Greg Lynall interviews Penelope Boston, Director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, about her poetry and its connection to science

GL: Could you give a brief description of what your professional role involves, and what your professional background is?
PB: I am an astrobiologist and geomicrobiologist, which means that I work on microorganisms that live in extreme natural environments, particularly rocky habitats like rock surfaces and fractures, and especially in Earth’s subsurface that we can access through caves or mines. I apply these results and ideas to the search for life on other planets. My background includes training in biology, geology, atmospheric chemistry, and more. I was a professor for 15 years at New Mexico Institute of Mining & Technology, including a stint as Chair of my department. Simultaneously, I was also the Associate Director of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute. About a year and a half ago, I accepted the Director position at the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

GL: What are the challenges of writing poetry about science? For instance, how do you expect your readers to respond your scientific vocabulary?
PB: Some poems I write for the amusement of people who are scientifically literate, a lot of them are overt or covert jokes for insiders. In those intended for a wider readership, I simply tuck some concepts and words in that I hope will be interesting enough to people who are not scientists, perhaps even spur them on to look those up! But I try to use them in a context that is interpretable without special knowledge. I am interested in poetry for many reasons but particularly I think it helps make things accessible immediately that are much harder to grasp with a lengthy and detailed prose explanation. Even if the poem doesn’t “teach” the scientific concept, I think it at least makes it more conversational, less mysterious, and with familiarity comes greater comfort with using scientific language and ideas in daily life. I’d like to see science become more of a normal conversational topic within the general population, rather than just an enshrined body of special knowledge practiced by a priesthood.

GL: What connections do you see between poetry and biology or other sciences? Is an emphasis on observation one such similarity?
PB: Observational acuity is critical to both, definitely. And the ability to synthesize disparate ideas together to create new knowledge is also very important to science and juxtaposition of ideas also enriches poetry. And both science and poetry benefit from clarity and spareness. I think that Occam’s Razor could often be applied to poetry profitably as well!
GL: Do you think writing poetry has changed the way you think about science? Has it offered an alternative perspective to the one that science offers?
PB: I find that there is a lot of emotional content in the beauty of science, in the frustrations of science, in the stress of being a practitioner of science while balancing all the other demands of work and family. We don’t express that in our approaches to science, at least not consciously. However, it remains part of the mix. Writing poetry provides the opportunity to distill that emotional content and essential elements from science, and bring them together in a way that I believe to be unique.

GL: Is there a role for the imagination in your work as a biologist? If so, how does this relate to your poetry?
PB: I was led into scientist by my highly active imagination. The rigour of science actually reined that in, and hopefully has allowed me to creatively channel it into the science.

GL: Why poetry, and not prose?
PB: Poetry expresses things in a way distinctively different from prose, involving abstract thoughts, emotions, amusements, bemusements, petulances and more.  In my mind, words have a sort of “mind-colour” that isn’t like real visual colours, but I sense it as colour. So the poetry comes together in my mind like graphic arts do. I approach the poetry for its juxtaposition of ideas that would be difficult to express in prose, implicit relationship of ideas are easier to express convincingly at least to myself. And of course, I write a ton of prose for work and that has negatively coloured my interest in it as an expressive medium. I have written exactly one short story that I have never read aloud nor shown to anyone. I think I’m fairly terrible at believable dialogue and that makes fictional narrative rather unsatisfactory.

GL: Do you have particular poetic influences? Are there are science writers you particularly admire?  
PB: I have been influenced by many poets and lyricists. Poets are many but I love Derek Walcott, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Ferlinghetti, Sylvia Plath, and so many more. The translations into English of Rumi, Federico Garcia Lorca, Rabindranath Tagore, etc. Amongst the latter (the lyricists) are Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, John Darnielle (the Mountain Goats), the Indigo Girls… I could go on and on here also… As for science writers, I grew up reading Isaac Asimov and George Gamow, and found the wonderful On Growth and Form by D’Arcy Thompson at a very early age. And then there is Lewis Thomas’ The Lives of the Cell. As an adult I have been captured by E.O. Wilson’s writing, Stephen Gould, Jane Goodall, Oliver Sacks, Frans de Waal, James Burke and more. A recent favourite book is Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin. Of course, there are many poets who are publishing and posting things online and I enjoy much of that work although these folks are not famous (yet!)

GL: Do you see your poetry as an ‘escape’ from your professional work, or as complementary?
PB: Both! I never lose my fundamentally scientific framework for understanding the universe, from the grand themes, to how I deal with daily life. But poetry provides a way for me to experience the pleasure of science, the natural world, in a more direct and less cerebral way than the conduct of science itself allows.  

GL: I get the impression that you write every day – is that correct? Do you write at a particular time, or when the inspiration takes you?
PB: I often jot down fragments that occur to me on a several times a week basis. Sometimes when I’m on a roll I will write a bunch of poems in a row within the space of a few hours. Of course, I edit them later, sometimes editing a number of times. Even over the course of years when I don’t like a particular piece for some reason. I’ll eventually come up with a solution. As for when I write, it’s when the inspiration appears. It is typically related to when I have enough mental peace to think about things other than work deadlines, logistics, and difficulties. Inspiration is often triggered by travel, or field expeditions, or other particular events. I scribble on scraps of paper, airline napkins and barf bags, sometimes write lines on my arm with a marker if I don’t have paper or a computer nearby. Lots of bits show up in the message app on my cell phone.

