To celebrate World Poetry Day, today we look at how poetry and science interlink, and how poetry can be a unique medium for science communication.
Poetry and science have an interesting history – John Keats once said that Isaac Newton, one of the most prominent scientists of the time, had ‘destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism’. However, poetry can be a powerful tool to disseminate scientific research to a wider audience.
In 1984, J. W. V. Storey published his works on ‘The Detection of Shocked CO Emission’ in The Proceedings of the Astronomical Society of Australia as a lengthy poem. He even noted on the paper that his colleagues may wish to dissociate themselves from the presentation style.
A note from J. M. V. Storey’s paper dissociating his colleagues from the poetry style. Source: The Detection of Shocked CO Emission
Modern Science Poetry
Notable British poet Ruth Gabel, also the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin, has written a plethora of poetry about science, including works on Darwin’s writings. She has written a multitude of poems, mainly on zoology and genetics.
In 2015, Professor Stephen Hawking, world-renowned physicist, collaborated with poet Sarah Howe to write a poem about relativity for National Poetry Day in the UK.
Stephen Hawking reads “Relativity” By Sarah Howe Film Bridget Smith. Source: National Poetry Day
Poetry can also be utilised for outreach, especially for younger audiences. The SAW Trust is a charity that uses art and poetry to engage school children in science. SAW Trust was founded by Professor Anne Osbourne, Associate Research Director and Institute Strategic Programme Leader, Plant and Microbial Metabolism at the John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK. The charity inspires children to find a love for science through the arts.
Science and poetry, or more generally art have always been interlinked, and by using poetry we can spread science to a wider audience.
One of the many commitments I have as part of my PhD training is in public engagement. This means that I get to attend events and talk about my research and other areas of science to kids, teenagers, mums, dads, grandparents… everyone!
I used to be terrified of this, as I thought that people wouldn’t understand or care. Any time friends or relatives asked what I was doing in the lab, I was never able to give a proper and comprehensive answer, and moving to England from Italy made this even worse, as I had to talk about my research in another language.
But my idea that people wouldn’t care about or understand my research was very wrong. In fact, if people ask what you are doing in the lab, it’s because they are interested. It is true that they might not grasp complicated scientific theories, equations, and laws, but it is a scientist’s duty to make science accessible to everyone, especially when they show an interest.
I have been receiving a lot of training on how to communicate and entertain the general public with science, and here are a few ways I have found to make communication easier…
Make it simple
Talking to the public is very different to talking to a panel of academics. Many of the people you engage with will not have much prior scientific knowledge, so try to be as simple as possible – use examples, and substitute specialised terms with more common ones. Rather than saying you synthesised a molecule, say that you made a material or compound – there is no need to be specific from the very beginning. Talk clearly and carefully, and ask if what you said was clear enough.
Relate your research to everyday life
Everything happening around us is science. All natural events can be explained by physical, chemical, and mathematical rules. Telling your story will be a lot easier if you make a comparison with everyday life events. If someone complains about messy housemates, you can tell them that the state of disorder of the universe is constantly increased according to the second law of thermodynamics, so their housemates are behaving naturally!
Talk about why your research matters
Don’t forget that what you are doing is the lab isn’t only important to you – remind people that everybody benefits from research, whether that is through delivering useful new innovations to the market through industry, or lessening our impact on the planet. Science and innovation means progress, and, directly or indirectly, every new scientific discovery has the potential to provide benefit to society. If you can make this clear, people will relate to you more easily.
Communicate with enthusiasm
When you talk about science and your research, talk about what interests you to as many people as possible, and make it fun – use drawings, props, Lego – use whatever you can to help communicate the science in an engaging way.