Week 16: Geetha & Ben
The canaries project Ben and I described last week is ongoing. You’ll see the results of that at a later point (in the SciArt Magazine). But since this is my final blog post, I want to take the time to reflect on the SciArt experience at large. If you’ve been following along with these weekly, slightly strange posts, thank you for reading! I’m not sure if there’s a through-line narrative in my posts, but what I hope is evident is that the way writers like me tend to work is sort of like being inside a pin-ball machine. We get very excited by dozens of things every day, and the more specific and obscure those things are, the better. Every discovery of a new fact raises a dozen or more questions, and pursuing those questions raise dozens more. It’s an explosive playground of possible stories, possible poems, possible fodder for larger narratives.
What I’ve found particularly valuable about the SciArt experience is to work with someone whose perspective on inquiry, exploration, and production differs so much from mine. Ben has approached our discussions and writing experiments with a level of rigor and precision that counters my rambling what-if mode of operation. It’s grounded our final collaborative project onto something incredibly specific: let’s look at these five seminal papers by one specific author (Fernando Nottebohm) about how song production operates in canaries, and use those limitations to create writing. Pinning down the canvas in such away creates a puzzle: how do you stretch and create something interesting/beautiful/expressive/informative etc. out of a limited set of tools? I’ve always been of the opinion that art-making and scientific research are both forms of problem-solving. The methodologies may be different, but ultimately, we’re trying to say something precise about the world we inhabit so that we add to a collective body of knowledge. I’m looking forward to sharing the fruits of this process in the near future.
Thanks for reading along!
It’s been a treat collaborating with Geetha in this virtual residency. Although we were separated by half of North America and a significant gulf across our disciplines, we shared the same passion for biology and excitement for the fusion of art and science. The folks at SciArt Initiative did a wonderful job curating the cohort of residents and pairing them with like-minded collaborators! Although this is the end of our residency, Geetha and I plan to spend a few extra weeks finishing our project on the canary prose poem algorithm. I am especially excited to describe the rationale for the algorithm and how it evolved over the course of our collaboration.
We had originally begun our residency with the hopes of leveraging lessons from comparative cognitive psychology and neuroethology to write something, possibly fiction or poems, about (or from) the perspective of another species. However, we were faced by many daunting uncertainties, many of which have been described in the philosophy of mind literature, for example Thomas Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat?” which I referenced (with a link to the PDF) in an earlier blog post. Our solution was to focus not on “understanding” but on mimicry. In other words, to create a model that reproduces some aspects of the neural and behavioral processes of songbirds and to use this model to generate poetry. I think this choice may reflect an underlying feature (and limitation) of both science and art, which is that they both can be viewed as successful when they are able to reproduce a component of the world: make a prediction, generate an emotion or allow the observer to inhabit imaginary terrain.
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