Today we have a guest post from Andrew Holmes, a visiting lecturer at the University of Chester. His research is focused on animal welfare, conservation and evolution. Outside of the lab, Andrew is the creator of The Sciku Project, a scicomm website that brings together science and poetry using just 17 syllables. He’ll be sharing his thoughts on starting his scicomm endeavour while doing research and welcoming a new addition to his family.
Elegant Nuggets/of Intrigue to Stimulate/Curiosity… or How I ended setting up a science website based around Japanese poetry.
by Andrew Holmes
In the beginning…
I didn’t mean to start a website. Certainly the idea of creating a scientific website held little appeal, since there are already plenty that are far better than I could create. I didn’t even know the first thing about web design. And with a baby on the way (now since arrived), I definitely didn’t have the time.
Then again, I didn’t mean to be reading a book of haiku either, but sometimes the best ideas emerge when disparate concepts collide. In both creative endeavours and in science, it pays to accept inspiration as it comes.
I launched The Sciku Project, a fusion of science and haiku, 7 weeks after the birth of my son. Like Daniel, my website is out in the world, although unlike Daniel, it also has matching social media profiles. Interested visitors can revel in science stories of seventeen syllables.
…I can hear the bemused silence as I write this post. Science plus haiku? But before you leave this post, allow me to elaborate. There are so many benefits to this method of science communication that it’s worth a bit of explanation.
But wait…what is a ‘haiku’?
I like trying new things when reading, something that inspired my aunt Barbara to give me a book of poetry. Reading a solitary haiku captured my imagination and, intrigued, I immediately ordered myself an anthology. Haiku anthologies can be very slim and, consequently, cheap – a welcome fact for the impulsive buyer.
A traditional form of Japanese poetry, haiku consist of 17 syllables (known as ‘on’ or ‘morae’), written in English over three lines of five, seven and five syllables. There are other haiku traditions and rules but those 17 syllables are what stand out when we think of the idea. In essence, haiku are micro-poetry.
Haiku often explore miniature moments in nature. But the small stands without purpose if one does not consider its place in the existence, so haiku frequently reveal minute details within a wider context. They provide a setting for these microcosms within wider macrocosms that are sometimes merely hinted at.
One of the most famous haiku concerns a frog jumping into an old pond (several translations of the poem can be found here). The frog’s jump appears to be the focal point of the poem. But the jump is only relevant, only interesting, within the context of the pond, the environment and the observer.
Haiku are fast food art (but don’t worry, McDonald’s and chippy shop haters—this is a complement). Take the jumping frog jump haiku – Basho’s old pond. The haiku itself takes only seconds to read, but the imagery it provokes and the feelings associated with the poem linger for far longer (although it’s possible that your experience with fast food is different to mine). In reading the poem, I can see the pond and the shaggy, overgrown vegetation surrounding it. Insects are murmuring to each other in the background and the air is fresh and bright after a spring shower. And I can hear that SPLASH, and the seeming silence that follows before the world resumes. All this from a handful of words.
The idea for The Sciku Project came to me during my daily commute. I had started composing haiku in my head to stave off the boredom of the 40 minute journey. Heading home one day I wrote a science-themed haiku as an exercise of mental curiosity. And, surprising as it might be, I enjoyed it! As I continued driving, I wondered whether other scientific themes could be given a similar treatment. My initial curiosity soon turned into excitement: I had found something new and exciting, and by the time I reached home I knew what I wanted to do with it!
When I searched for my new idea online I was disappointed (but hardly surprised) to discover that I wasn’t the first to think of science haiku (or as they are known: sciku). There’s even a book of sciku written by students aged 11-18 at the Camden School for Girls to raise money for a new science laboratory.
But even so, I wasn’t discouraged. Nobody was doing exactly what I had in mind: I wanted to break research findings down into haiku. I wanted scientists and non-scientists alike to join in by sharing their interests, work or research papers through the medium of haiku. I wanted to create a website that anyone could visit as a place to celebrate this fusion of science and art.
