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How poetry and art are making science cool

Global Science for Global Wellbeing is the theme for National Science Day 2023. Meet some scientists who are ensuring their wellbeing and that of others by using art and poetry

A book of science-based poetry by Dr Mala Radhakrishnan
A book of science-based poetry by Dr Mala Radhakrishnan

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‘As soon as I start on a poem, I measure /A really significant drop in my pressure’ tweeted Dr Mala Radhakrishnan, professor at Wellesley College, computational biophysical chemist and author of Atomic Romances, Molecular Dances, recently. She belongs to a rare breed of people who help both scientists and non-scientists creatively understand and appreciate concepts of science.

The professor’s original audience for all her chemistry poetry were patrons at the weekly poetry open mic event held at Cantab Lounge bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They would ‘react’ favourably and tell her how they wished their chemistry teacher could have described the subject like she had. “That is when I realized that poetry can have educational value and I started to craft poems to teach specific concepts,” says Radhakrishnan, who studied chemistry and physics at Harvard, earned her doctorate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and taught science to high school students through the Teach for America programme.

Radhakrishnan has written over a thousand couplets now. Some of those went into the making of her second book Thinking, Periodically, published in 2018. “Nearly everything I tweet is new and spontaneous, as I try to make sense of everyday life using the language of chemistry,” said the professor in an email interview. Using her handle @atomicromances, she often tweets couplets related to science.

The path of one of the greatest scientists, Sir C V Raman, changed on his trip back from London in 1921. Studying sounds and vibrations of stringed and percussion instruments till then, his 15-day trip aboard the SS Narkunda made him obsessed with light. Was it the hidden artist in him that made him fascinated with the pale blue opalescence of icebergs and the vivid blue of the Mediterranean Sea? 

Working on the thought, he was able to conclude that the colour of the sea was a result of the scattering of sunlight by the water molecules. It led him to the discovery of Raman Effect, which he announced on February 28, 1928. Since 1986, India has been celebrating this day as National Science Day.

Bengaluru-based Ipsa Jain chose the path of visual communication after she got her doctorate in molecular biology from the Indian Institute of Science (of which Raman was the first Indian director). Freelancing as writer and illustrator for Club SciWri, the then-postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine started visualising science for a wider audience using the picture book format. “The project made me question the visual media in scientific literature and its codification that makes it inaccessible to non-specialist audiences,” says Dr Ipsa Jain. It resulted in the book Actually, Colours Speak, which she co-authored with Minhaj Sirajuddin. The book discusses in an imaginative, comprehensible and vivid manner the behaviour, anatomy, physiology and molecular processes that lead to colouration in animals.

Front cover of 'Actually, Colours Speak'
Front cover of 'Actually, Colours Speak' (Amazon)

Jain showcases her science-based zines (short for webzines) like Crafting a Mutant Fly at events such as Indie Comix Fest. Sometimes she uses whimsy, like in her Mobius strip-shaped zine. As a faculty member at Srishti Manipal School of Art, Science and Technology, she encourages students to engage in scientific curiosities and ask fundamental questions when exploring nature or their surroundings.

The IISc campus is dotted with art. Some of these were made by medical art illustrator Tejeswini Padma. After getting an engineering degree in biotechnology, she was working as a junior fellow when her professor recognised her artistic streak. “She commissioned me to paint a wall with art depicting the work that was being done in her lab,” says Tejeswini. That first painting featuring a mouse, a Viking ship and toxins led her to several commissions within and outside IISc, and to a path that integrated science and art.

An illustration by Tejeswini Padma
An illustration by Tejeswini Padma

Tejeswini studied for a masters in medical art at Dundee University, Scotland. The exposure to global practices led her to collaborate with scientists, educational institutions, individuals, and personal injury lawyers. “One of the illustrations I did for a client was an exhibit at a medico-legal trial. It helped to explain in just 10 minutes what was explained in an 800-page medical report,” she points out. Tejeswini is a professional member of the Institute of Medical Illustrators, UK.

At the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (CSIR-IGIB), Delhi, science communicator Dr Poorti Kathpalia’s work is to make science fun for students and others. One day, she writes poetic quiz for the organization’s magazine, Pulse, and on another she talks to students about The Uncertain Four Seasons, a global climate change awareness project, featuring performances from around the world. Poorti’s poems also appear in an astronomy-themed notebook that she designed called Stellar Bagels.

Kathpalia started writing poems during her doctoral studiesand continues to do so on her blog Science Bagels (inspired by Seinfeld). “I was studying the effect of rhythmic sound – call it music, if you want – on the development of the brain and its effect on spatial memory, the one we use to navigate the world,” she reveals. It was not until she finished her PhD that she realized she could use poems –rhythmic, right? – as a medium to communicate science.

During the first wave of COVID-19, Kathpalia was volunteering with a group of scientists, designers, coders, and science communicators to fight the spread of misinformation. One of the teams had generated multilingual infographics and she suggested they convert them into videos. “I used verse instead of prose for the script, and this idea appealed to the whole team.” Soon, all the translators – most of them scientists – were writing verses in regional languages, thus amplifying the reach of the message.

Radhakrishnan could be speaking for all the these creative scientists when she says, “I feel very frustrated when science is perceived to be somehow "orthogonal" to creativity. I think creativity (and kindness) is what keeps humanity going and it's a crucial part of any discipline, including science!”

Mala Kumar is a Bengaluru-based writer who has written and edited several STEM-related picture books.

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