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Guest Post: Are You Ready for the 2017 Solar Eclipse

By Dr. Billy Teets, Outreach Astronomer at Vanderbilt University

August 21st is quickly approaching as one of the most anticipated days of 2017.  For the first time in 38 years, a total solar eclipse will be visible from the U.S. mainland.  Partial and even annular solar eclipses have been visible since then, but for those who have had the rare opportunity to ever witness the splendor of a total solar eclipse, partial and annular solar eclipses cannot compare.

Solar eclipses occur when the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun and casts shadows on our planet.  For the Moon to be able to obscure the Sun, it has to be in the new moon phase.  We have new moons approximately every 29.5 days; however, we have solar eclipses about every 5 1/2 months.  This discrepancy is due to the slight tilt of the Moon’s orbit with respect to the Earth’s orbit around the Sun.  At most new moon phases, the Moon will either appear slightly above or below the Sun in the sky, so the shadows it casts miss the Earth.  As time passes the apparent annual motion of the Sun in the sky and the daily motion of the Moon in its orbit eventually bring the two bodies to one of two points (known as nodes) in which their paths intersect.  If the Sun and Moon are on the same side of the sky then a solar eclipse occurs.  It is not surprising that approximately two weeks before or after a solar eclipse we experience a lunar eclipse in which the Moon passes through the shadows of the Earth.  In that two-week period the Moon has had time to move to the opposite side of its orbit and the Sun has not moved substantially on the sky.  Thus, the Moon is now on the exact opposite part of the sky as the Sun, allowing Earth to cast its shadow on the Moon.  On August 7th, two weeks before the August 21st eclipse, the Moon will indeed undergo a lunar eclipse; however, the U.S. will not be able to observe it as we will be on the day side of our planet during the lunar eclipse.  By the time we rotate to the night-side of Earth, the Moon will have moved out of our shadow.  Oh well, the U.S. will still have the opportunity to observe a beautiful total lunar eclipse on January 21st, 2019!

The arrangement of the Sun, Moon, and Earth during lunar and solar eclipses. THE OBJECT SIZES AND DISTANCES ARE NOT TO SCALE. Credit: Prof. Patricia Reiff, Rice Space Institute

The August 21st total solar eclipse will be special for several reasons.  This will be the first total solar eclipse visible from both U.S. seaboards since 1918, and Nashville is the largest city in the path of totality.  For this particular solar eclipse, observers will have up to 2 minutes and 42 seconds of total eclipse (“totality”), but this value greatly depends on location, especially with respect to the centerline of the path of totality.  With this being the first total solar eclipse on the U.S. mainland in nearly 40 years, millions of people are anticipating the opportunity to witness this heavenly spectacle.  Numerous events focused around the eclipse are being held in cities all throughout the path of totality as well as outside of the path.  Nashville also has many groups that are planning festivities and viewings on August 21st (a growing list of events can be found here).

Click for Close-up: A map of the continental US showing the path of totality as well as the magnitude of partial eclipse for the rest of the country. Credit: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio.

But, as with real estate, observing a total solar eclipse is all about location, location, location!  There is no, “I’m close to the path of totality so that will be good enough.”  IF YOU ARE NOT WITHIN THE PATH OF TOTALITY, YOU WILL NOT SEE THE TOTAL SOLAR ECLIPSE.  The closer you are to the center of the path of totality, the longer the duration of total eclipse you will experience.  Observers are encouraged to move towards the centerline, but that will actually take some planning.  First of all, excitement for the eclipse has really been gaining momentum over the past few months, and many people (some estimates say well over two million) will be flocking to Nashville to witness totality.  As you can expect, this is going to create major issues on the interstates and even side roads, especially as totality is about to occur.  People will be stopping alongside and in the middle of the highways and getting out of their vehicles to see the totally eclipsed Sun – the interstates may literally be parking lots.  The point here is that if you are planning on viewing from a specific location, then plan on leaving very early in the morning or even a day or two before.  Many hotels are already booked solid, so the chances of getting a room in or near the path are pretty slim now.  It is advisable to keep a close eye on the news of road conditions.

A close-up view of the path of totality for Tennessee. The violet contours mark the differing lengths of totality. At the center of the path of totality the duration of total eclipse is greatest (approximately 2 minutes, 42 seconds). Credit: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio.

