The Science of Haiku

by Sandra Simpson & Sophia Frentz

Much of the art in haiku is in the simplification of a complex set of ideas, emotions and observations to a single moment. The nature of haiku, which might be compared to a droplet of water, seems intrinsically incompatible with something so vast and yet specific – and incomprehensible to many – as science.

Science, or rather the sciences, can often seem esoteric and unreachable, something dreamed of by professors in ivory towers with little grounding in the “real world”, especially the parts we draw on to create haiku. The great sums of knowledge of human history, from astronomy to geology to psychology to zoology, seem insurmountable. Simply thinking of how many words are needed to convey a scientific principle increases the feeling that turning science into anything resembling a haiku, let alone a haiku that remains poetry, may be impossible.

But one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century was shorter than most haiku:

                                                                        e = mc2

So one of the more important theories of physics is something haiku-like, although it may still be incomprehensible to anyone that doesn’t understand that E, m, and c stand for energy, mass, and the speed of light respectively. But once the seed is planted that perhaps haiku could effectively communicate science, only a few anthologies later that seed has grown into a sapling of certainty that there are science haiku, and they are effective haiku. That some writers are attempting to bring together scientific concepts and poetry in haiku, the world’s shortest poetry form, is to be applauded. But how successful are these efforts? And do they have a future in haiku?

Let us look at some examples and discuss both the science and the poetry of these pieces which have been accepted as haiku and published in haiku journals.

Geology by Sandra Simpson

glacier viewing …
through all these layers
the wind

– Margaret Beverland

When searching for science-theme haiku, I had an a-ha moment when I found this one and it wasn’t until several months later, when I came close to visiting a glacier myself that I twigged that L2 & 3 could equally apply to layers of clothing. I haven’t discussed with the poet whether she intended one reading over the other.

The Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers in the South Island of New Zealand are unique in descending from the Southern Alps to less than 300m (980 ft) above sea level, amid a temperate rainforest. Fox has been advancing at the rate of about a metre a week for the past 20 years.

Glaciers are the largest moving objects on land – rivers of ice that grind down mountains to a terminal ‘face’, either on land or where land becomes sea. And all the time a glacier is shaping the Earth’s surface, the wind is shaping the glacier and adding to the makeup of the ice – dust, pollen, etc.

Glacier ice is made up of compressed snow which has fallen over thousands of years. The stripes and different coloured layers in the ice (more apparent in icebergs) represent different periods of snowfall. The layers can also reveal something of the weather conditions when the snow fell and even what the natural world around it may have been like, thanks to deposits of pollens and seeds.

Margaret’s haiku is about the constants of our planet, and some of the elemental forces that shape it – water, earth and air. The planet’s history is much longer than our habitation of it and glacier viewing is one of those chances to remind ourselves just how unimportant we really are.

these stones
with a story inside –
autumn deepens

– Fay Aoyagi

Genetics by Sophia Frentz

my haplogroup
shows the sponge gene –
distant lightning

– Robert Mainone

A haplogroup is a collection of genetic variation that is passed down together – a chunk of inheritance which we can use to determine how closely two people are related, or two insects, or even a human and a sponge.

Generally there is a lot of very complicated mathematics behind trees of relatedness, but the concept is pretty basic – the closer two species are on the tree, the closer they are related. These type of trees bear a remarkable similarity to branching lightning, but this haiku doesn’t stop there.

One of the theories for how life began rests almost entirely on regular lightning strikes to give chemicals the oomph required to start everything off – which means the haplogroup that has the sponge gene might be entirely due to the effect of this distant lightning.

autumn woods
my son and I
not just DNA

– Patricia Klein

The more I learn about DNA, the more I realise we really do not know. Genes are like the first draft of a book whereas the final organism is the published novel. You can identify the species that a genome belongs to, but know very little else about the finished being. That kind of uncertainty is captivating, because it both leaves us something to investigate, and shows that we don’t know everything – yet!

Meteorology by Sandra Simpson

weather forecast
searching the sky
for an isobar

– Jeanette Stace

When I started as a cadet reporter one of the first jobs I was given was to draw the weather map that appeared in the newspaper. The MetService sent by telex (who remembers telex?) a series of co-ordinates to be plotted on a supplied grid map to reveal the highs, lows, fronts and isobars. Having no idea what an isobar was didn’t hold me back.

