Science and the Difference Between “Oh!” and “O!”

Evolutionary theorist and poet Jon Wilkins takes evolutionary theorist and non-poet E.O. Wilson to task for his recent opinionating about why math is not a requirement for being a scientist.  Like Wilkins, I’m not particularly interested in that debate, which I think is pretty much a non-starter. Wilkins steers us more to matters of collaboration than math, which he likens to matters of translation in poetry.  He relates a story told by Robert Haas, who has translated seven volumes of poetry by Czeslaw Milosz from Czech to English.  Haas was translating one of Milosz’s last poems — or, as Wilkins prefers to put it, “more accurately,” Haas “collaborated with Milosz” on the English version of the poem, which Milsoz had titled “Oh!”  Haas wrote to him to ask if he meant “Oh!” or “O!”  The Nobel laureate asked Haas

what the difference was and said that perhaps we should talk on the phone. On the phone I explained that “Oh!” was a long breath of wonder, that the equivalent was, possibly, “Wow!” and that “O!” was a caught breath of surprise, more like “Huh!” and he said, after a pause, “O! for sure.”

Wilkins writes:

Poetry is about subtle differences in meaning. It is about connotation and cultural resonance. It is about the sounds that words make and the emotional responses that they trigger in someone who has encountered that word thousands of times before, in a wide variety of contexts.

These things almost never have simple one-to-one correspondences from one language to another. That means that a good translation of poetry requires a back-and-forth process. If you have a translator who is truly fluent in both languages — linguistically and culturally — this back-and-forth can happen within the brain of the translator. But, if your translation involves two people, who each bring their expertise from one side of the translation, they have to get on the phone every so often to discuss things like the difference between “O!” and “Oh!”

Doing mathematical or theoretical biology is exactly like this.


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