Science & Technology

To Understand Complicated Concepts, Read These Haikus

Science is great, but scientists kind of get a bad rap for being unimaginative beings of pure logic, like Spock in a lab coat. That's not entirely fair; after all, you've got to be at least a little creative to brainstorm the best way to test a hypothesis. But a new trend is showing that scientific creativity goes way beyond that. Check out the poetry these scientists are writing to explain their work.

Related: How the Brain Responds to Poetry

They're Poets, They Empirically Know It

There's a quote that's usually (and falsely) attributed to Albert Einstein: "If you can't explain it to a six-year-old, you really don't understand it yourself." Well, Mr. Relativity might not have said it, but it's still good advice. And in the spirit of spreading the good word through simplification, some scientists have begun distilling their findings into easy-to-grasp haikus, a form of poetry in three lines that each contain five syllables, then seven syllables, then five more syllables.

Since 2013, oceanographer Gregory C. Johnson has written and illustrated a series of haikus summarizing the findings of every annual report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. It's a heavy subject, and one that can be difficult to wrap your mind around. That's why it's so helpful to have simple, poetic summaries like this one:

Fast, strong action will

reduce future warming, but ...

Rising seas certain.

Elementary Expressions

While the Twitter account @climate_haiku is a great one to follow to stay abreast of climatology in bite-size pieces, it's not the only source of scientific poetry (or even of scientific haikus). In 2017, AAAS released a poetic periodic table featuring 119 different haikus — one for each element, plus a bonus for Ununennium, the hypothetical 119th entry. Each one will teach you something about the element, and some might make you laugh as well.

"Hydrogen" is both straightforward and beautiful:

Your single proton

Fundamental, essential.

Water. Life. Star fuel.

"Yttrium," on the other hand, is a little less reverent:

That is not a name.

That is a spelling error.

Or a Scrabble bluff.

Rhymeology 101

Writing for Quartz, Jane C. Hu made the good point that while searching #sciencehaiku is a great way to spend an afternoon, the technique of turning your expertise into a poem is good for more than just science. Really, any complicated topic could stand an aesthetically pleasing distillation. Take your own area of expertise and start jotting down ideas that get to the heart of what you like about it. After you've filled a page, return to pull out some of the most vivid descriptions you came up with. Take a break if you need to, then edit your work to get its ideas across in the clearest, most pleasing way possible. Like so:


Learn something new every day

Sometimes about farts.

Pretty inspiring, if we do say so ourselves.

Get stories like this one in your inbox each morning. Sign up for our daily email here.

The future will be full of science haikus too, if the work of the students from the Camden School for Girls is any indication. Check out "Sciku," edited by Simon Flynn, and learn all about physics, time travel, evolution, and much more. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas November 28, 2018

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.