This week’s blog post is pretty short, since the “experimental songbird poem” project is ongoing. Ben’s rules for the poem structure have been fun to work with, but have also resulted in a rather strange-sounding text that feels to me a little like nonsense rhyme and a little like a robotic parrot. I’m nearly at a point with my end of the writing process to have Ben interject, and I think it might be interesting to eventually provide an annotated document of how the text (and its meaning) changed over each iteration.
One of the features of Ben’s rules is that I can switch out words or break them up or fuse them together. I’ve found that in all of these instances, I’ve resorted so far to words that echo the sound of the word that was replaced (think “home” to “stone” or “tread” to “thread”). I’ve also noticed that up to now I’ve been trying to maintain some kind of meaning as I’ve tinkered with the lines I first wrote. It will be interesting to see how much more nonsense the text becomes once Ben starts throwing no-context words into the mix.
In the meantime, I asked Ben to clarify some aspects of how juvenile songbirds learn from their fathers, and whether they are influenced by the singing of their clutch-mates. Ben’s explanation of the process intrigues me because it suggests that while mimicry is the end goal, other factors can influence the final song: clutch-mates, for example, or being raised by a father of a different species (and thus different type of song). Something I might want to try out next is to work with a pre-existing text that one of us will “sing” and the other will have to “copy”—if the end goal is for the copier to recreate the original text, how much information can the “singer” give for the copier to be able to recreate it (with iterative trial and error)? I’m imagining a game of 20 questions, but for whole sentences rather than words.
Geetha asked me recently about my experience as a consumer of science communication, be it art or journalism or fiction. She asked if I ever get “peeved” when the author writes something inaccurate or misleading about a research topic I am familiar with. It’s a great question. If I must be completely honest, the answer is, well, yes, a little bit, sometimes. However, on the whole I have great respect and enthusiasm for science communication, and I don’t think that minor annoyances reflect a systemic problem. If anything, I think there should be more science communication! A main reason I was motivated to participate in this exciting collaboration through the SciArt initiative was to join in the conversation between artists, writers, poets and scientists.
What’s more, I don’t think that getting peeved by art or literature is a bad thing. Disagreement over the interpretation of a study or piece of data is at the heart of the scientific process, and many people do their best work in response to a claim that struck them as odd or inaccurate. If we were to rewrite mythology, we could add a new muse, Annoyance, to be the patron of creativity. I have sometimes felt her inspiration. I remember reading a book a few years ago called Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux. This book is in the literary science fiction genre, not my typical interest, but it was recommended by my partner who worked at the book’s publisher. The plot centers around a mysterious and experimental soviet-era neurotechnology. I enjoyed the writing and read it straight through, until, upon learning about the details of the technology, I threw the book across the room in disgust. There were some serious problems with the authors’ representation of memory. However, the scientific problem poised in the novel was an interesting one – I can’t say more without spoiling the plot – and it inspired me to think about my own research from a new perspective.
Of course, I appreciate authors who write with great insight about neuroscience themes. Jorge Luis Borges is an example of someone who writes very well about memory, and the short story Shakespeare’s Memory is particularly good. In a style that is more magical realism than sci-fi, it tells the story of an academic scholar who comes into possession of a strange gift. The result is a deeply satisfying exploration at the interface of philosophy, psychology and neuroscience.