When I interview ecologists, there are two themes I always end up gravitating towards; how the earth is changing and how to improve scientific communication with the general public. So when my colleague Stephanie Januchowski-Hartley mentioned she’d recently spoken to a global change ecologist who also happened to be a poet, I jumped at the opportunity.
Professor Madhur Anand is the co-author of Climate Change Biology and the author of A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes, a collection of poems which bridge the gap between poetry and science. Along her way to picking up two Canada Research Chairs and the ICCC Female Professional of the Year award, she has worked with theoretical physicists, poets and mathematicians. I spoke to Madhur about interdisciplinarity, using poetry to connect with the general public, and the future of the planet.
Sam Perrin (SP): You’ve been working since the 90s as a global change ecologist. But what is global change ecology?
Madhur Anand (MA): I’ve only started calling it that recently. I’m not sure that was a term way back when. To me it’s any area of research where you’re looking at responses of ecological systems to changes or impacts that go beyond a local or regional scale. And so these could be similar impacts of local phenomena occurring across the globe, or it could be global phenomena.
For example, climate change is obviously something that happens at a global scale but manifests at the local scale. Invasive species is another example whereby we need to think of it in a global context. Land use changes as well. Yes, you can look at these at a local or regional level, but if you really want to investigate underlying causes and impacts, you have to look at things from a global context.
SP: Since 1994, what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in ecology?
MA: One change that I’ve seen and that has affected my own work has been interdisciplinary research, which I think is now on the rise. When I entered grad school in 1993, I was part of the first cohort of the new graduate program of environmental science, which was an interdisciplinary program. It was new in 1997. Now there are tonnes of these programs, and they’re all interdisciplinary. That extends not only to other scientific disciplines but also to incorporating social science. The natural and social sciences coming together is also a huge change that I’ve seen. I think that has really changed the way we do research.
“…a lot of novelty comes from bringing disciplines together. It’s another mode of scientific discovery.”
SP: You’ve worked with mathematicians, statisticians, computer scientists, theoretical physicists, and poets. Many scientists still find interdisciplinarity quite challenging; it can be difficult to find common ground or common language. What words of advice would you give?
MA: I think there’s a place for interdisciplinarity in scientific research, but if someone doesn’t feel the need to do it and is still successful in what they’re doing, I don’t see any problems with that. You can either just go really deeply into one field or you can go across making connections and interfaces between different fields, and I think those are two equally valid modes. My path has been quite interdisciplinary, but I’ve found that there’s a lot of things that you can learn and benefit from by looking across disciplines. I think that a lot of novelty comes from bringing disciplines together. It’s another mode of scientific discovery.
I’ve done one interdisciplinary collaboration which is published in the journal Ecological Entomology. I was speaking to my colleague in a biology department. I’m an ecologist, he was a taxonomist, focused on measuring morphological aspects of these water beetles and establishing their phylogeny. I asked him, what are some of the things you can do with those specimens, how are all of these functional measurements related to their ecology? We started talking about it and we came up with this research project where we took all the museum specimens of this water beetle and took morphological measurements of them and then took the geographic locations and the time and date they were collected. We got climate data for those localities, and we could start to ask some ecological questions about climate change and rapid evolution.
Another example: I have been inspired a lot from the work of theoretical physicists from early graduate years. When I was an assistant professor, one of the greatest pleasures was starting new research projects. One day I just went and met with a professor in the Physics department and started to explain how we modelled plants interacting on a cellular automata. He started to talk about particles, very elegantly. He seemed to have an intuition about Nature that, when probed, really fit with observations and theories ecologists were putting forward to explain patterns. From that was born a few research papers on self-organization in forests.”
“Observation, careful observation, is important in science and in poetry. Measurement is very important in science, and in poetry, you have meter.”
SP: Do you see a symmetry between the writing of a scientific paper and the construction of a poem?
AM: Symmetry, yes, but not a perfect symmetry. There are certainly elements that I’ll use. Logic is important in my poems, it sounds weird but it’s important for them to be internally consistent. Observation, careful observation, is important in science and in poetry. Measurement is very important in science, and in poetry, you have meter. There are forms that you have to kind of measure out. A lot of the poems in my book have precisely 13 syllable lines. That’s a self-imposed measurement that I put in. I think that helps me. It comes a bit from my scientific training. But there’s all kinds of classical forms of poetry that have very precise measurements, like the haiku or the sestina.
SP: Leslie Sanders wrote that you had bridged the gap between poetry and science really well. Were you aware you were doing that when you were writing?
AM: I think the gap I was attempting to bridge was in my own mind. I wanted to write poetry that was true to who I am and to my experience. So the gap to bridge was between the scientific knowledge that I had attained, and even the scientific processes that I have come to associate with my way of being. And then because that divide between science and poetry is not just in me, but in society at large, I would consequently be bridging it for others and for society. But I wasn’t doing that part consciously. It was mostly just coming from within. So it was a corollary.
