To end National Poetry Month and my exploration of the relationships between poetry and science, I want to turn to the process of writing poetry rather than poetry that addresses scientific ideas. More specifically, who – or what – writes poetry? Can an algorithm write poetry? Poetry is usually considered a particularly human thing. It’s an art form that requires linguistic ability, and it is associated with subjective experience, emotion, and interiority. Algorithms have access to language, but they lack individual identity, experiences, and emotions. Algorithms can be programmed to write poetry, so the question is really: does that count as poetry?
Bot or Not (sadly now defunct) takes up this topic by exploring whether we can actually tell the difference between poetry written by a human and poetry written by a bot. Check out some samples and see how you do. Here’s one example to consider:
Red flags the reason for pretty flags. And ribbons. Ribbons of flags And wearing material Reason for wearing material. Give pleasure. Can you give me the regions. The regions and the land. The regions and wheels. All wheels are perfect. Enthusiasm.
Does this seem like the work of a human poet? If you’re looking for expressions of emotion and interiority – as I primed you to do in the introduction – you might suspect this is the work of the bot. It’s not, though. It was written by Gertrude Stein, who was famous for challenging expectations of language use anyway. Kind of a tricky one. Ultimately, though, Oscar Schwartz, one of the creators of Bot or Not, said that 65% of their human readers failed the test for some of the poems in their database, indicating that it’s not just about Gertrude Stein being Gertrude Stein. There’s some real confusion about what’s human about poetry – and about humans themselves.
After Matthew Bumbach’s recent Brown Bag presentation on the history of bluegrass, I found myself thinking about the role of technology in the genre. I’ve long listened to bluegrass myself but have largely taken the technologies involved for granted. I wondered what we can learn about technology by thinking about its role in the arts and also what we can learn about bluegrass specifically by paying attention to its relationship to technology. To find out more, I invited him to discuss the topic.
Christy Tidwell: For any readers who may not be familiar with bluegrass, let’s quickly provide some basic information. How would you define bluegrass in just a couple of sentences? And what is the basic history of the genre?
Matthew Bumbach: Bluegrass music emerged from old time music and hillbilly string bands from the historically isolated region of Appalachia. The primary instruments in the genre are fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar, upright bass, and singers. Bluegrass emerged, as a genre, during the 1940s and 1950s and owes a lot of its character to the unique playing and singing of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs.
CT: With that established, I’d like to focus more specifically on the relationship between bluegrass and technology. People often tend to think about technology as high-tech or futuristic, and bluegrass is not seen as either of those things. Historically speaking, what technologies were important for the creation and dissemination of bluegrass music?
MB: That is an excellent question and one that we don’t often discuss when we talk about this genre. Bluegrass could not have developed the way it did without the microphone. In the early days of bluegrass, the entire band would gather around a single microphone in both recording and live performance applications. They would create blend and balance through the use of proximity to the microphone.
The microphone was first invented and introduced to the public in 1877 by Emile Berliner, but it would be decades before we had a microphone that was effective enough to do what the pioneers of bluegrass needed. E.C. Wente invented the condenser microphone (or capacitor microphone) in 1916, a much more sensitive microphone than the earliest moving coil mics from the previous century. It took several more decades for condenser microphones to be study and cheap enough for use by the general public.
I mention the microphone as an indispensable technological advancement in the development of bluegrass music because bluegrass was professional music played by professional musicians. Unlike old time and hillbilly music that was played in churches, porches, and barns, bluegrass music developed in part because it could be played live for large audiences. Virtuosic professional musicians toured the country spreading these new sounds. Furthermore, bluegrass spread through recordings and radio. None of this could have happened without the microphone.
