Science through Poetry

A scientific report summarized in beautiful poetry and illustrations! Courtesy Dr. Greg Johnson and Sightline Institute.

A scientific report summarized in beautiful poetry and illustrations! Courtesy Dr. Greg Johnson and Sightline Institute.

I was reading recently that science bloggers (or any bloggers, for that matter) shouldn’t feel limited to using prose to share their brilliant ideas. As someone who once scribbled out poems while riding the bus to school, I’m willing to give science poetry a shot.

I was further inspired by Dr. Greg Johnson, an oceanographer who condensed a 2,000+ page report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) into 19 haikus. Be sure to look at his informative and beautiful piece, complete with watercolour illustrations. Who says scientists can’t be artistic?

My first memory of haikus was learning how to write them in grade 5. Our teacher was very excited about poetry, and had us chant our poems rhythmically. We added ostinato (repetitive rhythmic phrases chanted under the poem), hand clapping and even interpretive dance to bring the poems to life.

Nowadays, I prefer to write free verse poetry because I don’t have to follow any rules about rhyming or numbers of syllables. However, discipline can be a good thing, so I’ll try my hand at condensing the results of my fruit fly sex research project into some haikus. For those of you who didn’t write haikus in grade school, they are short Japanese poems that traditionally had 3 lines with the following format:

5 syllables
7 syllables
5 syllables

Interestingly, most haiku poets no longer stick to this formula, but they still teach it in Canadian grade schools. For the sake of nostalgia, I’ll stick with the format I know.
So here it is, a Haiku summary of my report:

Female choice and condition-dependence of male sexual traits in Drosophila pseudoobscura

(don’t worry if none of that title made sense to you. It isn’t really supposed to).

In this fly species
The ladies choose their partners
What do they look for?

Males put their perfume
In their waxy surfaces
These attract females

She likes the smell of
These cuticle pheromones
She sniffs by touching

The male’s red testes
Do not impress the ladies
What are they for then?

Now that we know what
Attracts these female fruit flies
Research will be easier

Wow, that was harder than I had thought! Not as hard a summarizing 2000 pages of research results but still quite difficult. Haiku is good because it forces you to use short words. Scientific writing tends towards very long and multisyllabic, so this is a very good exercise to practice writing for a non-scientific audience. Plus, writing haikus is more fun than writing reports. I encourage you to give it a try!

About Amelia

I am a recent biology graduate and current journalism student exploring career opportunities in science communications.

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May 2014


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