GL: How do you normally disseminate your poetry?
PB: Occasionally something will see print in some local or online venue. I don’t bother much because I have to actually publish science stuff and reports and whatnot and that is annoying enough! The poetry is mostly on show at readings. My fellow poets in our little writing group usually have a reading at least during April which is National Poetry Month here in the US. Recently I read to other poets at the National Speleological Society meeting. I sometimes go to poetry slams. I send them to friends and loved ones. I exchange poems with several other poets, for example, one is an anthropologist, one a psychiatrist, etc.  I love having other perspectives.
GL: There’s a great line in your poem ‘First Geese with Tea’: ‘We need you, little worms, you run the planet’. Does biology give your poetry a different sense of scale?
PB: I’m obsessed with the concepts of scale and time. I have been since a very young child. I remember being in Paris with my mother when I was about 3 and looking up at her, and beyond her at a tall building, and the realization of scale flashed into my mind at that moment, and has never left. I marvel at extremes of scale and puzzle over them, and try to grasp them anyway that I can. The grand scale of a planetary biosphere like the one we inhabit is a magnificent thing, unfathomably complex, having to be reduced to metaphor and mathematical concepts to help us have some insight into these vast scales. So it is not so much biology that gives my poetry scale, but my fascination with spatial and temporal scale that has led me to science and poetry. Today it is October 10th, which is Powers of Ten Day.  When I was teaching, I celebrated this with classes by having a “lab” where we baked 4 orders of magnitude of cookies by area, hahaha.  A very popular lab, indeed!

GL: To follow up on that, some of your poems (‘Masque’, for instance) seem to be about you thinking through/ dealing with the scale of the cosmos and how it relates to the self – is that an accurate description?
PB: Absolutely correct.  I am struggling to come to terms with some glimmer of true understanding of our planet, our Solar System, our galaxy, and the universe, and the mind warping extent of Deep Time. I can only wrap my mind around these immense phenomena by analogy and by mathematics, but both are unsatisfactory in some ways because they are proxies for what we cannot truly experience directly. Poetry helps my mind curl around these concepts more intimately than prose or mathematics, but possibly for me only because I also have the knowledge that has been imparted to me through prose and mathematics. The poetry allows me to play with the concepts and turn them over time and time again. And relate them to common small experience that I have as a human being. I am haunted by our ephemerality and the impossibility of pitting our understanding against the immense complexity of nature.

GL: There is a strong attention to the senses in your poetry. Are you attracted to writing about ‘sensation’ because it cannot be captured in your science?
PB: Senses and their relationship to consciousness is a compelling theme to me. I wonder continuously about the consciousness of other creatures and try to imagine myself being them and understanding the world in a very different way. I long to have more senses than I possess naturally, I wish I could detect the magnetic field of Earth, see in the ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths, feel gravity waves, and other inputs even more exotic that I cannot even imagine as yet. I wish that I could be an octopus for a time so I could feel how it is to taste/smell/feel the world with 8 separate exquisitely sensitive flexible appendages feeding input simultaneously into the same nervous system. I have a type of synaesthesia where words, both written and spoken and most people, have mind-colours to me that don’t map well onto normal colours. For a very long time, I didn’t realize that other people typically don’t experience this. So I have thought that perhaps my own personal sensory leakiness has led me to focus on sensation frequently.

GL: Personification seems very important to you as a poetic technique. I find this especially interesting given that your professional career is about finding life – do you want to comment on this connection?
PB: To me, all things are beings in some sense. Even though all phenomena are not life, per se, since life is at my core both as a living being myself, and the subject of my work I qualify as someone very much in the thrall of biophilia as described by E.O. Wilson. Simply, I adore living things. And find the state of being alive to be endlessly fascinating and beautiful. I am the sort of person who views all inanimate objects as some sort of being. I find it difficult to step away from that perception.

GL: Many of your poems are accompanied by images, many of them your own photographs. How do you see the relationship between text and image?
PB: I’m a very visual thinker both about my science and my poetry, and in daily life, and with other art forms that I practice. So, I vividly see in my mind what I am trying to convey and the images express other dimensions of those topics that I write about. Sometimes I start with an image, sometimes, I start with the words. Since after I sent you the link to the poetry, I’ve been experimenting with trying to do art on my computer since I’m on the road so much and not at home where I can potter around in my studio. I am making progress!

GL: In one of your poems you say you ‘remain unconvinced / By the attempted corporatization of creativity’. What does ‘creativity’ mean to you, within poetic and scientific contexts? And do you think being a scientist and poet makes you look at creativity in a unique way?
PB: At the risk of seeming ostentatious, I can’t imagine not being creative about everything. My challenge has always been to filter my overabundance of ideas to assess them for value and usefulness. The creative inception is the easy part for me. The discipline to manifest creative ideas in some mature and completed way, either scientifically or poetically, can be and often is immensely difficult.

For an insight into Professor Boston’s scientific work, several lectures are available online, including a TED talk about the possibility of life on Mars and a lecture at the NASA Ames research centre

In early 2017 Dr. Boston released preliminary results on long-dormant microbes in the tiny fluid pockets within giant crystals in the Naica caves in Mexico: