This datapoem looks at the cycle of creation and annihilation at the quantum level, where matter and antimatter collide to produce pure energy, which can then turn back into matter and antimatter.
This process is illustrated by a Feynman diagram. These diagrams are named after their creator Richard Feynman, a brilliant physicist and science communicator. They show how subatomic particles such as electrons, photons and quarks move through space and time, where they collide or exchange information, and what is produced. They are a much simpler way of showing some very complex equations.
The diagram in this datapoem shows the annihilation of an electron (e-) and its antimatter counterpart, the positron (e+), into pure energy in the form of gamma-rays (the wavy line labelled ‘γ’). The gamma-rays then shoot off in opposite directions and may convert back into electron-positron pairs when they pass by an atomic nucleus.
The quantum world is a very strange place, with counter-intuitive rules and unexpected results. We are of course made of matter that is subject to quantum phenomena, but we don’t notice its weird effects at the macroscopic level. We are beginning to unravel its workings however and harness tremendous creative and destructive power as a result. Practical applications include transistors, lasers and nuclear power, but also weapons based on these technologies.
Ultimately, as we gain mastery over the fundamental forces of nature, we will become capable of creating great things, or annihilating ourselves, reflecting the quantum world. This poem proposes that the difference between the two outcomes is love, a characteristic that distinguishes us from the unthinking quantum realm, but which might be in short supply.
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The field of bibliometrics employs statistical analyses of written publications in order to quantify the impact of a field, research institution or individual researcher. In 2005, J.E. Hirsch of U of California proposed the h-index* (or Hirsch index) to quantify the cumulative impact of an individual’s scientific research output. It was developed to provide a focussed snapshot of an individual’s research performance.
In 2011 Google introduced an automatically-calculated h-index for researchers to include on their Google Scholar profile. Google also expanded on the h-index with the i10-index to calculate the number of publications by a specific author with at least ten citations from other researchers.
This poem is a cautionary tale about the loss of contextual information and identity in the age of metadata. I constructed the poem to mimic the automated tables on Google Scholar, which include an h-index that varies depending on the search engine or database calculating it. The poem shows citations to “my articles” but upon inspection, the reader discovers that all reference to the individual has been removed. Where information about the title and author should be, lines of the poem describe the internal repercussions of the modern research imperative “publish or perish”.
In 1934 mathematician Simon Kuznets delivered a report to US Congress on how to respond to the Great Depression. In this report Kuznets proposed the modern concept of GDP, but also warned against using GDP as a proxy for societal welfare or happiness.
*J.E. Hirsch, An index to quantify an individual’s scientific research output, PNAS, Nov 15, 2005. 102(46) 16569–16572
Misha Donohoe bio:
Born 1983, Sydney, Australia. Lives and works Whitehorse, Yukon.
Misha Donohoe creates beautiful, intricate and scientifically observed works utilising a range of media including graphite, watercolour, gouache, prints, calligraphic texts, film, sound, performance and installation.
Donohoe’s work manifests a lifelong curiosity with natural systems and is unique in its embodiment of elastic perception. From the preoccupations of the smallest bug, to those of the scientific mind, and to the expansive experience of the largest land formation, her works invite contemplation of the other in nature.
“Intellect. Reason. Sensation. Intuition. All are paths to truth, and these truths combine to form an intricate web of awareness. I aim to tell part of this story through the work I create.” – Misha Donohoe
The difficulty in tackling climate change can be seen not as a failure of science, but of communication. The science is robust, but only speaks to the converted, or those inclined to listen.
I wanted to create a datapoem using a graph of rising sea-levels, because we are all familiar with that theme and have probably seen similar graphs, to the point of saturation. It ceases to shock us. I hoped that by overlaying it with a haiku, it might provide an emotional jolt, to make us take notice and consider the future.
The title of the datapoem ‘Mercury Rising’ refers to both increasing temperatures and the planet Mercury, which is inhospitably hot. Mercury is also the messenger of the Gods, and the poem is intended to communicate a warning.
The 3 lines of the haiku cover record-breaking temperatures becoming the norm, drought and floods wiping out humanity, and our future regret.
Visually, I wanted the poem to feel like it had run out of time and space by the end, reflecting our increasingly cramped world and the possibility that it may already be too late to act.
The data comes from the US Environmental Protection Agency, incorporating historical tide gauge measurements and more recent satellite observations.
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Laniakea is our galactic supercluster, home of the Milky Way. Its name means ‘immeasurable heaven’ in Hawaiian and honours the Polynesian navigators who memorised the stars to voyage extraordinary distances without instruments.
The poem considers the thread of exploration that runs through ancient seafaring and modern astronomy, always looking to the stars. The use of alternating 5 and 4 beat lines is intended to evoke the lurching rise and fall of a small craft on big waves.
The picture in the background is my attempt at drawing Laniakea based on a Nature article that describes its discovery based on observations of matter and their velocities. Note the scale – it really is immense at 520 million light years across! Our Milky Way galaxy is 180,000 light-years at its widest point. To put that in perspective, it would take around 4.5 years travelling near the speed of light to reach our nearest star, Alpha Centauri, and in practice it would take far longer as we can’t get anywhere near that speed with current technology.
Laniakea is due to be ripped apart by dark energy in the distant future, which was surprisingly sad to learn after writing the poem!
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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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This datapoem looks at the massive deforestation of England since records began and its consequent loss of biodiversity. This manifests not only in the visual landscape, but the auditory one as well, as birdsong is often absent in intensively-farmed areas.
Since the 1920s there has been a concerted effort to reforest parts of England, which is now around 10% wooded. A better understanding of ecology has highlighted the importance of varied habitats for supporting wildlife. This in turn benefits agriculture through more resilient and varied pollinators, and the preservation of species that might have useful traits in future.
The poem is a haiku. Traditional elements of a haiku include a seasonal reference and an unusual juxtaposition of imagery. In this case the endless Autumn refers to the loss of leaves over the centuries, and the green clouds are the canopies of new trees, as seen from the forest floor. The visual grain is intended to evoke a slight nostalgia, whilst adding the texture of distant leaves to the green graph.
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The inspiration for this poem wasn’t slime mould, but graphs of the human population increasing on Earth, combined with decreasing fertility and increased connectivity via internet usage. This suggested a species rapidly reaching the limits of its environment and forming some kind of escape plan. At least, for some lucky individuals.
Comparing humans to slime mould is completely subjective. It’s impossible to prove or disprove such an idea and so it is not ‘scientific’. Its appeal is rooted in pattern matching – certain shared traits between the species – and it’s hard to ignore the pattern once you see it. There’s a good chance the next time you hear about the increasing population, or lack of resources, you’ll think “slime mould!”
I decided to embed the poem inside the mould’s life-cycle, with the circular area suggesting looking down into a petri dish. This resulted in the disembodied narrative voice of a scientist or a lecturer. This was intended to raise the question (I’m not sure how successfully) of whether anything may be looking down on us in our ‘dish’, and where our ‘spores’ might travel to.
More about slime mould
Cellular slime mould are fascinating organisms that are neither plants, funghi nor animals. They live as single cells hunting bacteria, until the food runs out, whereupon they emit a signal that causes thousands of them to band together into a giant slug, which crawls off in search of food.
If the slug can’t find a better location and is going to starve, it develops tall towers in which spores are formed, to drift away on the wind. This is a group endeavour but only the spores escape.
Another weird feature of cellular slime mould, is that the individual cells are a like predatory sperm or eggs. They are haploid, meaning they only have one copy of their genetic code, like sperm or eggs cells. They only get another copy (becoming diploid) when they fuse together with another slime mould cell.
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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.
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