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Biography & Autobiography Literary

Intersecting Sets

A Poet Looks at Science

by (author) Alice Major

The University of Alberta Press
Initial publish date
Oct 2011
Literary, Essays
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2011
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Oct 2011
    List Price

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Poet Alice Major was given a book on relativity at the impressionable age of ten, so she never quite understood why science came to be dismissed as reductive or opposite to art. She surveys the sciences of the past half-century -- from physical to cognitive to evolutionary -- to shed light on why and how human beings create poems, challenging some of the mantras of postmodern thought in the process. Part memoir, part ars poetica, part wonder-journey, Intersecting Sets is a wide-ranging and insightful amalgam.

About the author

Alice Major emigrated from Scotland at the age of eight, and grew up in Toronto before coming west to work as a weekly newspaper reporter. She served as the City of Edmonton’s first poet laureate from 2005–2007. Among her previous books are Memory's Daughter, for which she won the Stephan G. Stephansson Award in 2011; The Occupied World; and The Office Tower Tales, for which she won the Pat Lowther Award in 2009. In 2010, she received a lifetime achievement award, presented by the City of Edmonton and the Professional Arts Coalition of Edmonton.

Alice Major's profile page


  • Unknown, Alberta Book Awards - Book Cover / Jacket Design / Finalist
  • Unknown, AAUP Book, Jacket & Journal Show - Book Design / Trade
  • Unknown, Alberta Book Awards - Wilfrid Eggleston Award for Nonfiction
  • Unknown, Publishers Association of the West, Western Regional Book Design and Production Awards - Gold Award, Adult Trade Book/Non-Illustrated
  • Unknown, Alberta Book Awards - Trade Non-Fiction Book Award / Shortlisted
  • Unknown, Alberta Book Awards - Book Design / Finalist

Editorial Reviews

# 5 on the Edmonton Journal's Bestsellers list for the week on January 08, 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.

"There is a myth that scientists and artists live on different planets, which is rubbish.... Alice Major, a Canadian poet, has brought the two worlds together very nicely.... 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. Running beneath the poetry/science conjunctions is the thread of her father's Alzheimer's disease and his eventual death. The poetry, the science, and the loss of her father come together in one powerful, positive message: this is a beautiful world." Sharon Wildwind, Story Circle Network, December 22, 2012 [Full review at]

"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.

"Until recently, the University of Alberta Press, whose books are beautifully designed by Alan Brownoff, has published mostly Alberta poets such as Alice Major, whose work often takes its inspiration from science. In fact, her most recent book with U of A is a prose work called Intersecting Sects: A Poet Looks at Science ($29.95). Last year the press launched the "Robert Kroetsch Series of creative works," named for the Alberta poet-novelist killed in a road accident last June. This series is broader than its antecedent in that it also includes "creative non-fiction" and publishes some geographical outsiders." George Fetherling, Vancouver Sun, April 5, 2012 [Full article at]

"... 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.... [G]uided by Major, we readers populate our minds with seemingly disparate elements, energize that space with reason, imagination, and emotion, and listen to the reverberations of whatever collisions ensue. This book is an obvious fit for courses in science writing or creative science writing.... It would make an excellent gift book, too..." SueEllen Campbell, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (2012) [Full article at doi:10.1093/isle/iss093]

"This book isn't a scientific explanation of poetry, but rather, an examination of various concepts in science-from quantum physics to the development of language in the human brain-from the point of view of someone who's deeply fascinated by metaphor, language, and the possibilities that exist. 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." Alisa Gordaneer, The Malahat Review, Spring 2012

"Novelist Lynn Coady and poets Tim Bowling, Michael Penny and Alice Major are among a strong field of local finalists who will be vying for this year's Alberta Literary Awards.... Major is a finalist for the top non-fiction prize for Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science, her latest release through University of Alberta Press." Richard Helm, Edmonton Journal, April 12, 2012

".poetry and science go on a date in Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science by Alice Major." Off the Shelf, Geist, Summer 2012

Alice Major, an accomplished poet, takes readers through several quasi-technical though thoroughly accessible explorations of topics in popular science. She expresses an ardent distaste for how science and poetry, as perspectives if not practices, are set in opposition to each other. In eleven chapters on everything from scale and symmetry, brain-chemistry, phase changes, black holes, motion, holographic universes, and more, Major makes a compelling case for a renewed rapport between poets and scientists. Distributed by Wayne State U. Press. (Annotation ©2012 Book News Inc. Portland, OR)

“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….” [Full post at]

"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, WGA.

"[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 [Full review at]

"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 Magazine, March 1, 2012

Rattle Magazine published an excerpt from Intersecting Sets in their summer, 2011 issue, #35.

