Science poetry: oxymoron or vital device?

December 27, 2021
Science Magazine

"We are listening for a sound

beyond us, beyond sound,

searching for a lighthouse

in the breakwaters of our uncertainty,

an electronic murmur

a bright, fragile I am.”

Diane Ackerman, excerpt from “We Are Listening”

Of the many adjectives offered by the English language, “poetic” rarely, if ever, finds itself in front of “science.” Indeed, poetry and science appear to represent entirely different worlds: logic and reason versus art and creativity. Within higher education, students who choose to study STEM are met with lax literature and creative writing requirements. The Pratt School of Engineering, in particular, requires only five humanities courses—the only composition class being Writing 101. As a result, STEM majors may easily choose to avoid creative writing.

While they may seem completely unrelated, science and poetry share a number of qualities. They both deal in nuance, concise and precise language, as well as the essence of a subject or problem. Further, they build on creativity, analogy, discipline, and imagination.

For everything they share, science and poetry also bring complementary perspectives, allowing for a richer expression of knowledge. Two professors from Northwestern University write, “undergraduate and graduate STEM training does not prepare students for rapid, clear writing that they will need to pursue funding successfully.” Students submit research to Vertices for this express purpose: to practice their rigorous writing and editing for future submissions to science publications. STEM curricula at Duke and beyond could benefit from the clarity, creativity, and synthesis (or full capture) of information offered by poetry, both in terms of communication and comprehension of science.

Science poetry encompasses a wide range of topics grounded in observation and inquiry—two essential facets of STEM. An 1845 issue of Scientific American, for instance, included a poem called “Attraction” about gravity and magnetism. Similarly, in response to a later issue, Poet John Updike composed “The Dance of the Solids” about materials science. He writes of solidity: “Stray Atoms sully and precipitate; / Strange holes, excitons, wander loose; because / Of Dangling Bonds, a chemical Substrate.”

While science poetry has lost traction over time—Scientific American stopped publishing literature decades ago—it remains a vibrant field for a handful of writers. Diane Ackerman, a PhD student from Cornell, partnered with Carl Sagan in the 1970s to write a collection of scientifically accurate poems about the solar system. The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral was published in 1976. Since then, Ackerman has earned the title, “poet laureate of the cosmos.” She performed “We Are Listening” in 2017 at The Universe in Verse as an “ode to the search for life beyond Earth,” The Marginalian reviews. The piece is inspired by missions such as the SETI project, an institute in search of extraterrestrial intelligence. Thus, Ackerman grounds the astrophysical in the poetic. An electronic murmur.

As above, so below

The circadian rhythm flows

All organisms bow

To the rule

The universe bestows

Tamara Yunike, “We & I”

Why do Ackerman and poets like her choose to infuse their prose with scientific matter? For Ackerman, it is only natural:

My work continues to include a lot of what people call science… I just think of it as nature… and it’s my form of celebration and prayer and very much the way that I inquire about the world. The whole adventure of being alive is an extraordinary mystery trip — the world revealing itself, and human nature revealing itself, very often thanks to the sciences, [which] are seductive and startling, and that’s always been fascinating enough to send words down my spine.

For writers seeking celebrations of science poetry, The Universe in Verse is not their only outlet. Writers of all backgrounds can submit to Consilience, an online journal dedicated to “exploring the spaces where the sciences and the arts meet.” Issue 5, as one example, focuses on rhythms. Agricultural journalist Tamara Yunike references the circadian rhythm, the biological clock of an organism as dictated by its environment. She connects this phenomenon to Hermeticist philosophical teachings, unveiling the beauty and balance of our universe. As above, so below.

The dewdrops sparkled on the cobweb.

Cobweb. A fine network of threads spun by a

spider from a liquid secreted by it, used to trap

insects. A trap or insidious entanglement.

The dewdrops sparkled.

