The poetry of science

This article is an updated and abridged version of an article which Anne originally wrote for Nature Reviews Microbiology titled ‘The Poetry of Science’. It is reproduced here with their permission.

In 2005 I took part in an experiment in which I was the experimental animal.

I was awarded a National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) Dream Time fellowship that gave me the opportunity to take a sabbatical from science and spend a year in the School of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.

At the time I had a keen interest in creative writing and had written a few short stories. This was a formidable (but ultimately thrilling) challenge.

My sister Jane (now Vice-President of Research and Development at MedImmune) and I are products of the most extreme form of specialism.

Our parents were both literature specialists and met through a mutual interest in the Victorian writer and critic Walter Pater. We grew up in a house full of books on literature, history and art. I really enjoyed creative writing, but the constraints of the school curriculum forced me to make a choice and I became a scientist.

My current research interests focus on the function and synthesis of natural products and the evolution of metabolic diversity in plants.

Most scientists write primarily for other scientists within their field, and work written by biologists is not necessarily accessible to scientists that work in other disciplines such as chemistry or physics.

Even articles in popular science magazines have a rather restricted audience. How many of you, for example, are excited by the title of one of our Science papers, ‘Metabolic diversification – independent assembly of operon-like gene clusters in different plants’? Specialism is evident, even among scientists.

Scientific writing requires absolute clarity and depends on a specialised vocabulary. This ‘short-hand’ vocabulary is essential for effective communication within subgroups of experts in particular areas. However it can lead to the establishment of barriers, both between specialists and other scientists, and between scientists and the outside world.

Barriers between groups of specialists hinder progress and there is a real need to encourage and enhance meaningful discourse so that specialist subgroups can increase interactions with each other to expand their creative and innovative potential.

Crucially, more general breakdowns in communication have led to a climate in which the very society that depends on science for its survival has come to mistrust and misunderstand science and scientists.

There is therefore an urgent need for science and society to learn to communicate more effectively with each other for mutual sustainability.

When I saw the NESTA fellowship advert in Nature which read; “Are you a high achiever with 10 years’ experience in the science and technology sector but looking for the space to develop your ideas away from the demands of your professional life?” I realised that this represented a perfect opportunity to explore my interests in creative writing and to see whether I could learn how to dissolve boundaries and meld worlds.

My only remit was to find ways of bringing science into everyday lives and language through creative writing with the help of my mentor Professor Clive Scott, a leading authority on language and the visual arts.

I had envisaged writing an extended piece of prose that in some way merged scientific and non-scientific themes.

Instead I turned to poetry, inspired by hearing a radio programme about Rebecca Elson, a Cambridge astrophysicist and poet, who died from cancer at the age of 39.

Writing poetry took me very much by surprise because I had not previously regarded myself as a poet.

Poems, although usually brief, can hold a black hole’s worth of communication. Like DNA, poems have patterns, rhythm and motifs and crystallising the intangible onto a page in the form of a poem is a satisfying feeling.

The road to becoming a poet is hard and getting poetry published is much more challenging than publishing scientific papers in high profile journals. Interestingly, I’ve found that scientific journals are also an outlet for my creative writing.

Although scientists and artists tend to go about things in different ways, there are many commonalities.

Both science and the arts depend on the ability to define a problem, note detail, enquire, and extract the essence of the problem at hand. This is the case regardless of whether the problem is how to make a river estuary come alive on the canvas or the page, or to establish whether the decline in seal populations in the estuary is due to pollution.

To quote David Ingram, a leading botanist, horticulturalist and conservationist; “Scientists, artists and creative writers share a common purpose in their attempts to describe, interpret and ultimately to understand the world around them.”

Through my own personal explorations, I have learned that scientific images are fertile ground for engagement of all kinds. It is this principle that led me to establish the Science, Art and Writing (SAW) concept, a cross-curricular initiative that uses science to fire imaginations.

Images such as the earth from space, thermograms of houses and Streptomyces under the microscope provide fascinating stimuli for use in schools. The children use the images as inspiration for creative writing and art, and through doing so are drawn into the science that is represented in the image and the concepts behind it.

The SAW approach has proved to be very popular in schools. I founded the SAW Trust, a charity to support the development of the initiative, in 2005. The SAW Trust brings together scientists, artists, writers, teachers, children and the local community around science as a central theme.

As scientists, we need to learn how to convey the nuts and bolts of our interests to everyone, regardless of their age, background or occupation — not forgetting, of course, our fellow scientists.

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Anne’s poems have been published in various literary magazines including;

  • Smiths Knoll
  • The Rialto
  • Orbis

As well as several science journals, including;

  • Nature Reviews Microbiology
  • Current Opinion in Plant Biology
  • New Phytologist
  • Nature Plants

Anne’s work has also been commended in the Café Writers, York Literary Festival and National Poetry competitions and she was shortlisted for the Flambard Poetry Prize in 2017.

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