Other titles by Alice Major

Locations of Grief

An Emotional Geography

edited by Catherine Owen
contributions by Alice Major, Katherine Bitney, Alice Burdick, Marilyn Dumont, Ben Gallagher, Catherine Greenwood, Jane Eaton Hamilton, Richard Harrison, David Haskins, Steven Heighton, Theresa Kishkan, Christine Lowther, Canisia Lubrin, James Picard, Nikki Reimer, Waubgeshig Rice, Lisa Richter, Lynn Tait, Sharon Thesen, Onjana Yawnghwe & Daniel Zomparelli
by (author) Jenna Butler & Catherine Graham


An Anthology of Essays

edited by Rona Altrows & Julie Sedivy
contributions by Samantha Albert, Sharon Butala, Jane Cawthorne, Weyman Chan, Rebecca Danos, Patti Edgar, Leslie Greentree, John Graham-Pole, Edythe Hanen, Vivian Hansen, Jane Harris, Richard Harrison, Lee Kvern, Elizabeth Haynes, Anne Lévesque, Margaret Macpherson, Alice Major, Wendy McGrath, Stuart McKay, Lorri Neilsen Glenn, Susan Olding, Roberta Rees, Kathy Seifert, Cora Siré, Steven Smith, Anne Sorbie, Glen Sorestad, Kelly Thompson, Robin Eck & Aritha van Herk

Welcome to the Anthropocene

by (author) Alice Major

Ten Canadian Writers in Context

edited by Marie Carrière, Curtis Gillespie & Jason Purcell
contributions by Lynn Coady, Ying Chen, Michael Crummey, Jennifer Bowering Delisle, Kit Dobson, Caterina Edwards, Marina Endicott, Lawrence Hill, Daniel Laforest, Alice Major, Don Perkins, Julie Rodgers, Joseph Pivato, Eden Robinson, Gregory Scofield, Winfried Siemerling, Pamela Sing, Maïté Snauwaert, Kim Thúy & Angela Van Essen

Standard candles

by (author) Alice Major

The Jade Spindle

by (author) Alice Major

The Office Tower Tales

by (author) Alice Major

Memory's Daughter

by (author) Alice Major

The Occupied World

by (author) Alice Major

Writing the Terrain

Travelling Through Alberta with the Poets

contributions by Ian Adam, Robert Stamp, Tammy Armstrong, Margaret Avison, Douglas Barbour, John O. Barton, Doug Beardsley, Bonnie Bishop, E.D. Blodgett, Robert Boates, George Bowering, Tim Bowling, Jan Boydol, Gordon Burles, Murdoch Burnett, Anne Campbell, Weyman Chan, Leonard Cohen, Dennis Cooley, Joan Crate, Michael Cullen, Cyril Dabydeen, Lorne Daniel, Alexa DeWiel, Jason Dewinetz, ryan fitzpatrick, Cecelia Frey, Gary Geddes, Gail Ghai, Deborah Godin, Jim Green, Leslie Greentree, Vivian Hansen, Tom Henihan, Michael Henry, Walter Hildebrandt, Gerald Hill, Robert Hilles, Nancy Holmes, Richard Hornsey, Tom Howe, Aislinn Hunter, Bruce Hunter, Laurence Hutchman, Sally Ito, Pauline Johnson, Aleksei Kazuk, Robert Kroetsch, Fiona Lam, William Latta, Tim Lilburn, Alice Major, Kim Maltman, Miriam Mandel, Sid Marty, David McFadden, Barry McKinnon, Erin Michie, Deborah Miller, Anna Mioduchowska, James M. Moir, Colin Morton, Erín Moure, Charles Noble, P.K. Page, Rajinderpal Pal, Ruth Roach Pierson, Joseph Pivato, Roberta Rees, D.C. Reid, Monty Reid, R. rickey, Ken Rivard, Stephen Scobie, Allan Serafino, Joan Shillington, Greg Simison, Carol Ann Sokoloff, Karen Solie, Stephan Stephansson, Peter Stevens, Ivan Sundal, Anne Swannell, Vanna Tessier, Colleen Thibadeau, John O. Thompson, James M. Thurgood, Eva Tihanyi, Yvonne Trainer, Aritha van Herk, Rosalee van Stelten, Miriam Waddington, James Wreford Watson, Wilfred Watson, Tom Wayman, Phyllis Webb, Jon Whyte, Christine Wiesenthal, Sheri-D Wilson, Christopher Wiseman, Stacie Wolfer, Rita Wong, Richard Woollatt & Jan Zwicky

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