Navigating Science Through Poetry

Written by Vivian Wang
Illustrated by Eugenia Yi
At first glance, science and poetry appear to be completely different disciplines. Scientists and poets seem to speak two different languages: data, logic, and observation versus imagery, emotion, and reflection. Yet, recent efforts to integrate science with the creative arts certainly include poetry; as it turns out, science and poetry may be more closely intertwined than we think!

If we look through our history, we’ll see that communicating science through poetry is not a new concept. In fact, records of scientific poetry can be traced all the way back to the late 1700s. To educate readers and to pique their interest in science, English physician and naturalist Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin’s grandfather) used poetry to celebrate scientific discoveries and inventions in The Botanic Garden, which he published in 1791. His book was well-received and eventually became one of the first popular science books in Britain and the United States. In the next few decades, European and North American poets and scientists seemed to live in symbiosis: many poets embraced the new ideas that modern science had to offer and were, in turn, endorsed by the scientists who had their findings documented and promoted in their poems.

This relationship unfortunately faded as literature and the natural sciences gradually grew apart by the end of the 19th century. While scientific research expanded rapidly, the topics being studied also became more specialized. Experts believe that poetry—a relatively time-consuming art form—simply couldn’t keep up with the demand for more efficient science communication. All of this has led to scientific literature being as we know it today: articles written in sophisticated, academic language that is not easily understood by non-scientist readers. On the other hand, popular science media outlets (such as news sites, documentaries, or even platforms like the SCC!) still play an important role in conveying information to people. But where does poetry stand in science education today?

In recent years, there’ve been calls to explore the intersections between science, technology, and the creative arts from both experts and the public alike. For example, Dr. Sam Illingworth, a senior lecturer in Science Communication at the University of Western Australia, is interested in the exciting potential of poetry as a medium for communicating scientific research and knowledge. In 2014, he started a weekly blog called The Poetry of Science where he reads a journal article and summarizes its findings in an original poem. His blog reached tens of thousands of readers, and he has since extended his work to research publications as well as collaborations with other scientists and organizations exploring the connections between science and poetry.

Like many other experts, Dr. Illingworth believes that poetry can help facilitate dialogue between scientists and non-scientists, and this view is supported by studies from around the world! In her review article in Frontiers in Neurology, Dr. Sherry-Ann Brown reports that many studies suggest that writing poetry to accurately reflect scientific research can benefit scientists and science learners alike. By challenging our brains to combine scientific concepts with poetic elements such as creative imagery and metaphor, we can practice deconstructing and reconstructing the material we learn. Several medical programs also found that encouraging students to create poetry improved patient-doctor communication, likely by enriching their observation, interpretation, and imagination skills.

So far, experiments merging science with poetry have shown promising results. As we continue to make advances in science and technology, perhaps we can also turn to poetry to help us navigate the ever-growing fountain of knowledge reported by scientists each day.