Differential Expression – experimental poem

A fellow Twitter user and science writer (@philonotis) encouraged me to stretch myself and engage poetically with a paper in the journal Nature, on plants recognising pathogens (Rezzonico, Rupp, Fahrentrapp 2017). This was daunting; a ‘proper’ science paper in a field I knew nothing about.

I had to read the paper several times to understand it, but as I did several themes emerged that set the course of the poem. The first was the idea that ultimately all communication depends on the interaction of physical elements in biological systems, even visual stimulii. This was illustrated by the use of different colours representing different states of ripening (a physical process) and the diffusing perfume text.

The second and most important idea in terms of the form, was that the researchers fragmented the plants at a molecular level in order to extract a jumble of internal messages – the signs of genes being expressed in response to invading pathogens. This seemed analogous to putting a book through a shredder, to see what words came out, and led to a deliberately cut-up, collage style. The phrases are fragments without punctuation or capital letters, and do not follow a clear rhythm or rhyme structure, but together they can be interpreted as a story.

The final theme was that the plants ‘remember’ their attackers (the pathogens), with the disconcerting suggestion that they may also recognise on some level, the researcher who both cared for and injured them. The different choices (tend, infect, cut) available to the researcher within the confines of the protocol were presented as a drop-down list, with the infection of grey mould shown as encroaching grey pixels arising from that choice.

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Are you being manipulated?

Poetry is inherently manipulative. Most art is, being designed to evoke certain emotions and thoughts. We are comfortable with that- it is the basis of the entertainment industry after all- people pay to have their heartstrings pulled. But what about data? People trust and rely on data and we hate to feel we are being manipulated by it (even if we are). Rightly or wrongly, data is seen as objective and unbiased.

Poetry on the other hand is entirely subjective, it deliberately presents a certain viewpoint on a subject. The poems accompanying or inhabiting the data here are not unbiased. They have their agendas, rooted in the writer’s own perspectives. Might poetry therefore pollute and debase the data?

Perhaps the value of combining the objective and rational with the subjective and emotional, is not to evoke a particular emotion, but to cause the reader to engage their emotions when viewing data and question the interpretation offered. To make the reader question how they feel- and why.

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