Cody Gretzinger, The Gateway, Jan 11, 2012

“From a poet’s point of view, one of the most fascinating aspects of this book is its examination of the development of language and metaphor, and its exploration of how people learn to understand how sounds become language, and even understand sounds as language, as in the case of sound poetry. Also fascinating is Major’s discussion of how patterns in nature, such as fractals, repeated patterns, and symmetries, can provide an exploration of why we find patterns in poetry so appealing and reassuring.”

If poets can read this book and have their minds altered by new scientific understanding, a scientist may read this book and gain a deeper appreciation for the nuances of poetry, perhaps even gain an understanding of how the expressiveness of language, and the emotionally laden potential of poetry, can provide a new way of expressing scientific concepts. While science may be seen as a cold and analytical field, scientists themselves are human—and that’s where the emotion of poetry can reach across the divide.”

Alison Gordaneer, Malahat Review, Summer 2012

“Intersecting Sets is Major’s completely beguiling exploration of what science and poetry might have to say to one another. I genuinely found this a breathtaking read, sharing everything that makes Major’s poetry such a pleasure to read: rigorously thoughtful, inventive, freewheeling, full of genuine surprises and  showing a complete delight in the strangenesses and wonders both of the physical world, and the world of language.”

Katherine Venn, anthonywilsonpoetry.com – [Full post at http://bit.ly/25SHtqn]

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