Dew. Atmospheric vapour condensing in small

drops on cool surfaces at night. Was this night

or day? If the dewdrops and the cobweb could

be seen then presumably it was not dark. Unless

the cobweb was illuminated by an artificial light

source - a torch or a streetlight - or bathed in

the light from a window.

The dewdrops sparkled.

Did the dewdrops sparkle or glisten? Sparkle,

glitter, glisten. Glisten. Shine, like a wet object.

The dewdrops sparkled on the cobweb.

Anne Osbourn, “The Cobweb”

Similar to Consilience, Poets for Science began in 2017 under the leadership of environmental spokesperson Jane Hirschland. In a statement on the organization’s website, she expounds: “Poetry and science are allies, not opposites. We can only weigh the full meaning of facts by how we feel about them. Feelings are meaningful and useful to us because they emerge from the truths of this shifting, astonishing world.”

Hirschland brings an intriguing point to light: how poetry might augment understanding of ‘facts,’ or the science itself. The concept of education through science poetry has garnered a number of supporters. A journal article published in 2015 claims that “creative expression of scientific observations and principles through poetry and other media can enrich medical and science education.” Poetry requires “active use of metaphors,” pushing learners to rely on their imagination for building and re-evaluating their ideas about science. The benefits of this practice are clear. Undergraduate and graduate students in Massachusetts and New York were instructed to write haikus to “learn and accurately convey complex neurological concepts,” such as the symptoms, genetics, and pathology of various diseases. At the end of the study, educators commented that haiku responses were “the most scientifically accurate and well-written of all the students’ homework assignments.”

The aforementioned study illuminates how students must communicate science clearly and accurately to other scientists in a given field—perhaps to earn research grants or check our own understanding—but how can science reach those without background in our chosen subject? Yet again, poetry becomes a useful tool in the enjoyment and dispersion of scientific knowledge. Anne Osbourn, a published researcher in the field of metabolic biology, sought ways of “bringing science into everyday lives and language through creative writing.” Scientific writing in general requires precision and depends on a “specialized vocabulary” which leads to not only barriers between specialists and other scientists, but also between specialists and the world at large. Osbourn emphasizes that “there is an urgent need for science and society to learn to communicate more effectively with each other.”

Her mission began with a fellowship to take a break from science and spend a year at the School of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. By the program’s conclusion, she had produced a series of poems and photos encapsulated in her own science journal. Osbourn shares what she learned in a Nature Reviews Microbiology journal article. The objective for both science and the arts, she explains, is “to pinpoint the truth and to communicate this clearly and succinctly to others for appraisal.” That truth becomes increasingly thorough as more perspectives are “assimilated” to it.

How can educational spaces prepare students to tackle science communication? Osbourn’s answer lies in a concept called Science, Art, and Writing (SAW), a pilot program where children use scientific images as inspiration for art and creative writing. Beyond the elementary level, Northwestern University aims to integrate literature and poetry into their science curriculum. Two professors relay that “it is within the lines of poetry students can discover and appreciate other cultures, dialects, ethnicities, world views and experiences.” Students read poems in seminars, then discuss the poems and connect them to their research. At Duke, scholars can attend events such as “Science Sonnets” — hosted last April by Duke Science & Society — as well as submit their original work.

In the absence of instruction, there is also the option to write science poetry for our own sense of wonder, or simply to think more critically about lecture content. Ackerman advises poets to throw light on the present moment: “It’s possible to seize a moment and a phenomenon and just play with it, that little piece of nature. Patiently, affectionately, and have four or five thoughts about it until it’s never going to look the same again.” Osbourn’s poetry utilizes this process, piecing together the definitions of a moment’s observation. The dewdrops sparkled on the cobweb.

Sage Cooley

Sage (Pratt '25) is from Raleigh, North Carolina and is majoring in mechanical / aerospace engineering. Outside of Vertices, you'll find her working on rocketry with Duke's AERO society, spending time with friends, or going on a nature walk!

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