I was asked by the science artist Kelly Stanford to create a poem celebrating Manchester’s contribution to science and technology, for her STEM-themed bee sculpture as part of #BeeInTheCity. The poem takes a bee-twist on Rutherford’s atomic model, splitting the atom (a Manchester first!) and graphene, for which Manchester scientists Professor Andre Geim and Professor Konstantin Novoselov won the 2010 Nobel Prize for physics. Professor Novoselov signed the bee along with 80 other researchers and scientists working in Manchester.
This datapoem considers how social media facilitates the formation of groups that share their own version of reality. Such groups often attract members through a shared narrative about the world, for example political views or fringe beliefs such as conspiracy theories. These become mutually reinforcing as more members are added to form an ‘echo chamber’.
We all belong to such groups to some extent as we naturally gravitate to those whose views or company we enjoy. We tend to reject things that don’t support our existing beliefs and seek out things that make us feel good about those we hold. This is normal human behaviour, but its amplification on the internet can lead to fractured and polarised societies, susceptible to manipulation.
The poem is a haiku. The imagery references the ‘web’ of the internet with communities represented as droplets on the web, distorting objective reality to form their own truths.
This is an experimental poem concrete about ideas that take on a life of their own. The design is based on a sperm fertilising an egg under a microscope, and also suggests lighting the fuse on a bomb, in recognition that some ideas can have uncontrolled creative and destructive potential.
Instagram users also stated that the spark represents the attraction between two people that eventually coalesces into a new person. I didn’t think of that but it’s a great interpretation!
Escape Velocity is a datapoem about attempting daunting goals. It uses data from NASA on the speed required to escape the gravitational clutches of the different planets in our solar system. The escape velocity depends on the mass of the planet, with the ringed giants requiring the greatest speed. I included Pluto as a planet, but recognised its ambiguous status by placing a question mark alongside it as the final line.
Visually the datapoem is intended to evoke an Icarus-like figure flying towards the sun. Icarus of course plummeted to Earth after the wax holding his wings together was melted by the sun. The poem asks is it really the magnitude of your goal that prevents you from achieving it, or could it be fear of success, like Icarus getting too close to the sun?
Malaise Traps is a blackout poem on the declining insect population as reported in Hallmann et al (2017). Unlike traditional poetry, which is an additive exercise, a blackout poem takes found material and subtracts portions to leave a poem behind. In this case the material was the abstract of the paper, and 75% was eliminated to reflect the loss of insects over the period covered.
The title comes from the ‘malaise traps’ used to catch insects in the study. Poetically the phrase suggests an inescapable sickness and the poem references materialism (abundance and decline, status and trends), which underlies the degradation of the environment.
Insects are vital components in all terrestrial ecosystems and food webs, as pollinators, scavengers predators and prey. It is alarming that such a reduction could occur without the general population noticing, although many have commented on the loss of specific species. Complex systems tend to have feedback loops and balancing mechanisms that can accommodate changes up to a point; but once that point is passed, the consequences can be catastrophic.
This datapoem looks at the biomechanics of skin and the disintegration of identity under increasing pressure.
The graph is a stress-strain diagram used to record how materials stretch or compression (strain) under a given load (stress). In skin, collagen fibres are initially wavy coiled, but align and are pulled taut as they get stretched. Eventually they snap and the skin tears.
Skin is the barrier between us and the outside world, defining the boundary of our physical bodies. It also allows us to sense the world through touch and temperature.
Under psychological pressure our sense of self can begin to break down, as we struggle to compartmentalise things and our emotions surface in unpredictable ways.
Ouroboros depicts rising global temperatures since 1880 in the context of a cycle of consumerism and estrangement from nature. The title references the snake that eats its own tail. This hints at the self-destructive cycle of consumption that fuels anthropogenic climate change and also the unusual circular form of the poem, made possible by the animated ‘barrel’ data visualisation.
This piece was a collaboration between Kev Pluck, a coder and data analyst who developed the data visualisation, and James Stone, an amateur poet and founder of Poetry in Data.
Kev says “I’m a software engineer who has, in the past year, become obsessed with climate data trying to find new and innovative ways of presenting it to the general public. I like that after 20 years of coding experience I am still learning techniques especially now that I have started animating data. I feel that what is happening to the environment is too important to ignore and that these animations are my small contribution to nudge people into improving it.”
“Input Segregation was first published by Palaver Magazine in 2017. The poem was inspired by the paper “Modality-specific segregation of input to ant mushroom bodies.” published in 1999 by Gronenberg, W. This paper was one of the first insect neuro papers I ever read, so it made quite the impact on me and really drew me into the field.
This is a ‘found’ poem, which means the words were all ‘found’ in a different source. To make this poem, I took each section of the paper (abstract, materials and methods, discussion, etc) and pulled out poetic words, remixing them to make something new while still maintaining the essence of the original paper. While poems can be ‘found’ in newspaper articles, blog posts, and more, I enjoy using primary research articles as my source material – sometimes we forget to see the beauty among the more dry terms, but it is always there.”
Meghan Barrett is a PhD student at Drexel University studying bug brains, pesticides, and bee diversity; she splits her attention between insects, poetry, baking, hazelnut coffee, and her cat, Nyx. Her writing has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Firefly, The Trumpeter, Gandy Dancer, Palaver, and Crabfat magazines. The biology behind her poetry, as well as more about her scientific and science communication work, can be found on her website: meghan-barrett.com or by following her on Twitter (@Abiogenesister) or on Facebook.