9 May 2019

Earth’s Past in Poetry

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Judy Twedt

How do we regard the vast planetary time scales that span the Earth Sciences?  How do we regard a figure showing changes in Earth’s temperature since the age of dinosaurs, as spring rains pelt against the window, making rivulets that will evaporate before we leave the office, before we finish that email, and check our analysis, and pay that bill, and tweet that article, and lead that meeting, and, and, and…all in the next three hours. The Paleocene was 65 million years ago. The average human lifespan is just 79 years.

I have asked this question to different audiences now, framed in a slightly different way: How do we develop the cognitive flexibility to hold many different time scales in our mind? Twice now, I have started that talk with a poem. A poem that invites us to consider time scales much longer, even, than those of paleoclimate.

The Universe in Verse is an event organized by Maria Popova, hosted at MIT, that brings together astrophysicists and poets, and last year the acclaimed poet Marie Howe shared a new poem, Singularity, about the origin of the universe, a tribute to Stephen Hawking.

It’s an arresting poem, inviting us to consider and imagine time scales we can’t ever experience, while in the same moment bringing us closer to warm-blooded, lived experiences of love, mourning, and loneliness. Singularity is the poem I’ve read in these talks about the time scales of climate change, before sharing my own work turning climate data into music.

There are moments when, speaking to an audience, you sense that no one is looking at their phone, or checking the time, or thinking about the next thing, when everyone’s attention is wrapped in the present. This poem did that. In the words of one student:

 It totally caught my attention when I heard the poem about the origin of the universe.

It changed my mind of considering atmospheric sciences to be purely mathematical computation and scientific analysis. The beauty of literature made me interested in exploring more.

The poem was a small fraction of the talk which led into a discussion of 20th century climate change, and a presentation of sonified data. But it cracked the encrusted expectations of a ‘climate talk.’ While communicating the science of rapid and irreversible change, poetry can anchor us to our common humanity.

Poetry can invite new ways to connect to the vast time scales of planetary change, as depicted here, from: Pliocene and Eocene provide best analogs for near-future climates, K. D. Burke, J. W. Williams, M. A. Chandler, A. M. Haywood, D. J. Lunt, B. L. Otto-Bliesner. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Dec 2018, 115 (52) 13288-13293; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1809600115

– Judy Twedt creates sonic representations of climate data, is a PhD candidate at the University of Washington, and speaker for TEDx Seattle.