SP: Poetry can be quite an emotive language. I’ve spoken to a few people recently who feel that emotion needs to become part of how we communicate science to the public. We’ve done a good job in some areas, but despite the fact that 97% of scientists believe in climate change, that message doesn’t seem to have reached the public. So one side of the argument was that if we’re more emotive with the public, we’ll succeed in getting across to them. The other viewpoint has been we just need cold, hard facts, and they’ll be smart enough to make decisions on their own. Do you have a viewpoint here?
MA: So science and science communication are obviously different. We can’t change the scientific method or process, I think those are things that must be adhered to. Now how we present them to each other is one thing. We generally present science to each other in the form of scientific papers, and that’s a very esoteric form in a sense. Nobody reads those papers but scientists. And I think that’s where a lot of misunderstanding comes about.
I’m not suggesting that everybody should be able to read scientific papers, but I think there should be a lot more interaction than there currently is. That could mean that scientists change slightly their approach to writing scientific papers so that maybe they’re a little bit more accessible, but still representing everything truthfully and consistently. But I think even allowing people more access to what scientists do could be quite revealing.
There was a Canadian poet and critic, Adam Sol, who wrote an entire essay on one of my poems, and in the process of doing it read the original scientific article. And I’m not sure whether or not he’d ever read an original scientific article before. He made these comments about how surprised he was at the language that we use in science, how the cautious it is, the descriptions of all the caveats, the unknowns. He discovered that science is NOT presented as cold hard facts in these articles. I think that’s something the public doesn’t appreciate and doesn’t know, and I think if there was more interaction between us and the public involving things like the scientific process and how we run our experiments, there would be a greater appreciation for what science is, and maybe a better appreciation of what certainty and uncertainty is in science. Which I think is a big part of the perception of science.
“…it’s important for people (including scientists) to know that science is not a religion, neither are we this elite group of people who are doing things no-one else can.”
SP: An issue I think we’re having is that politicians don’t mind talking in certainties, whereas we’re unwilling to do the same.
AM: I can see that, but I think we’ve tried that approach as well, and it doesn’t work. I think the criticism of science as not being precise stems from a perception of science as a religion or a dogma in and of itself, when it’s not. I think it’s important for people (including scientists) to know that science is not a religion, neither are we this elite group of people who are doing things no-one else can.
I think in general more firsthand interaction with science is important, so that you’re not always getting it through TV or social media. I think that filter is often bad for the perception of science, and truth for that matter. As scientists, we always want to go to the source of the information, we don’t want to rely on hearsay or getting things second hand. And I think that giving people more control over where they’re getting their information and how they’re getting it helps. The problem is, it’s currently a little bit impenetrable because of the way that scientific papers are written, but that’s not as bad as people think. When this poet read the scientific article, he didn’t get all of it, but he got some of it, and I think that’s already a huge improvement.
It’s amazing, in communicating with the public, how happy people are when I reduce things to the simplest possible terms of description, and take out all the important scientific details, and tell them really broadstroke stuff. And that’s why I think all these science shows are really popular. But when you dive into the really intricate stuff, you lose them. We need to either show them how it affects them or give them something identifiable they can latch on to. The problem is that sometimes the process of science is lost in translation. And the process is often very important to interpretation information, and for public understanding of science.
SP: Things like poetry, humour in science, different ways of getting our message across, they’re things that aren’t always embraced by the scientific community. It would be great if everyone started getting into this sort of communication, but then you might get a lot of sub-standard scientific content. Do you think, from an earlier age, we need to be showing scientists the value of proper scientific communication, giving them avenues to explore new methods?
AM: Either that or simply encouraging a broader education. So that they do continue to read fiction or poetry, and they do take courses in history, and they have some broader context in society, so that when they come out as scientists, they’ll have some other skills, whether in writing, communication or just knowledge of history. All of those things can help you be a better science communicator. Writing is a great skill to have no matter what you’re in, but if you’re trying to connect with different people, different cultures, then any sort of additional knowledge you have around those areas is going to help.
SP: I have a question for you as a global change ecologist, but I want to phrase it for your poetry side. Is there hope for the world at this stage?
AM: That we can survive as a species? I think we have a few more years left. Seriously though, I don’t know. Maybe humans will colonize outer space. We’ve often heard it said that the planet will go on with or without Homo sapiens, Earth is just fine without humans and will continue to exist in some form. But humans, I don’t know. I think that we have quite a remarkable ability to adapt as a species. So I think that humans will continue to persist for quite a while. I think the question is, what is that world going to look like? I think that is a scarier proposition, I think it’s going to require some pretty big changes in what it even means to be a member of our species. Of what it means to be human.
Globally right now, it’s not a pretty picture. It’s pretty for some, but not for the vast majority. It’s hard to imagine it any worse than it currently is, with so much of the concentration of wealth is with such a small population of our species. And so many others are living under very dire circumstances. So my hope is that there’s a future where some of those inequities get equalised a bit more, but I don’t see that as being the trajectory of humans in the past.
A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes is available through Penguin Random House and Amazon.com.
You can find other interviews with prominent ecologists on Nature According to Sam.