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 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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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.