How Poetry Can Help Communicate Science

At first glance, poetry might seem to have very little to offer science, other than a few choice compliments or cursory remarks. However, it can be an extremely effective medium through which to communicate new research and even advance scientific knowledge.

About five years ago I started a blog, The Poetry of Science, where every week I read a piece of scientific research and translate these findings and their context into an original piece of poetry. This blog has now been read by tens of thousands of people, and has led to research publications, new collaborations and even poetry for Scientific American. Writing this blog also inspired me to investigate which other scientists have written poetry, leading to the research and publication of my new book, A Sonnet to Science.

In this book, I present a series of biographies of six influential scientists, highlighting the impact that poetry had on their lives and research. In writing this book I discovered how Ada Lovelace’s insights into computer programming were made possible by her poetic talent, how Ronald Ross made the first recordings of the link between mosquitoes and malaria in verse, and how James Clerk Maxwell used poetry to warn against the dangers of extreme scientific materialism. Writing this book also cemented my belief that science and poetry offer complementary, rather than antagonistic, ways of making sense of the world in which we live.

However, despite what I hope to achieve with both The Poetry of Science and A Sonnet to Science, these are primarily one-way methods of communication. Yes, they introduce scientific research to a wider public and highlight the historical relationship between scientists and poetry, but do they actually make science more accessible to nonscientists? For me, the real power of poetry comes in its capacity to develop meaningful dialogue between scientists and nonscientists, and how it can give voice to the previously underheard and underserved.

Scientists are not the only experts who exist in society. Everyone is an expert in something, across their personal and professional lives, and this expertise represents a significant data set that it would be unscientific to neglect. For example, if your research involves assessing the arability of local farmland, then farmers, landowners and others possess an expertise that should be considered. However, in developing dialogue between scientists and nonscientists, the letters that come after a scientist’s name reinforce the notion (amongst all parties) that they are the sole source of expertise.

Poetry can help to break down this notion, creating a platform through which all voices are given equal space and weight. By writing and sharing poetry together, nonscientists are given permission to express their opinions, and scientists are given permission to express their emotions. This creates a sense of shared vulnerability which helps to remind people that scientists are part of society; once you hear a professor stand up and read a forcibly rhymed sonnet about the intricacies of fluvial dynamics, you realise that they are indeed fallible. It is not the aesthetic quality of the poems that are important here but rather the construction of them that enables ideas and experiences to be meaningfully exchanged.  

I would like to demonstrate the power of this approach by using an example from my own research. Environmental change is something that affects all members of society, not just those who research it. And in many instances, it is the more vulnerable members of society who are the most affected by these changes, despite their often being the least responsible. In discussing environmental change, it is therefore essential to give voice to these communities, as doing so can highlight why certain mitigation strategies might be ineffective.

Over the course of several weeks, I facilitated a series of poetry-writing workshops between scientists and a group of Manchester, U.K., residents who were living with severe mental health needs. These sessions involved writing poetry about topics that the nonscientists were interested in, and then using these as a starting point for discussions. In one of these sessions the focus was on air pollution, resulting in one of the local residents writing the following poem:

I’ve never seen pollution

Never noticed it

It’s always been here

But I’m unaware of it

Just breathing it in

These five lines demonstrate the need for all voices to be heard, and how poetry can be used to engender this. Poetry and science should not be treated as disparate disciplines, but instead should be considered as colleagues who together have the potential to diversify and develop science. Bringing together scientists and nonscientists through poetry can give voice to the underheard, giving those who can enact change an opportunity to listen.

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