When science meets poetry

By Eric Freedman

Last summer, Knight Center Senior Associate Director Dave Poulson suggested that researchers
present their findings in haiku as a way to emphasize the importance of clear, concise writing
and avoidance of jargon.

I found that an intriguing idea, so I carried out a quick experiment with a class of about 20
doctoral and master’s students in MSU’s Environmental Science & Policy Program. Their
instructors, Professors Wei Zhang (Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences) and Adam Zwickle
(Criminal Justice) had invited me to lecture about science communication, and I seized the
opportunity.

In case you don’t remember what a haiku (俳句) is from your high school creative writing or
literature classes, it’s a short 3-line poem with a 5-7- 5 syllable structure and uses sensory
language to capture a feeling or image.

I gave the students this definition and four science-related examples from wikihow.com and
science thrillers.com:

To some, solutions
are answers. To chemists they
are still all mixed up

Humidity: when
you are looking for some air
but finding water

Some past animals
became fossils while others
prefer to be oil

An afternoon breeze
expels cold air, along with
the fallen brown leaves

Then I asked the students — from the colleges of Engineering, Agriculture and Natural
Resources, Social Science and Natural Science — to write a haiku drawn from their own
research. Here are some of my favorite results:

Metals come to lakes
Some stay in the sediment
Some dissolves at depth

Fish need to migrate
They travel from seas to streams
Please don’t dam their home

Nobody knows what
“sustainability” means
Yet it is the goal

Mountains of ice made
our groundwater, now sold as
Nestle’s Ice Mountain

Is she empowered?
She makes her own decisions
Well-being is hers

Dioxin so bad
especially in my yard
Makes home price go down?

City, brick and stone
Yet wrens flit through bustling streets
All life welcome here

When we get bogged down in our own jargon-laden technical and academic writing, maybe it’s
time to give birth to a research-sharing haiku or two of own.

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