So, what can you expect to see during the three hours of solar eclipse?  For the majority of the time, the Sun will only be partially obscured.  It will take almost 90 minutes for the Moon to move completely in front of the Sun and then roughly another hour and a half for it to move back out. So, in all, most people will get to see approximately three hours of partial eclipse.  During this time, proper solar filters (not sunglasses) must be used to protect your eyes, cameras, telescopes, etc.  If one has a properly filtered telescope, then the partial eclipse would provide an opportune time to get an up-close view of the Sun as the Moon gradually covers it.  It may be possible to observe sunspots (cooler areas that appear as black blemishes on the solar surface).  Some astronomy enthusiasts may even be able to observe prominences (enormous clouds of gas lofted up from the Sun’s surface) during the partial eclipse by using a special type of telescope known as a hydrogen-alpha telescope.  The long durations of the partial eclipses provide ample time for one to take pictures.  Also, be sure to take a look under the surrounding trees – as sunlight passes through the gaps and holes in the tree leaves, numerous images of the partially eclipsed Sun will be projected on the ground.

Tree leaf pinhole projection of a solar eclipse: Credit: Ed Morana

As the last few minutes of partial eclipse pass, one will be able to feel the tension and excitement filling the air.  By this time the vast majority of the solar disk is invisible and only a few percent of the Sun’s photosphere (the technical name for the solar “surface”) are illuminating the surrounding landscape.  If the day is clear, then this time will provide a very dramatic lighting that many often describe as “eerie” or “surreal.”   If you have a good view of the northwest you will notice that portion of the sky is darker and growing darker – you are seeing the umbra approaching at roughly twice the speed of sound! In the final few seconds before totality, as the last percent of the Sun’s surface is still just peeking around the silhouetted Moon, the dramatically diminishing sunlight will begin to allow the corona to take center stage.  The corona is the outer atmosphere of the Sun, and even though the gas of the corona is several million degrees Fahrenheit, it only glows about as bright as the full moon.  The last bead of light visible from the Sun’s surface, along with the corona surrounding the eclipsing Moon, form a spectacular “diamond ring” in the sky.

The diamond ring effect. Credit: Babek Tafreshi

The effect only lasts a few seconds before totality begins and a few seconds just after totality ends.  The faint corona is safe to observe with the naked eye; however, one should not look directly at the “diamond” as direct viewing of any portion of the Sun’s surface can damage your eyes in a matter of seconds.

 

Once the diamond disappears, the corona will blaze forth in all of its glory – totality has finally started.  By now people are screaming, cheering, clapping, crying, you name it!  Observing a total solar eclipse is a life-changing event for most people.  Some people become addicted to seeing them and travel the world in order just to be in the path of totality for those precious few minutes.

During totality one MUST remove any protective eyewear and observe the corona with the naked eye, for solar glasses will completely block out the corona. The corona will appear very tenuous, and you may see some structure in it that is caused by the Sun’s complicated and ever-changing magnetic field.

Numerous prominences appear as bright red “flames” in this view of a total eclipse. Credit: Imelda B. Joson and Edwin L. Aguirre

Right around the edge of the Moon’s silhouette you might even see some reddish-pink tufts barely sticking out from around the Moon – these are prominences, which are now visible to the naked eye. Depending on your observing location one portion of the Moon’s edge may appear outlined in a pinkish-red hue – this is the lower atmosphere of the Sun, which is known as the chromosphere.  The coloration is the distinctive hue of hot hydrogen gas – the main component of the Sun and all stars.

It will be difficult to peel your eyes away from the beauty of the corona, but remember to take a least a few seconds and look around at the rest of the sky.  During totality, the sky will be dark enough to observe a few planets and stars.  Venus will be visible in the upper western sky while Jupiter will appear about halfway up in the southeast.  Both will appear as very bright stars.  Mars and Mercury will be located close to the eclipsed Sun and appear as moderately bright stars.  A few of the true stars, such as Sirius and Arcturus, will likely be fairly easy to spot if you know where to look.  Don’t forget to look around the horizon as well – though the sky above you will be fairly dark the majority of the horizon itself will illuminated.  Try to keep an eye out for odd animal behavior as well.  Birds have often been reported to exhibit roosting behavior around and during totality (birds flock in to roost, roosters crow, etc.)

A simulated view of the Nashville sky during totality (approximately 1:29p.m. CDT). Four planets and numerous stars will be visible to the unaided eye while the Sun is completely obscured. Credit: Dr. Billy Teets

 

It will also be difficult during totality, especially in this age of technology and social media, to suppress the urge to snap pictures and text.  Don’t think about selfies.  The precious seconds of totality will pass by quicker than you think, and you don’t want to spend all of your time looking through a viewfinder or staring at a phone screen.  The end result will be no different than if you stared at a picture of the eclipsed sun on your computer.  Experience this eclipse!  Take in the splendor of the event with your own eyes.  Try to live in the moment so that you can remember it vividly for the rest of your life.  You may never get another chance like this, especially if the skies are completely clear.

