Changing The Pope’s Itinerary »« Poetry In The History Of Science

To A Rat, On Looking Back On Her Career, In The Lab

Oh, little lab rat, in your prison,
What a sad day has arisen—
Yours, a life of serving science,
Not of resting,
You help us climb atop of giants
Through rodent testing

Tis your misfortune, some fine morning
To be dispatched without a warning
With hopes we’ll find, on close inspection
Some information
Perhaps enough so your dissection
Is our salvation

Some remedy for our diseases,
Grown from bread mold, or from cheeses:
In times of plague or killing fever
You played the villain;
It’s fitting now, you help deliver
Penicillin

Psychologists who study learning
Used your help in their discerning—
You led them through the many phases
Of their endeavors,
Teaching them, by running mazes
And pressing levers

And pictures made from careful staining,
Slicing, mounting, then explaining
Former secrets, now revealed
Through brain perfusion,
Dissecting what we know is real
From mere illusion

As we devised atomic powers—
Mushroom clouds that bloomed like flowers—
And looked at what we’d now created
With admiration
You showed us how you tolerated
The radiation

You’ve had a paw in our advances;
We blunder on, and take our chances
Faster than our contemplation,
So please forgive us;
Our lot is likely annihilation,
And you’ll outlive us.

The high plateaus we’re proud of reaching
Are ours because of your good teaching
Let’s hope these skills, which keep on growing
Through your instruction
Are for the best, not simply sowing
Our own destruction

Hat tip to NPR’s story on Joseph Priestley’s mouse, and of course to Robert Burns, who did all the heavy lifting.

Comments

  1. says

    I like it.One of the interesting things about reading verse is the glimpses it gives into the poet's accent. Unsurprisingly I naturally tend to read internally in my own (British) accent, so when I got to 'endeavour/lever' there was a brief moment when I thought "ouch, that's pretty forced – I'm surprised at the Cuttlefish". Then of course something clicked, the pair of faces became a vase, lee-ver became lev-ver, and somehow the whole poem took on a slightly different feeling…Not particularly deep perhaps, but it was an interesting moment.

  2. says

    Olaf–What an appropriate comment for a verse based on Robert Burns' Scots poems; I don't think there is a better example of the poet's voice than that! I must admit, I sometimes play around with this concept, and intentionally write in different accents (not this time–here, you have uncovered my American accent), I suppose as part of being a cuttlefish.

  3. says

    Oh, you have made my day! I did not want the connection to be *too* obvious–this is an "inspired by", not a "copied from", so there is very little, aside from the verse structure and the overall comparison of rodent's situation to mankind's.Glad you liked it!

  4. says

    Mmm. That really only works if you assume these things:1. Science is, or has been, advanced by animal testing, instead of animal testing being either neutral or detrimental.2. Mice and rats were the ones that have caused human disease, not humans.Number one is doubtful simply because of the physiological differences between humans and animals, and history itself – had animal insulin not been discovered and promoted, it wouldn't have killed so many diabetics (as animal insulin actually advances organ degeneration in humans); also with heart surgery. The first test subjects were dogs, but the death rate went up sharply as the surgeons began testing on humans – then dropped. If they had practiced on humans in the first place, they wouldn't have needed to learn.The second point is doubtful because of the anomalous nature of human societies in recent history (last 15,000-20,000 years is recent). The rodents weren't to blame: humans moved out of their native habitat (African rainforests), built houses and huts to keep them alive in a place they weren't (and aren't, really) adapted to, fostered bacteria and disease by farming animals and generally living in filth (the accumulation of which being assisted by aforementioned houses and huts), and then built GREAT BIG PILES OF FOOD (aka garbage) for any rodents who ventured in.It's kind of like handing you my iPod (or another valuable item), not talking about whether I wanted it back or not – refusing to talk about it at all – and then claiming you stole it when you start listening. It may give you a sense of justification, but it hardly makes any sense for what is supposed to be a more rational species.Also, re: "serving science". I regret to inform you that I will be forced to claim (once again) that the human exploitation of animals is analogous to slavery if you do not stop. Being forced to serve a master you are unwilling to serve is slavery.

  5. says

    Goldavian: surely the history sides with animal testing in the great majority of cases. More people have been saved than killed by insulin. And as for heart surgery, it's true the surgeons would've been spared the difficult task of "convert your dog knowledge to human knowledge", but only by replacing it with the far harder task "learn how to do heart surgery on humans from scratch. There's no way that could have reduced the death rate! Or have I misunderstood your point?As for your second point, Cuttlefish only said "in times of plague… you played the killer", which surely is true. If the line was "played the murderer" then questions of fault would enter, but not I think 'killer'. Imagine a line addressed to a lion: "to Christian captives you played the killer." Hardly inaccurate, despite the lions' innocence compared to the Romans'.

  6. ben says

    Goldavian: Surgeons should have "practiced on humans"? They can practice on you and your loved ones first, especially those fresh out of med school. Hey wouldn't it be funny if they came over a bit queasy it being their first experience opening up something with its heart still beating?

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