Sam Illingworth: Poetry is this really powerful way of communicating in a one way direction to different audiences, but poetry is also incredibly powerful, is a tool through which to develop a two way dialogue, by which I mean creating opportunities for nonscientists, not just to find out about scientific research, but to help conduct and drive scientific research forward.
Natalie von der Lehr: Welcome to the podcast of Curie, an online Web magazine about research politics by the Swedish Research Council. My name is Natalie von der Lehr, and in this episode, we have invited Sam Illingworth, associate professor in academic practice at the Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland, to tell us more about his work and view on science communication. This episode is part of our series ”From my research horizon”, where scientists give us an insight into an aspect of their work and life. Welcome, Sam Illingworth. The microphone is yours.
Sam Illingworth: Sluggishly, you sweep across the sea, ceaselessly, stimulate in your supposed cecility as you secrete spiky streams through dense, porous skeletons, interwoven, spiceous that suggests clandestine movements swaying in the currents deep, deep beneath the surface. A hidden sanctuary of shifting shapes that stray from site strategies of survival below submerged peaks and shattered sentiment’s.
Sam Illingworth: Hello, my name is Sam Illingworth, I am an associate professor in academic practice at Edinburgh Napier University in the United Kingdom. And you just heard me read the short poem called Spongy Trails. And this is a poem that’s inspired by research which has found that sponges leave trails on the sea floor in the Arctic, a deep sea. My work in research really revolves around developing dialogue between scientists and nonscientists and in particular giving voice to those audiences that have been traditionally under heard and underserved by science and science communication. One of the ways to do this is through poetry. And poetry is a really powerful way of communicating to different audiences. In communicating through a one way direction, by reading a poem to different audiences, poetry is great because it helps to translate really interesting, important, bizarre fun research into a language that may be more accessible or different to non-scientific audiences. And every week I have my blog and podcast, The Poetry of Science, in which I read a scientific study and write a poem about it in a way to try and communicate that research to a non-scientific audience. So to give you an idea of how this works in practice. There was a recent piece of research published in ecological applications called ”Rapid Deforestation of a Coastal Landscape Driven by Sea Level Rise and Extreme Events”. And the purpose of this research was basically it found that sea level rise is killing trees along the Atlantic coast in America, creating ghost forests that are visible from space. The land becomes oversaturated by the sea and the salt, which means that the trees can no longer live and in a ghost forests to these landscapes that form when saltwater from the sea begins to float woodland areas that contain fresh water dependent trees. So this is really important research, but there’s also something quite atmospheric, quite poetic about the concept of a ghost forest. And so I wrote this poem about it.
Sam Illingworth: Surging seas and weeping waves advance along your coast, probing buried channels as they break through the shore face to drag briny fingerprints across weathered limbs that recoil at the touch. Tainted tide swell with pickles, poison as salines, sap pours down your brackish bark below a crown of mottled gray that withers in the drink, wisps of memories linger in brine, haunting faded shades of lost and broken greens.
Sam Illingworth: And for me, this was a really important piece of research that I just wanted to communicate to a non-scientific audience so they could find out more about these ghost forests and also the things that caused them and the things that we might be able to do to stop this happening in the future. So poetry is this really powerful way of communicating in a one way direction to different audiences, but poetry is also incredibly powerful, is a tool through which to develop a two way dialogue, by which I mean creating opportunities for nonscientists, not just to find out about scientific research, but to help conduct and drive scientific research forward. So a lot of the time when we do science, we do the scientific research. Then we think about the impact afterwards. I actually think this is the wrong way round and we should instead be thinking about the impact first. What matters to society? What about those voices that have been underserved and under heard? What do they need rather than what we assume they want? And then it’s important to listen and work with those audiences to use that to help to drive scientific research and the, well, the search for fundamental scientific questions. However, when we bring together scientists and nonscientists in a way to develop this dialogue, what often happens is we establish hierarchies of intellect. So even though nonscientists are actually experts in many facets of their professional and personal lives, sometimes when nonscientists encounter scientists, they can feel as though there’s a hierarchy of intellect of which they’re at the bottom because they don’t have 20 letters after their name or a research post or a professorship. However, we know that this isn’t true. And what we need to do is we need to level these hierarchies. And poetry presents a powerful way of doing this for three reasons. One, it gives permission to the nonscientists that what they have to say is worth listening to. No one can question a poem, too. It gives permission to the scientists to display an element of pathos that they’re not normally allowed to display. As a climate change researcher researching climate change, it’s very hard to talk about it without getting angry or upset. But through science, we don’t always have the medium that enables us to do this. Poetry does. And thirdly, writing poetry together is a powerful way to create a shared