If you are going to take away anything from this article, then here are a few key points to remember:

  1. Do not look at any portion of the Sun’s surface with your naked eye during the partial eclipse – you MUST have appropriate eye protection when any portion of the Sun’s surface is exposed.  Do not look through an unfiltered telescope while wearing solar eclipse glasses – the focused sunlight will melt the glasses in seconds and then cause permanent eye damage.
  2. During totality, when the entire solar disk is obscured by the Moon, you MUST observe the total solar eclipse with your naked eye.  Any protective eyewear will make it impossible to see the total solar eclipse and you will miss the spectacular part of the show.  Remember, the corona by itself is safe to look at naked eye.
  3. It is NOT recommended to observe the total eclipse with a telescope as this requires using an unfiltered telescope to view the corona.  This is dangerous because one does not know the exact moment when the solar disk will begin to emerge from behind the Moon.  Less than one percent of the Sun’s surface is easily enough to cause permanent eye damage in a short period of time, especially when looking through an unfiltered telescope.
  4. Photographing the partial eclipse is recommended since you will have close to three hours to do so, but remember that your camera can be damaged by the unfiltered Sun.  Therefore, you must use an appropriate solar filter to prevent your camera from being damaged.
  5. Photographing the total eclipse is NOT recommended (even without using a telescope) solely for the fact that we will only have a maximum of two minutes and 42 seconds to see the total eclipse.  Due to the large dynamic range of the total solar eclipse, it can be fairly difficult to capture a good image that really shows the awesome splendor of a total solar eclipse. There are, however, websites, magazine articles, and even books that deal with the subject of how to photograph a total solar eclipse. Experienced eclipse observers have also stated that even the best images they have ever seen of a total solar eclipse do not convey the beauty of what you will see with the naked eye.  They also recommend that if this is your first total solar eclipse you should only focus on actually seeing it with your own eyes because it will be an experience that you will never forget.  Don’t waste those precious seconds trying to take images – people all over the United States will be taking images, including professional photographers who have had experience photographing total solar eclipses.

Good luck, and here’s hoping for clear skies across the U.S. on August 21st!

 

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Guest Post: Spring is in the Air, Pollen is Everywhere

By Patsy Watkins MPS, CFCS

Family & Consumer Sciences Agent, UT/TSU Extension, Williamson County

Spring means beautiful flowers, blooming trees, and fresh cut grass.  But if you are 1 out of the 50+ million people in the U.S. that suffer from nasal allergies, it can be miserable!

  • Allergies are abnormal immune system reactions to things that are typically harmless to most people.
  • Allergens or triggers are substances that cause the allergic reaction.
  • Sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes and throat, nasal congestion, but no fever are all symptoms of allergic rhinitis also commonly known as “hay fever.”
  • Seasonal allergies are caused by tree pollen, grass pollen, weed pollen and airborne mold spores.
  • Perennial allergies, which occur year round, are caused by animal dander, dust mites, cockroaches, and indoor mold spores.

Tips to Reduce Your Exposure:allergies

  • Use air-conditioning in your home and car.
  • Use a humidifier.
  • Avoid pets in the home.
  • Bathe dogs twice a week.
  • Vacuum carpets weekly using a HEPA filter.
  • Wash sheets and blankets weekly in hot water 130°F.
  • Don’t dry laundry outside.
  • Stay indoors on dry windy days.
  • Keep your doors and windows closed during pollen season.
  • Avoid mowing grass or raking leaves.
  • Avoid outdoor activity in the early morning.

You can also attend out upcoming Using Essential Oils to Prepare our Sinuses for Spring event. Preparing for spring sinuses and maintaining our sinuses is key to having a great season. Learn how to use Essential Oils to keep our sinuses happy.

 

Guest Post: Keep Your Holidays in the Green

By Patsy Watkins MPS, CFCS
Family & Consumer Sciences Agent, UT/TSU Extension, Williamson County

Keep you Holidays green by saving money. Follow these tips:

budget

  • Make a holiday budget for all holiday spending and Stick To It!
  • Pay cash for all purchases
  • Just say NO – you don’t have to do everything
  • Avoid the store card discount traps- do NOT sign up for a new credit card in exchange for 10%-20% off your purchase
  • Make a holiday shopping list and include the maximum amount to be spent for each item
  • Start early – so you don’t panic
  • Remember money does not equal love or affection

Avoid these Holiday Spending Mistakespost

  • Going overboard with gift wrap. Recycle- Reuse is totally acceptable.
  • Overuse of credit cards. Set a spending limit and stick to it!
  • Guilty Spending. Don’t shop with negative emotions. Don’t shop in a rush or when you are tired.
  • Not trimming your gift list. You don’t have to buy everyone a gift. Send a card or note.
  • Confusing buying with celebrating. Remember the real reason for the season.

