Friday, August 29, 2014

Geology sonnet roundup

Firstly, I would like to place all six science week sonnets (plus the bonus poem) in stratigraphic order.  That is, youngest rocks described at the top. An analysis will follow the poetry:

A pox on all those proxies non-unique
Which make interpretation hard to do.
Magnesium to calcium we seek
Sea temp'rature, and not pCO2.
So lithium, uranium are used
to disambiguate the Mg curve
O. umbonatus data's not recused.
Antarctic ice growth isotopes observe,
But whence the melting in the Miocene?
Here isotopes of carbon join our tale,
And sedimentary burndown in marine
Organic carbon makes the icecap fail.
  Antarctic ice was thawed by CO2
  Let's try repeating this effect anew.

Just Sixty-six million short years ago
(Though Deccan volcanism coincides)
The Yucatan was smote a cosmic blow
And the Gulf shelf collapsed in those fell tides
Late Cretaceous sediments were scoured,
Deposited as “boundary cocktail.”
Unsorted forams, lime mudstone, powered
By Chicxulub-induced collapse of shale
The wildcatters call the seismic line
“Middle Cretaceous Unconformity”
Not middle, end; deluvian, malign,
Complete destructive uniformity
  The Mesozoic ended with this splat
  So Gerta Keller, please hang up your hat

The Central Atlantic Magmatic Province
Erupted tholiitic and potassic.
C O two upset atmospheric balance.
Eco-collapse ended the Triassic.
Green sulfur bacteria’s isotopes
Show photic zone euxinia prevailed.
Stomatal size decreased (show microscopes)
And carbon biomass was soon curtailed.
Compound-specific isotopes will tell
Which phytoplankton thrived in these tough times,
While wax from leaves and calcite from a shell
Record recovery in clastic slimes.
  The Triassic ended as it began
  Can those extinctions be surpassed by man?

Australia is a dry and stable land.
No mountain range, no active slipping fault,
And yet this plain had lava seas erupt.
We call them Kalkarindji flood basalt.
It’s hard to know just when these rocks were formed.
The weathering and rock type complicates
Radiometric dates of dykes that swarmed
When seas contained the first protochordates.
For ten long years they searched the outback rocks
For grains unhurt since fossils first were formed.
In hopes the nucleii-related clocks
Survived half billion years, still undeformed.
  510 MA, a date of some distinction.
  Flood basalts can lead to mass extinction.

Enough with carbon, climate variation
Let’s look at rocks from a far older time,
Which lacked much copper mineralization,
And when anorthosites were at their prime.
Earth’s middle age- boring for a reason?
Tectonics were remarkably unchanged.
Ice and iron were both out of season.
A billion years of uniform exchange
Of isotopes, strontium, and S
The active margins ringed the continent.
Slow, steady mantle cooling caused the process
Strong lithosphere held melts incipient
  It ended with Rodinia dispersion
  Which led to Earth’s exciting, current version.

Nobody studies fucking iodine.
The halogen too rare for us to care,
But iodate to carbonate’s inclined
So we might have a useful proxy there.
This IO3 requires oxygen,
And thus does not exist in reduced seas.
Its presence in old carbonates means then
Ozone and oxygen were in the breeze.
Archean carbonates do not have I,
But it appears when O first graced the air.
And thus another tool is forged, whereby
Our planet’s past can be unearthed to share.
  This gas we breathe controls the biosphere.
  We’d like to know what made it first appear.

The Schrödinger bacteria’s Barsoom,
Where robots scan the wadi of the Styx.
There died, or never lived a microbe bloom
When déjà vu and Dejah Thoris mix,
Her hungry eyes fixed on Hadean seas,
Lowell’s canal dream just an aquifer.
The playa droid with X-ray vision sees;
Areocalcrete Earthings soon infer.
With carbonate and opal intergrown,
Australia’s prayer of cheap uranium,
As vengeful Ares, orbited by drone
Blends nukes and life within his cranium
  Thus Opportunity grinds sands of time
  Which mortals fancy Ceres made of lime.

Thus ends what is possibly the least effective science awareness effort ever. I made it.  A sonnet a day, pulled from the pages of Geology, for the last 6 days of Science Week. And a bonus one earlier today, to try out some ideas I had while thinking up this post. If I wanted to kid myself, I would say that my failure was that I picked something too popular, and that the sonnets got lost in the celebrity gossip and other pop culture frivolity that haunts this form on the internet.  If only I had gone for American Mineralogist Villanelles.

This is not an entirely honest assessment. It was a tricky brief.  For the first few sonnets (1, 2, 4), I was basically seeing how well or badly I could jam technical terms and concepts into the structure without irreparably breaking the sonnet form, and still extracting the basic gist of the paper.  With 3 and 6, I was trying to show what it was about the study that was really clever- trying to channel the scientific genius in verse, with less of an emphasis on the story or terminology.  And with 5, I was aiming to show the difficulty in getting any data at all for that system, and emphasizing the blood, sweat, and tear aspect of research. Still, there are some core issues relating to good poetry and science writing which remain unresolved.

Others have written at length on the place of metaphor in science writing.   Personally, I think that it can be dangerous, and easily done misleadingly. Science is more like a murder mystery than an allegory. The particulars of who knows what when and how they determine it are generally more important than the anthropomorphisation of the interpretation of the day, but that isn’t always easy to put in verse. 

On the other hand, poetry without metaphor ain’t all that. It is worth at least linking Poe’s Sonnet to Science, which kind of set the mold of science as imagination-killing dreariness.  But the thing that he never realized, is that the universe is stranger and more bizarre than our imaginations.  So it is worth at least trying to convey the breadth and depth of a natural world which is stranger and more wonderful than anything we can possibly imagine without studying it, and then let our feeble human brains decorate those secrets which our scientific labour finally pries from the Earth. Furthermore, most poetry these days doesn’t really aim for accessibility or exposition.  So for 7, I maxxed the metaphor and theme, and didn’t even try to explain.

Overall, it was a fun exercise, and the overwhelming density of explanatory prose evident in the 3QD metrics makes me glad I tried, even if it was too obtuse and catless to interest much of the internet.


Remotely Mars said...

Applause! I love it. What a lovely way to engage with articles. It makes me want assign students to do this. They would HATE it so much, but perhaps learn something.

Chuck Magee said...

Alternatively, the next manuscript I get to review...

Chris Phoenix said...

With science, we can study nature's ways;
Technology contributes divers tools.
A plethora of scientists, of days
Are spent to be, collectively, less fools.
We learn the sequalae of pollution,
Historical, though possibly germane.
Extinctions are impressive; the solution
Evades our grasp, yet still our hopes remain.

By studying the past, we hope to learn
Some lessons that, applied to present time
May help us incrementally discern
Wise choices to avoid both fire and rime.
Humanity is powerful, yet stumbling;
With science, we may yet survive our bumbling.