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.
“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.
Asymptote explores the mathematical concept of getting infinitely closer but never touching.
The structure of the poem suggests pairs: before and after, and each of the two parties involved in an encounter. The asymptote itself, the point of maximum closeness, is both the barrier they cannot cross and a point of reflection. This reflection is both literal, a mirror image in time, and psychological.
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.
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!