The idea that science and art are a false dichotomy is nothing new and cross-pollination has, in fact, been going on for centuries. The advent of the United Kingdom Research and Innovation agency to coordinate STEM funding bodies as well as the Arts and Humanities Research Council points towards a desire for a greater link between these seemingly disparate disciplines. STEM is now becoming STEAM, adding the arts to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And sciku are one of many ways that we can cross this old divide… if you can get them out there.
I was too mentally invested in my idea to let the mere fact that I’d never built a website stop me from achieving my goal. I spent time researching domain hosting/web-building platforms and their user friendliness, all the while learning a whole new vocabulary of web-terminology. Wordpress seemed to give the best balance of control and flexibility for the ideas taking shape in my mind – not the simplest platform available, but also not overly complex for the beginner. I began building the website in my evenings and at weekends, all too aware of another imminent event.
The Sciku Project reached full term a few weeks before Daniel was due. While waiting for his arrival, I let the website gestate a little longer so I could prevent too much of an overlap, taking my time to fine-tune the micro-aesthetics within the macro-structure of the website until we all were ready.
Launching a website is anti-climactic. I clicked “publish” and a small balloon popped up briefly to say that we were live. Google takes a while to locate new sites, so I couldn’t even enjoy searching for my virtual baby. I sent the link to friends and family and waited for replies. I looked at the site and the site looked back. I wondered how it was going to grow and just what I was going to do now it had arrived. I shared similar looks with Daniel in the days following his birth; I’m still not sure which of them comprehended my looks of panic the most.
Haiku as SciComm?
We live in a time-poor, fast-paced world. As a scientist I try to balance my research with paper writing, grant applications, supervision, teaching and admin as well as my day-to-day life, which is now busier than ever. Other professionals have their own plates to keep spinning. The brevity of sciku makes them an ideal science communication medium, whilst as a bonus the novelty of the haiku-form helps to break the ice. Sciku do the hard work by providing an intriguing hook with which to catch the curious.
Haiku are concise, evocative, exquisite and thought-provoking poems. Their form can help to reveal the beauty of science and mathematics which can become lost among the dry details of manuscripts and conference presentations. Sciku can help us to find the elegance of research once again, to rediscover its charm. Where traditional modes of scientific sharing obscure, sciku communicate clearly, using language that is both understandable and relatable.
As scientists, we are told we should maximise the impact of our work, and it’s a fundamental aspect of present-day grant applications. Ensuring our research is publicised helps with this, but our work can only have impact if we share it in easily digestible and interpretable forms. I can read a sciku in a few seconds and think about it for minutes. A sciku is a moment that echoes in the mind. They are the perfect medium for sharing a scientific story.
It’s easy to get caught up in the specifics and to forget the bigger picture when working in science. And yet, like the frog’s jump, the results of an individual experiment are only interesting and relevant within the context of the wider world and the research that has gone before. By reading and writing sciku, we can gain a renewed appreciation of the reasons behind and the deeper meaning of our work.
Writing sciku has also helped me better appreciate how to explain my own work to anyone outside of my field by helping me see what details and aspects really matter. This creative process helps me to understand the fundamental components my work. This benefit of sciku can be useful in the classroom too: research suggests that composing sciku helps students gain a deeper understanding of their subject matter and promotes logical thinking skills.
Lessons learned and things to come
I didn’t set out to start a website when I wrote my first sciku, but I’m so glad I tried something new. It’s been a lot of work but the entire process is so much fun and extremely rewarding. I’ve learnt web-design skills, gained a greater appreciation for my own research and career, and improved my ability to communicate outside of the confines of research papers and scientific conferences.
I urge everyone to try something new and discover for themselves the many benefits of drafting a 17-syllable scientific poem. Don’t be afraid or intimidated by the idea of poetry. The brevity is liberating and sciku are a remarkably forgiving medium – it’s hard to completely mess up.
If you want to share your efforts then submit them to The Sciku Project, where you’ll also find tips and advice for writing sciku. You can also follow the site on Twitter and Facebook.