Mercury Rising – a datapoem


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 – a datapoem

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 Green and Pleasant Land – a datapoem

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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Incantation- a datapoem

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.

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Anthropocene – a datapoem

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!

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