Climate change can seem overwhelming. It’s so big, and responding to it will involve more than individual actions, so it’s easy to feel discouraged or fearful. It’s also tempting to simply deny that it’s happening and hope for the best. In This Changes Everything: Climate Change Vs. Capitalism, Naomi Klein writes about how easy it is for us to “look for a split second” and then look away, joke about it, “tell ourselves comforting stories about how humans are clever,” etc. She writes, “All we have to do is not react as if this is a full-blown crisis. All we have to do is keep on denying how frightened we actually are. And then, bit by bit, we will have arrived at the place we most fear, the thing from which we have been averting our eyes. No additional effort required.” Obviously, this denial does not solve the problem.
Poetry works against this denial in a variety of ways. Some poets simply describe the losses we face. Risa Denenberg’s “Ice Would Suffice” (2017), for instance, emphasizes how “species are lost, / spotted frogs / and tufted puffins forsaken” and observes how we remain “heedless of lacking space / or how long / our makeshift planet will host us.” From its title’s reference to Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” (1920), a poem about how the world might end, to its emphasis on failure and loss, Denenberg’s poem demands that readers face our own human decline and likely extinction.
As I noted in my earlier discussion of Robert Kelly’s “Science,” poetry and science are not as separate as we might often think: they are both creative, and they both challenge us to see the world in new ways. In “The Sciences Sing a Lullabye” (2007), Albert Goldbarth illustrates another similarity between science and poetry by personifying the sciences (specifically physics, geology, astronomy, zoology, psychology, biology, and history) and imagining them as comforting figures.
It is comforting to think, as Physics tells us, that our atoms will “dance / inside themselves themselves without you,” or, as Geology says, that “All of the continents used to be / one body. You aren’t alone.” Meanwhile, Astronomy comforts the reader with a reassurance that “the sun will rise tomorrow” while History hands us “the blankets, layer on / layer, down and down.” In other words, the processes of our bodies and of the world will continue, even without our attention. And science is what provides the evidence of this continuation.
After sharing the initial post in this series, I got several messages or comments suggesting other cool women! So I thought I’d post a few additional suggestions here to conclude Women’s History Month.
Ellen Swallow Richards – suggested by Joseph Heumann, Eastern Illinois University
Best known for her work in the field of sanitary engineering, Ellen Swallow Richards was a chemist – one of the first professional women chemists in the US – whose work led to better water-quality standards and understandings of environmental systems.
Frances Arnold – suggested by Robb Winter, South Dakota School of Mines & Technology
Co-inventor on over 40 patents, Frances Arnold is best known for using directed evolution to create enzymes with novel function. In 2018, she was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Virginia T. Norwood – suggested by Curtis V. Price, South Dakota School of Mines & Technology
Sometimes called the Mother of Landsat, Virginia T. Norwood – a physicist – was instrumental in designing the Landsat program that made modern Earth observation possible. She embraces the title “Mother of Landsat,” saying, “Yes. I like it, and it’s apt. I created it; I birthed it; and I fought for it.”
Winifred Goldring– one more suggestion from me (Christy Tidwell)
Winifred Golding was a paleontologist working in the early 20th century, best known for her work on Devonian crinoids . She was the first State Paleontologist of New York, and she used that position to design exhibits for educating visitors. These exhibits reflected a more modern and engaging approach to science communication at the time. She fascinates me not only because of her actual paleontological work but because she is said to have invented special pants for women to wear in the field and because this is one of the commonly shared pictures of her.
Women have made many important and fascinating contributions to science and technology. When asked to name a woman scientist, however, too often the only woman people can think of is Marie Curie. She is of course a very important part of women’s history in science, but she’s only one of many women influencing science and engineering!
To celebrate Women’s History Month and help kick off the STS blog, this is the first of three posts about women in science & technology who are not Marie Curie. For this series, members of our STS faculty have chosen women in science and technology – both historical and contemporary – who they think are worth our attention. In this post, we share three women in science and technology who helped make history.
