Sunday, August 29, 2010

Why "Lost in Transcription"?

So, I like to imagine that people are reading this blog, that they are intrigued by its content, and it's got them wondering, "Why is this blog called 'Lost in Transcription'?" As I noted in the pilot, the aim here is to talk about poetry and science, particularly those parts of science that are related to my own research, where I can claim some degree of expertise. The title is meant to bridge between these two worlds.

First, in the literary domain, it is a play off of the phrase "lost in translation," which appears any time there is a discussion of either literature, of cultural differences, or of Scarlett Johansson that goes on for longer than ten minutes. Within poetry, its two most famous appearances are as the title of a James Merrill poem (perhaps the best poem ever written about working a jigsaw puzzle), and in a quotation attributed to Robert Frost, that "Poetry is what gets lost in translation."

Within genetics, translation refers to the process by which an RNA sequence is read to generate an amino acid sequence. In a related process called transcription, DNA serves as a template for the synthesis of RNA. One of the topics that I work on is genomic imprinting, where one of the two gene copies in a cell has its transcription silenced. So, in a strictly literal sense, a better title would have been something like "loss of transcription," but if you are willing to stretch with me, we could imagine that at a genetic locus that is subject to genomic imprinting, the genetic information from one of your two parents is Lost in Transcription.


  1. Setting my Theoretical Biology papers aside, you might be interested in my THE ULTIMATE SCIENCE FICTION POETRY GUIDE where I survey:

    The History of Science Poetry

    Science Fiction Poetry has a prehistory from before the genre of Science Fiction
    was established. To understand this, we consider the history of natural history
    and science in poetry from Ancient Greece through the early 20th Century, when
    Science Fiction and Fantasy became recognized as distinct genres, and note the
    poetic output of major non-genre scientists.

    Poetry was at one time the language of philosophy, science, and all serious
    thought. Major treatments of Science expressed as Poetry included the works of
    Lucretius (especially De Rerum Natura), Parmenides of Elea, Archytas (Pythagorean
    general, statesman, philanthropist, educator) and Empedocles of Acragas, plus
    the "Phaenomena" of Aratus and the Latin "Astronomica" of Manilius.

    Ancient Greek MOUSIKE of Homer, Pindar, and Anaximander preceded prose culture,
    until Pythagoras identified music with mathematics, Aristotle distinguished
    Poetry from Rhetoric, and poetry began to separate from science.

    Aristotle's Poetics [Translated by Thomas Twining, New York: Viking, 1957]

    "For even they who compose treatises of medicine or natural philosophy in verse are denominated poets: yet Homer and Empedocles have nothing in common except their metre; the former, therefore, justly merits the name of the poet; while the other should rather be called a physiologist than a poet"

    Aristotle has begun the split between "high art" and mere science or science
    fiction in verse.

    Aristotle goes on to comment that:

    "poetry demands either a great natural quickness of parts, or an enthusiasm allied to madness. By the first of these we mould ourselves with facility to the imitation of every form; by the other, transported out of ourselves, we become what we imagine"

    The enthusiasm allied to madness -- recalled by Shakespeare as "the lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact" -- leads to Coleridge's emphasis on imagination, and on the science fiction fan scene, since "fan" is an abbreviation of "fanatic."

    Aristotle concludes that:

    "the surprising is necessary in tragedy; but the epic poem goes further and admits even the improbable and incredible, from which the highest degree of the surprising results [III:4] .... The poet should prefer impossibilities which appear probable to such things as, though possible, appear improbable

    This lays out the key to science fiction poetry: that it verge on improbable,
    incredible, and impossible in order to provoke surprise.


  2. Definitely a great post. The information that you have provided is very helpful. Thanks for this article.

    Read legal transcription outsourcing