The more senior reporters were visibly pleased to hand over this job – one of them had got so bored with it that she had started adding little doodles to the maps, a child’s rendition of the sun or a spouting whale and was delighted no one seemed to have noticed.

Perhaps because we’re an island nation or perhaps because we’re still mainly an agrarian economy, New Zealanders are obsessed by the weather. Small talk will always include a comment on the weather and ask someone what the long-range forecast is for their area and they often know.

While I’ve been watching television, weather forecasts have become more sophisticated – from metal pointers to laser pointers, from stick-on weather symbols to live pictures from the weather radar. This haiku pitches science against haiku’s observation and comes up with a gentle humour, made even funnier if the reader is aware that the poet lived in Wellington, a city renowned for its regular, gale-force winds. A still day in Wellington is something to be treasured.

An isobar is a measure of air pressure. If they are a long way apart the air from the high-pressure isobar will take a long time to reach the next pressure bar and so will have slowed down, ie, less wind. If they are close together, the air speed will remain high, ie, windy conditions.

What a television, internet or newspaper weather map shows us is the science, science that is supposedly interpreted (or dumbed down) by a presenter for the masses. And while we can see most of the weather for ourselves – sun, rain, thunder, etc – the one thing we can’t see by looking is an isobar.

Jeanette’s haiku always makes me smile.

snow falling
all the directions
of the wind

– Jim Kacian

Mathematics by Sophia Frentz

divorce final
the double twist
of a Mobius strip

– Ed Higgins

A Mobius strip is a ring of paper with only one twist in it, causing it to have only one edge. A double twist separates the edges again, so the two edges never meet.

particles decaying at the speed of lilac

– Melissa Allen

The ability for two people or even two readings to bring out very different interpretations of a haiku is one of the wonderful things about haiku, and this is one that does it more obviously than most.

This poem has meaning even if you have no idea how particles decay – this is a haiku that rocks right into our senses – lilac is a very clear idea, decay is a very clear idea, the fact that particles decay doesn’t matter to someone’s interpretation of this poem.

Particle decay is the process of the tiny indivisible bits that make up everything that we will ever interact with turning into other elementary particles. Also the alliteration of light (the expected word? I expected it) and lilac is really nice.

dusk the temptation of zero as a denominator

– Melissa Allen

Fractions have two parts, the numerator at the top and denominator at the bottom. Zero as a numerator is fine, zero split into any number of parts is still zero, but when you divide something by zero, mathematically you get infinity, because when you split something into no parts it is everything.

Maths can get very zen.

Evolutionary biology by Sandra Simpson

the day begins
descendants of dinosaurs
darting, singing

– George Swede

When I first read this haiku I got to the word “dinosaurs” and stopped. The word was like a big boulder rolled across the mouth of a cave blocking the light. My eyes couldn’t get past it; my mind couldn’t get past it. How could anyone sane write a haiku about dinosaurs? Haiku are poems of observation or direct experience ergo this must be a haiku by an idiot!

So I skipped the third line and moved to the next poem in that issue of The Heron’s Nest, but then … I saw what Michael Dylan Welch calls “the fourth line”, the poet’s name. Hey, that’s George Swede, he’s a good writer.

So I went back and tried again and what do you know? I got it. Yes, you do have to think about it a bit, but that’s not bad thing in a haiku, and it succinctly illustrates the family tree that gives us dinosaurs at one end and birds at the other. In evolutionary terms, dinosaurs are near cousins of birds – when you next enjoy a roast chicken thrill your table fellows with the information that you’re dining on dinosaur.

Self-taught 19th century scientist Thomas Huxley, who fervently believed in Darwin’s work, figured it out, supposedly while eating quail. He had the lower leg bone (tibia) of a meat-eating dinosaur in his lab but across the bottom was an unidentified extra bone. He happened to suck the flesh off the bottom of the quail leg and there, across the bottom of the quail tibia, was the same bone, which he realised was the anklebone (astragalus).