Ada Lovelace – selected by Erica Haugtvedt
Ada Lovelace wrote arguably the first computer program for Charles Babbage’s hypothetical mechanical computer, the “analytical engine.” She was the only legitimate daughter of George Gordon, Lord Byron, the famous Romantic poet, peer, and politician. Lovelace’s parents separated when she was an infant; the estrangement was bitter. Lovelace’s mother, herself considered a youthful prodigy in mathematics, committed herself to educating Lovelace in mathematics and science as an antidote against Byron’s poetic influence. Lovelace, however, remained attached to the legacy of her father and would not only name her two sons Byron and Gordon, but would request that she be buried next to her father upon her death. Lovelace rejected her mother’s opposition between mathematics and poetry. In her thirties, Lovelace wrote to her mother that if she couldn’t have poetry, could not she at least have a “poetical science.” That poetical science would be computer science. Lovelace’s experience of mathematics was laden with metaphor and intuition. She valued metaphysics equally to mathematics, seeing both as ways of exploring the “the unseen worlds around us.” Lovelace’s insight into the potentialities of mathematics beyond strict utility allowed her to translate Babbage’s invention into a vision of programming that anticipated what computing would become for the world. Lovelace died of uterine cancer at 36 years old.
Lady Jane Franklin – selected by John Dreyer
Born in 1791 to a British businessman, Lady Jane married her husband Sir John Franklin in 1828. With her husband as Governor in Tasmania she sponsored lectures on botany, science, and ethnography, often replacing the grand balls in the colony. She also was the driving force behind Tasmania’s first State College in 1840. Upon his return from Tasmania, Sir John was appointed to lead the final expedition to find the Northwest passage in the high Canadian Arctic in 1845. When the expedition failed to return, Lady Jane proved to be the force behind no less than seven expeditions to find her husband. Through sponsorship, influence and reward, she also backed numerous other searches, many by the Royal Navy. Through these backings, Lady Jane proved to be the force behind the geographical exploration of the Arctic regions. For this she was awarded the Founder’s Gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1859. It was said about her “What the nation would not do, a woman did.”
Julia R. Pearce – selected by Bryce Tellmann
Julia R. Pearce was the first woman appointed to a United States Department of Agriculture Soil Survey team, in 1901. She reportedly created this opportunity for herself shortly after graduating from UC Berkeley by contacting the Secretary of Agriculture and telling him that she was willing to help fill the department’s shortage of skilled technicians. However, because her supervisor was uncomfortable with the idea of a woman doing fieldwork, she mainly worked as a map copyist. Shortly thereafter she transferred to Washington where she did laboratory work. Prior to this time, and for decades thereafter, women’s contributions to soil science in the United States often occurred in vital but unrecognized settings, assisting their husbands or maintaining maps and records.
Rachel Carson – selected by Christy Tidwell
“What is silencing the voices of spring in countless towns in America?” This question from the opening “Fable for Tomorrow” in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) drew attention to DDT, other pesticides, and the poisoning of the US landscape. Carson’s Silent Spring is widely acknowledged as one inspiration for the 20th century environmental movement, contributing to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970) and the passage of the Clean Air Act (1970) and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (1972). When the book was published, however, she was met with harsh criticism, despite her years of experience as a biologist and her academic training (a master’s in zoology and much work toward a PhD). Reviewers and readers reacted with obviously gendered dismissals, calling her “hysterically emphatic” and “emotional and one-sided,” for instance. One letter to The New Yorker (which published the original articles that became the book) wrote, “As for insects, isn’t it just like a woman to be scared to death of a few little bugs!” The dismissal of her as a scientist, naturalist, and writer continued until her early death from cancer in 1964.
Silent Spring is the most memorable part of Carson’s career, but her other writing is worth remembering, too: Under the Sea-Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951), and TheEdge of the Sea (1955). She loved the natural world and shared her love for it in her books and public appearances throughout her life. Her final book, The Sense of Wonder (published posthumously in 1965), emphasizes this. Based on a brief article published in Woman’s Home Companion, the book argues for the importance of sharing this kind of love with children.