I was researching extinct species on Wikipedia, and it struck me how poetic and arcane the Latin names sound. You can imagine Harry Potter reciting them as a spell. I thought that a roll-call of extinct species might form a poem in itself. I wasn’t sure whether to add the common names and dates of extinction, in case it detracted from the flow of the names, but on balance I think it helps to appreciate what has been lost and adds the ‘data’ to the poem. Try saying it out loud three times in a mirror.
I wanted to make a piece exploring how closely related we are to different species and to eachother, and had the idea of a bar-chart, containing the lines of the poem. The data was found in this article in National Geographic by Carl Zimmer about the percentage of genes we share with different species. The data originally came from gene sequencing at the European Bioinformatics Institute.
Whilst we are no longer surprised that we share 90% of our genes with chimpanzees (although even a few decades ago that would have seemed incredible to some), it is thought-provoking that we share nearly half our genes with fruit flies, and around a quarter with a grapevine! Given how complex these genes are, it is good evidence that we are all distantly related, with the degree of similarity correlating to our proximity on the family tree.
The percentages in the article’s infographic gave me the idea of using a bar chart, with the lengths of the bars dictating the size of the lines. I worked through several drafts omitting some species until I found a combination that used most of them (sorry, yeast!). I decided to pick out the letters of the nucleotide bases A, T, G and C in a different colour, just for extra geekiness.
The idea of a writing metaphor emerged from consideration of the letters, and the ‘words’ (genes) they made up, with the constant revisions and deletions over time. Poetry too is about the arrangement of a limited number of letters and words, sometimes through happy accident.
A major piece of inspiration was this article in Scientific American by David Biello, about how the human era (the Anthropocene) might be remembered in the geological record.
This set me thinking about the evolution and extinction of species on a geological timescale, and how humans might be a flash-in-the-pan. I drafted the poem without knowing how to integrate it with data, but when I saw that the block-like stanzas looked like geological strata, I decided to bury it in the fossil record.
There are four stanzas, equating to four eras, going 1 billion years back in time. The problem was that the eras are different sizes, with the older ones being much longer. I tried laying out the poem on a vertical timeline and it was ridiculously long; there was a good chance people would just stop scrolling before they reached the end!
To compress the timescale more at the end I tried using logarithmic scales. I experimented with different bases (having the opposite problem with base 10, that made the end segment wafer thin), and it was base-2 that gave the most evenly sized layers. Base-2 is used extensively in genomics and computer science, so using it to format a digital poem on natural history pleases me greatly!