November is National Native American Heritage Month, a chance to acknowledge the history and living culture of Native American peoples. As a science, technology, and society program, this seems a good opportunity to discuss Native science, also called Indigenous science or Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). As the varied names for this indicate, it’s not one monolithic entity but incorporates ideas from many perspectives. It is both traditional, building on Native peoples’ long histories of learning about and sharing knowledge, and contemporary, an ongoing part of living in and with the world.
What is Native Science?
Gregory Cajete (Santa Clara Pueblo) coined the term, and he describes Native science as “a metaphor for a wide range of tribal processes of perceiving, thinking, acting, and coming to know that have evolved through human experiences with the natural world.” Cajete says, “Native science is born of a lived and storied participation with the natural landscape. It is the collective heritage of human experience with the natural world” (2). In other words, Native science combines human and nonhuman and describes what humans know by relating to, communicating with, and experiencing the world. It is not a science based on laboratory experiments or anonymous review.
This contrasts with Western ideas of science by emphasizing connection rather than separation, relationships rather than objective distance. Native science sees people as part of the world they’re learning about, not outside it, and therefore people cannot be removed from scientific work. If you’ve been trained to think of science as necessarily objective and tainted by any hint of subjectivity or bias, this may sound unscientific. However, as Leila McNeill points out in a Lady Science interview, “It really just means that it’s grounded in this specific experience of this specific group of people in this specific place, which can actually give us better results than if we were looking at something that is looking at large, broad questions that they’re trying to apply to everything that just kind of obscures the particular.”
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.
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.
As I observed in last week’s National Poetry Month post, both poetry and science provide us with new ways to see the world we live in. This week, I want to get more specific and consider one STEM field with a significant relationship to poetry: medicine.
Poets Imagining Doctors
There is a long history of poetry representing doctors and medicine. Robert Southey’s “The Surgeon’s Warning” (1796) provides one Gothic and rather gruesome vision of doctors (thanks to Laura Kremmel for the recommendation!). In it, a doctor on his deathbed worries about how his corpse will be treated:
All kinds of carcasses I have cut up, And the judgment now must be– But brothers I took care of you, So pray take care of me!
I have made candles of infants fat The Sextons have been my slaves, I have bottled babes unborn, and dried Hearts and livers from rifled graves.
And my Prentices now will surely come And carve me bone from bone, And I who have rifled the dead man’s grave Shall never have rest in my own.
This is an image of the doctor as monster, as one who perhaps deserves to receive the treatment he’s given others’ corpses (ultimately, “they carv’d him bone from bone”), and it reflects 18th century fears of doctors and surgeons themselves as well as those who worked alongside them (graverobbers, for instance).
April is National Poetry Month, and although people may not always think of poetry and science together, a wealth of poetry exists that addresses science, technology, and various STEM topics.
In his 2006 poem “Science” (read full poem here), for instance, Robert Kelly writes that “science is the same as poetry / only it uses the wrong words.” Science and poetry are both ways of looking carefully at the world, expressing those observations, and helping us all understand the world more fully – piece by piece, experience by experience.
Kelly also writes that “Science explains nothing / but holds all together as / many things as it can count.” Poetry, too, does not claim to explain the world so much as show it to us. And poetry frequently works by juxtaposing meanings, holding together ideas and images to give readers an opportunity to find new meanings in their combination.