Archaeopteryx (“ancient wing”) is pointed to as the first bird. A fossil found in Germany shows a 145 million-year-old, crow-sized skeleton covered in feathers – the feathers are clearly preserved. But the skeleton has features such as a long bony tail, teeth instead of a beak and claws on the wings. The discovery of Archaeopteryx was a missing link moment but threw up its own dilemma. The closest dinosaur relatives to birds occur in the fossil record after Archaeopteryx. So how can dinosaurs be the ancestors of a bird that lived 60 million years before them? Some recent finds suggest that bird-like dinosaurs did exist earlier than previously thought, but the fossils are inconclusive – it’s possible that pre-Archaeopteryx dino-birds were simply not preserved or fossils haven’t yet been found.

Velociraptors are thought to be about as close as a dinosaur gets to being a bird without actually being one – yes, Jurassic Park got it wrong, they should have had feathers and been smaller. In September 2007, researchers found quill knobs on the forearm of a Velociraptor found in Mongolia, bumps where feathers anchor on birds. Mark Norell, curator-in-charge of fossil reptiles, amphibians and birds at the American Museum of Natural History, said:

“The more we learn about these animals the more we find there is basically no difference between birds and their closely related dinosaur ancestors like Velociraptor. Both have wishbones, brooded their nests, possess hollow bones, and were covered in feathers. If animals like Velociraptor were alive today our first impression would be that they were just very unusual looking birds.”

By the way, the first known beak adorned a Chinese bird 130 million years ago, along with the oldest pygostyle (the ‘parson’s-nose’, all that remains of the reptilian tail) – and the most delicious part of a roast chicken!

And hasn’t George done a fabulous job with “darting, singing”? Just the right words to move us from dinosaurs to the present moment without saying the word “bird”.

the chimpanzee’s hands …
I walk away with mine
deep in my pockets

– Maurice Tasnier

Neurology by Sophia Frentz

The ideas of the universe and infinity are nearly synonymous in our minds, and at dusk I find the sense of the boundlessness of our universe to be much more present as the stars start to appear above us. Terry Pratchett describes the colour of infinity as being light blue, and I always imagined that as being the slightly fuzzy light blue you get while the sun sets.

Orion’s belt
a few neurons
hold me together

– Barrow Wheary

Orion’s belt is the constellation that everyone can recognise in the sky – and Orion as a constellation can be seen from pretty much anywhere in the world, depending on the time of year. The bright stars are actually quite reminiscent of the cell bodies of neurons.

Neurons have bright, fat cell bodies – the major parts of cells – and incredibly long, thin tendrils that link them to where in our body they go. Our muscle control is mostly done by pairs of neurons – one neuron that stretches down the spine, and the second that stretches from the spine to the muscle. They are so thin and fragile as to be nearly invisible, unless you know what you’re looking for.

The corpus callosum is what allows our mind to function as one, connecting left and right hemispheres, and it is not very wide at all – although people who have had surgery to break the corpus callosum, often due to severe epilepsy, still function fine, the idea surrounding the corpus callosum is that it holds us together. To a large extent that is true, as a partially functioning corpus callosum can lead to all sorts of bizarre mental symptoms, including decreased pain sensation and poor co-ordination.

autumn wind
surplus serotonin
enters the sea

– Johannes S H Bjerg

Serotonin is a chemical that makes you feel good, it just kind of chills out around your neurons (“the sea”). A brisk autumn wind can lift your mood, but it only does that with a release of serotonin, not dissimilar to a clutch of leaves lifted from a tree

I see a minor issue with this haiku being that if you don’t know what serotonin is it’s not a haiku that can easily be “got”, but for anyone who does know, it’s a pleasure.


Editor’s note: This article is based on a paper presented by the authors at Haiku North America in August 2013. It appears here with their permission.

Sandra Simpson is editor of Haiku NewZ, secretary of the Katikati Haiku Pathway and an award-winning haiku poet. In 2011 she published her first collection, breath, and in 2012 co-organised the Haiku Festival Aotearoa in Tauranga.

Sophia Frentz in 2013 graduated from Otago University with a BSC (first-class Honours), majoring in genetics. In 2013 she was also lead blogger for the SciCO (science community of Otago) website and represented the university at the international Australs debating competition in Malaysia. In 2009 she represented New Zealand at the International Biology Olympiad where she won a bronze medal. She has also won several awards for her haiku.