Celebrating National Poetry Month: Reflections on a Dinoflagellate

The first in a series on the intersections of science and poetry.

If the lazy dinoflagellate
should lay abed
refuse to photosynthesize,
realize:
the clock will not slow

So begins Mary E. Harrington’s poetic reflection on the circadian rhythms of the bioluminescent algae Gonyaulax polyedra. It was published in the June 2001 issue of the Journal of Biological Rhythms. Indeed the poem can be found on the Journal’s website and is also listed on Harrington’s CV along with over 60 articles in refereed journals.  I discovered this poem in a post  on Brain Pickings by blogger Maria Popova.

The poem was submitted to the journal in response to a paper it published in 1999. (Roenneberg, T., and M. Merrow. "Circadian Systems and Metabolism." Journal of Biological Rhythms 14 (1999): 449-59.) In this paper, the authors conjectured about the interdependence between circadian rhythmicity and metabolism.

Intrigued, I contacted Harrington and asked her how she came to write the poem. This was her reply: “The circumstances of writing it: I was on a long car trip with my husband and three children. I had been reading an interesting article that I had found challenging to some of my field's common ideas.* It was written by researchers working on the Gonyaulax, not my normal research organism (I work with mice.). I was staring out the car window, imagining the little Gonyaulax, as I was pondering the main thrust of the article. Then I composed the poem, scribbling on the back of the article reprint.”

Lingulodinium polyedrum, also known as Gonyaulax polyedra (scanning electron micrograph) 
Image Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

We chose this poem to begin the series of blog posts commemorating National Poetry Month for several reasons. First and foremost, it is a lovely poem. Furthermore, the fact that it was published in a scientific journal is an interesting starting point for a series that focuses on the connections between science and poetry. But when I discovered the story behind it, I was completely captivated by the notion of a scientist driven to poetry to wrap her brain around concepts that may have challenged her research. For me, this is a brilliant example of the essential role of creativity in human intellectual endeavors across all disciplines.

Harrington says, “I doubt that I would have written a poem except that I was trapped in the car, with miles to go… I love poetry, but generally find myself reading poetry more often than writing it.” While this may be romanticizing the incident, I see in it a confluence of events and circumstances that led to a perfect moment in which a scientist became a poet in order to better understand an important idea. The educator in me wonders about the possibilities of having students write poetry to help build their own understandings of ideas or concepts that challenge them.

Read Harrington’s complete poem here and let me know what you think. Also, I invite you to share your thoughts on science and poetry with me on our Facebook page or via Twitter (using #scipoetry). You can also email me if you know of any other poetry that we should feature, including any of your own!

 

*Harrington is the Tippit Professor in the Life Sciences at Smith College in Massachusetts. Her research focuses on the impact of disruption of circadian rhythms on health.