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Science Communication Through Poetry

By: Sam Illingworth

Science and poetry are both used to understand human nature and our world. Why not combine their strengths?

I wrote Science Communication Through Poetry for one simple reason: to bring poetry and science into more people’s lives. The book is written for scientific researchers, science communication practitioners, and poets, and is meant to serve as a medium through which to help re-unite these two disciplines.

I first started writing and performing science poetry almost a decade ago, beginning with my blog The Poetry of Science. Every week I read a new piece of scientific research and try to bring it to a diverse audience by writing a poem about it. When I first started the blog, I used to try and communicate the research didactically through the poem itself – the result of which was several forced rhymes that were, in hindsight, objectively terrible (please do not confirm this for yourself by reading some of the blog’s earliest posts!). What I soon realised, however, was that I could use a lay summary to provide an overview for the scientific research in the article, freeing the poem up for another purpose: to present an alternative lens through which to view the research and hopefully inspire new audiences to find out more about it. 

In writing the blog, I became more confident in my abilities as a poet (although in truth I still struggle to identify myself using that word), which led me to develop several spoken word (i.e. performance poetry) sets that I have since performed all over the world. In turn, this introduced me to a wonderful new group of people, opening my eyes to the opportunities for poets and scientists to collaborate in order to better explore the liminal spaces of both their lifeworlds and expertise. 

However, in performing my science poetry, writing my blog, and recording the associated podcast, I realised that this was a very one-directional form of science communication. Here I was, using poetry to tell new audiences about scientific research that I found interesting, without engaging them in any real dialogue. It was at this point when I began to consider that the real power of poetry may lie not in its facility to communicate science to a non-scientific audience, but rather in its ability to develop science with them instead.

Collaborative poetry writing workshops are a really powerful way of exploring the lived experiences of a community, encouraging them to engage on topics that matter to them. These workshops are also a great way of helping scientists and non-scientists to re-connect. The poems that scientists write in these workshops help to humanise them by giving them an outlet for their emotions and subjectivity, while for the non-scientists it presents an opportunity to remind the scientists of the human factor (and impact) behind their research. 

After running several of these poetry workshops (see here and here for examples), it became clear that they were an effective medium through which to connect scientists and non-scientists in a way that was equitable, creative, and actionable. However, it also became apparent that in order to develop a sustainable legacy for re-uniting the two disciplines, I needed help. Specifically, I needed help in developing a platform that could support the multitude of people from across the world who were also interested (or potentially interested) in exploring the overlaps and opportunities between science and poetry.

In early 2020 I helped to launch Consilience, the world’s first peer-reviewed science poetry and art journal. The idea was to take the best aspects of scientific peer review and to apply this to poetry and art. Every issue, poets and artists are invited to submit their work to the journal, but rather than ‘accept as is’ or ‘desk reject’ (as is the case for almost every other poetry journal in existence), we send each poem out for review. Two independent reviewers provide feedback to the poet or artist, and a handling editor then collaborates with them to help develop their submission. Since we launched, we have published the work of over almost 200 individuals and have since grown into a collective of 79 volunteers operating across 11 time zones and 6 continents (come on Antarctica!). We are also looking for new members, so if this is something that appeals to you (no matter what your experience), then please get in touch. 

In writing this book, I hope to have provided a gateway for scientists to find out more about poetry, for poets to find out more about science, and for all audiences to consider the way in which the two disciplines can work side-by-side to further our understanding of the world in which we live. It has also been a very humbling experience for me as I reflected on the many failures and missteps that I have made (performing poetry during the half-time interval of a World Cup Quarter Final in a very busy pub with no microphone and speakers springs to mind), alongside the memories and friendships that have emerged during this journey. 

I look forward to hearing what people think about the book, and in the meantime my inbox and Twitter account remain open to any discussions, opportunities, or potential collaborations to further explore the entwinements of these two most venerable branches of knowledge.

Dr. Sam Illingworth is an Associate Professor in Academic Practice at Edinburgh Napier University. His research and practice revolve around using poetry to develop dialogue between scientists and non-scientists. You can find out more about his work via his website www.samillingworth.com or connect with him on Twitter @samillingworth.

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