Fire, Ice, Frost And Comets – A Lesson In Learning?

Ice & Fire (small) 06.3.2 Snow 010.jpg How we learn is always more complicated than we might imagine. The evocation of ‘fire and ice’ by both poet Robert Frost and, much later, NASA scientist Donald Brownlee, is an example to hand. Science and the arts alike depend for their impact ultimately on imagination and creativity, as well as rigour and formal insights.
Many years ago I was an American Field Service International Scholar, spending my senior high school year in Phoenix Arizona. This was a very ‘different’ experience to any I had had before or since, meeting an enormous range of people not normally encountered in suburban Birmingham England, my family home town at the time.
One of the enormous number of things I learned in Phoenix was the vast variety of interests to be found in a large American high school. And, drilling down from this, I came across a group of enthusiastic young people who Actually Read Poetry – and especially the poetry of Robert Frost, who was born on 26 March 1874 and died in 1963, not that long before I went to the States….. In a way we were perhaps a prototype Dead Poets Society, but with no sting in the tail.
A direct voice
Icy lake Then a student of science, my knowledge of poetry at the time was (and sadly remains) pretty modest, but Robert Frost’s poems fascinated me. They are direct and elemental – qualities I do not enjoy in American classical music – but also somehow quizzical, which made them very challenging in a gentle sort of way; I was never sure quite what, apart from the pastoral or earthy images, they intended to evoke. And this was especially true of Frost’s Fire and Ice, which I learnt off by heart, and can indeed still quote:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
I subsequently discovered that there has been a huge amount of academic and also – engagingly – popular commentary on this poem, but at that time it simply drew me into a world away from the everyday, somewhere unknown and mysterious.
Where science meets art
Fire! (SP)16.9.05 010.jpg Given the impression Fire and Ice had on me all those years ago, I was rather startled to read the BBC News online a few days ago, reporting Dr. Donald Brownlee, as chief scientist of the Nasa Stardust mission, on evidence that comets are ‘born of fire as well as ice’.
Immediately I was transported from a murky March day in Liverpool, back some decades past to the excitement of a group of young people in a sunny classroom in Phoenix Arizona, all seeking to understand the meanings, metaphorical and material, of the complex new world into which we were about to emerge as adults.
Frost had written of fire and ice as the future destruction of world; Brownlee spoke of the birth millennia ago of physical pieces of the universe; but the elements they referred to were the same. It seems fleetingly that we are back to the phlogiston philosophers, those earlier seekers after truth, but with an up-to-the-minute twist.
All ideas are creative
Here are modern observers interpreting their experience according to their different professional disciplines, each of them evoking, for me at any rate, striking and thought-provoking images. We all carry our own paradigms as the backdrop to our understandings, but explanations are worth little without imagination to bring them alive.
I may well have been studying science when I was in the States, but Robert Frost’s poems stayed with me at least as strongly as any of the factual lessons I learned.
It would be untrue to say the science left me icy, and the poetry set my imagination on fire. But without doubt in both instances the elemental images have been retained far more strongly than the formal educational input.

Posted on March 19, 2006, in Arts, Culture And Heritage, Education, Health And Welfare, Knowledge Ecology And Economy, People And Places, Politics, Policies And Process, The Journal. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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