sense and shared spaces of vulnerability. So if you see a learned professor stand up and read a very bad haiku, you kind of realize that maybe they’re not the intellectual powerhouse that you assumed they were. So whilst poetry is this very effective way of engaging audiences through performance, through my blog, through my podcast, actually the most powerful way that poetry can engage audiences is through this two way dialogue in creating a space through which scientists and nonscientists can discuss ideas and ultimately come up with diverse solutions to global, interdisciplinary, wicked problems such as climate change. One of the other things I do with poetry is I help to set up a science and poetry journal called Consilience, and this is a quarterly journal in which we publish poems about science and we use the peer review model. A lot of poetry journals either accept poems as being perfect or reject them as being imperfect with no halfway house. However, I think that’s a real opportunity for people to learn how to develop their craft in a supportive environment. So we set up Consilience as a way to say we don’t reject any poems, but rather we have a series of reviewers and editors who work with poets, whether they’re just starting off or very seasoned to improve their work, to peer review, to hone it, and to create a space that explores the liminal spaces between the sciences and the arts. Because one of the problems we have in society is that people like to pigeonhole others. You’re a scientist, you’re a poet, you’re an artist. Actually, we’re all just human beings with limitless potential. And we need to find a way to express ourselves and to create opportunities for us to grow individually and as a society. And that’s what Consilience enables us to do. So you can find us online at Consilience Journal and please do submit your work to us. We’re very inclusive and open access group.
Sam Illingworth: As a science communicator, I think, in general. One of the most important things you can do is to listen, to find the audience that you want to engage with and really listen to what they know and what they want to find out about science. Don’t assume that what you have to say is interesting. Don’t assume that this audience don’t know anything about your topic. Just go in and listen and then develop your science communication initiatives according to what they want rather than according to what you assume they might need. Listening is a really powerful way of communication, and it also helps you to reframe and reconsider your own scientific ideologies and scientific ideas as well. So for people who are interested in science communication, I’d encourage you to listen. I’d also encourage you to think about how you can engage different audiences through media which are suitable and appropriate for them. Does the audience you’re working with listen to podcasts? Are they interested in fitness? Do they like go into the theater? What do they enjoy? What is the medium that they use? And then how can you develop your science communication activity to cater for that? Everything comes back to the audience. Just really listen to what they need and what they think. And the other thing is to say don’t go to the usual audiences. It’s really important to work with those audiences that have been traditionally underheard and underserved by science communication, not just because it’s a diversity box that needs ticking, but because it’s important to get a diversity of solutions. And if we’re constantly going to the same people who look the same, who sound the same, you have the same advantages in life. Then we’re only going to get the same set of tired solutions. If instead we go to those audiences who’s voice have not been heard as well as benefiting them, were ultimately going to help come up with diverse and interesting solutions to many of the scientific problems that we’re going with. My top three tips for science communication would be listen to your audience, make sure that you’re engaging audiences that aren’t always engaged and use a medium that is appropriate for that audience in order to engage and communicate with them. Hopefully, in listening to this, you’ve also thought the poetry is an interesting and potentially effective way of engaging different audiences with science. And if you’d ever like to think about how to do this, I’m always interested in working and collaborating with people on how we can use poetry to truly diversify science. I’m just going to finish by sharing another poem which is inspired by recent research which found that sperm whales shared behaviors to outmaneuver a 19th century human hunters. So they actually learned through social evolution how to avoid those people that were hunting them with harpoons. And this poem is called Whaling Away.
Sam Illingworth: In the name of progress, we pull your Hornet occur down the jagged throats of our unquenchable machines, launching broken vessels to coax you from the depths of your untroubled slumber. Surrounded by our wooden welts, you congregate in immensity, striking the surface with frenzied flutes to tear the waves from their moorings, a futile display of decay that paints rounded targets for warm blooded killers that rise from the spray. Bloodied, bruised, broken. You flee from your hubris to the undying night of the ocean’s floor. Seeking comfort, you sing Faded Fardell, mourning your loss for others to learn.
Natalie von der Lehr: Thank you, Sam Illingworth, for your contribution and bringing some poetry to the podcast of Curie. Curie has a number of articles on science communication and some of them are in English. Visit our website tidningencurie.se to read more. Do you want to hear more science Poetry by Sam Illingworth? Listen to his podcast, The Poetry of Science, or read his blog with the same name where you also can find the full text of the poems and the links to the scientific articles. If you like this episode of the podcast from Curie, please consider sharing it with your friends and colleagues. This podcast is available on SoundCloud, iTunes, ACast and Spotify and most podcast apps. My name is Natalie von der Lehr and I would like to thank you for listening.