09/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Doctoral Dissertations In Haiku

One of my old professors liked to say that a poem isn't any good unless you can explain it to a three-year-old. I never would have thought one could apply that same standard to a doctoral dissertation, but then I came across a brilliant little website called Dissertation Haiku.

The site is a collection of actual doctoral dissertations that have been distilled into a single haiku. These haiku are written and submitted by the graduate students themselves. What's the point? The anonymous site editor explains:

It takes a long time to get a Ph.D. Maybe five or six years, four if you're fast. Seven if you're me. At the end, you've written a big fat document which all of your committee members will read if you're lucky. How can you gain a wider audience for the major product of ten-or-so percent of your time on Earth? Why, rewrite it as a haiku, that's how. Everybody likes haiku!

The site's only submission requirements are that you write in "plain English"--here's looking at you, particle physicists--and that you stick to the haiku's traditional 5-7-5 syllable count (scanning the site, you'll occasionally come across a submitter who clearly isn't getting a Ph.D in counting).

Submissions vary from the straightforward,

Basil Bunting was
A Northumbrian poet
These are his poems

--Robert Blair, University of Hawaii

to the opaque,

Continuous waves:
LIGO tests Albert Einstein.

--David Chin, University of Michigan

to the, well, strange...

A girl runs quickly.
Light is a vampire, or friend,
or she is crazy.

--Romie Faienza, The London Film School

But the site's real genius (and real reward) is how it juxtaposes a poetic genre that necessitates clarity and brevity with the long-winded and esoteric world of the dissertation. It makes for some entertaining combinations. Take this example from Simon Bottomley at the University of Southampton:

Dissertation Title: Towards an understanding of how mobility impaired passengers use space and how this effects capacity. My dissertation examines how growing numbers of elderly and disabled passengers along with those with small children will effect the overall capacity of ticket gate lines and escalators within the London Underground network.

His haiku hits bluntly on the main point:

Can you hurry up?
I'm trying to get to work
Damn disabled

A haiku distillation can also bring out a sort of beauty. Kathy Coyne at the University of Delaware explained her research with mussels:

I sequenced the gene for one of the proteins used to make byssal threads by Mytilus edulis (the blue mussel) and showed a gradient of expression along the mussel foot. The threads encode a copolymer protein composed of elastin- and collagen-like sequences.

but her haiku gets to the heart of it:

Blue mussels tethered
Through strong stretchy tiny threads
Now your secret's told

It seems she's begun to feel attached to the little guys.

Finally, here's Andrew D. Steen's submission (from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) on seawater microbial communities. After all that research, this little poetry project seems to have given him some clarity.

I measured the rates at which dissolved polysaccharides are degraded by microbes in seawater. Differences in those rates among locations suggest that the reactivity of dissolved organic matter in seawater is determined by the nature of the microbial community as well as the chemical characteristics of organic matter. If seawater microbial communities in the Arctic Ocean begin to access a wider range of dissolved organic molecules as temperatures warm in the future, more organic matter may be converted to carbon dioxide in the Arctic Ocean.

Here's his conclusion (in haiku, of course):

Marine microbes eat
polysaccharides, except
that sometimes they don't.

Now that's something that even a three-year-old could understand...if a three-year-old were familiar with microbes and polysaccharides. Oh, you know what I mean.

Read more dissertation haiku and add your own!