Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Poetic Science

All through my undergraduate degree there seemed to be a rivalry between arts and science students. Science, (from the point of view of science students) was concrete, logical and important for understanding the world around us. Arts, seemed sort of airy-fairy to us. Analyzing literature or studying music just didn't seem to match up to our science labs and assignments.

My arts student friends also seemed to distance themselves from science. They used to say they couldn't do (or did not want to do) science since they were terrible at math. I'm making generalizations here and there are plenty of students who excel in science and arts. However, I've seen lots of students who fall into the arts and science divide.

I suspect it because of how science and arts are taught in school. They are separate... which is unfortunate. It was not too long ago where naturalists brought artists with them to draw their specimens for them.Even in an age where everything is digitally recorded, first year students at my former university were still required to learn how to do biological drawings.

I see the divide as a real shame because people who are steeped in fine arts like music, poetry, dance, and visual arts are able to express themselves in different ways. Scientists are often stuck expressing themselves only in scientific papers. Research papers are important but they do not help much with the public engagement of science.

Expressing science through arts has the ability to reach a wide range of audiences, making it accessible and understandable. Mark Winston, a presenter at the Science and Technology Awareness Network Conference, is a  biologist and science communicator. His most recent project involves ecologists and dancers exploring behavioural ecology through the medium of dance. The Somatic Scientific shows are a partnership between Simon Fraser University and the Link Dance Foundation. Imagine dancers acting out symbiotic interactions in coral reefs. The shows have received a lot of great feedback from the public.

It is okay to be into arts and science and more parallels should be drawn in schools. We would all benefit from a better appreciation of both. In the age of social media, having and arts background would help greatly.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite poems. It is by Walter Garstang, a marine larval biologist who pioneered a lot of research in the field. A collection of his poems on larval evolution and biology was published posthumously. Take a look at the poem, he presents some pretty heavy science and biology but in an understandable and entertaining way.

From "Larval Forms, and Other Zoological Verses",
Walter Garstang, 1958

Oikopleura, Jelly-builder
Oikopleura, masquerading as larval Ascidian,
Spins a jelly-bubble-house about its meridian:
His tail, doubled under, creates a good draught,
that drives water forward and sucks it in aft.

A filter in front collects all the fine particles
Micro-flagellates and similar articles
Which pour in a stream through a jelly-built tunnel
Into its mouth and its mucillage funnel.

The funnel begins with his endostyle gland,
which flicks mucus up to his circular band:
the stream through his mouth trails it out into threads,
and the whole is rotated as fast as it spreads.

In effect this rotator's a neat centrifuge
that let's out the water and let's in the ooze:
The water is sucked outwards by paired water wheels,
the residue serves him with plentiful meals.

Now although Oikopleura sits by himself
In the midst of his house on a jelly-built shelf,
He's firmly attached in front by his snout,
and never lets go till his house wears out.

But his body behind is completely free
and bathed by the water that comes from the sea
Through two lattice windows let into the walls,
Which limit the size of incoming hauls.

Into this water-space the effluents flow
That start from the spiracles' outward throw:
And lest water-pressure the bubble should burst,
a tubular valve in front blows first.

What shall we say of this marvellous creature
Who breaks all the rules by his composite nature?
he puzzle increases the more it's observed
How far from the track of his fellows he's swerved.

When his jelly-house starts as a lump on his back,
His tail is the finger that stretches it slack:
He probes with its tip between body and test
And loosens the parts which too closely are pressed.

Then, after windows and and traps are all ready,
The tail pops inside, and with motions more steady,
sets the pump working, the water streams in,
The jelly house swells, and the fishings begin.

We believe we can satisfy any scrutator
That anatomy, house, and pharyngeal rotator
Are pure Doliolid in all their relations,
With highly original specialisations.

His tail is the problem and also the base,
For nothing will work if this you erase:
It seems that, from lack of metamorphosis,
He's larva and adult in half and half doses.

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