Guest Post: National Food Safety Month

By Patsy Watkins MPS, CFCS
Family & Consumer Sciences Agent, UT/TSU Extension, Williamson County

Did you know? Food poisoning not only sends more than 100,000 Americans to the hospital each year, but it can also have long-term health consequences. Follow these 4 steps to keep your family safe from food poisoning at home.

clean

  • Wash hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water.
  • Wash surfaces, cutting boards, dishes, and cooking utensils with hot soapy water after each use to prevent bacteria from spreading.
  • Wash produce under running water, but not meat, poultry, or eggs.

sep

  • Don’t cross-contaminate! Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs separate from other foods in the grocery cart, grocery bags and in your refrigerator.
  • Use separate cutting boards/plates/utensils for produce and raw meat.

 

cook

  • Cook to the right temperature. Use a food thermometer.
  • Keep food hot after cooking (at 140oF or above). Bacterial growth increases as food cools.
  • Microwave food thoroughly (to 165oF).

chill

  • Refrigerate perishable foods at or below 40oF within 2 hours, or 1 hour if in weather over 90oF
  • Never thaw or marinate foods on the counter. Bacteria grows rapidly.
  •  Know when to throw food out. Be sure to toss expired foods.

 


Food Safety myths

Myth #1:
When cleaning my kitchen, the more bleach I use, the better. More bleach kills more bacteria
Fact:
There is no advantage to using more bleach than needed. Use 1 teaspoon of bleach to 1 quart of water.

Myth #2:
I don’t need to wash fruits and vegetables if I’m going to peel them.
Fact:
You can transfer bacteria from the peel or rind you’re cutting to the inside of your fruits and veggies.

Myth #3:
Leftovers are safe to eat until they smell bad.
Fact:
The kind of bacteria that cause food poisoning do not affect the look, smell, or taste of food.

Myth #4:
Cross- contamination doesn’t happen in the refrigerator – it’s too cold for bacteria to survive!
Fact:
Bacteria can survive and some can grow in cool, moist environments like the refrigerator.

bac

Guest Post: Adventure is out there!

By Patsy Watkins MPS, CFCS

Family & Consumer Sciences Agent, UT/TSU Extension, Williamson County8603567984_fdceae3bea_o(1)

Whether you have a few days to leave town or two weeks, packing all the essentials into a carry on seems like an impossible task. Pack like a professional using these tips:

  1. Pack fast-drying or athletic tops. If it gets dirty, you can wash it and be ready to go within the half hour.
  2. Wear your walking shoes to stay comfortable and pack a dressier pair of shoes for a night out.
  3. Pack items by type in plastic bags with dryer sheets to keep the suitcase
    organized and smelling fresh.
  4. Use a multipurpose soap in a refillable bottle to cut down on liquids.
  5. Buy a solar keychain charger for organization and to keep your phone ready for pictures.

npsLooking for a quick family adventure on a dime? There are many opportunities for families to enjoy each other’s company and for parents to teach children many life lessons.

  • Visit a nursery where you can choose plants and flowers that you would like to grow as a You don’t have to have tons of space, many plants can be enjoyed from small containers. Turn this into a science experiment for children.
  • Go on a There are many trails and areas where families can explore on their own. Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy the great outdoors. National parks have several free entrance days throughout the year. Check out www.nps.gov to find a date that works for your family.
  • Geocaching adds adventure for young and old Enjoy this “treasure hunt” together and see new places and things in old places near or far. Geocaching is an engaging adventure that combines technology, the outdoors, and exploration.
  • Groupon, Living Social and many other travel websites offer hidden gems at over half the Explore every corner of your state with these tools.
  • Search for local festivals across the Tennessee has free events year round that include toy train shows, reenactments, music, and various food, and garden festivals. Enjoy a weekend and potentially find new hobbies for the family.

 

Guest Post: Hot Topics in Astronomy

May 2015By Billy Teets, Ph.D.
Outreach Astronomer
Vanderbilt Dyer Observatory

If the planets are your favorite objects to view through a telescope or even just by eye, then May has a show in store.  Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are all bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye and thus have been known since antiquity.  Except for Mars, all of these planets will put on an evening performance for skywatchers in May.

By far the hardest to spot of the four planets will be Mercury.  Mercury’s small orbital radius (about one-third the Earth-Sun distance) never allows the planet to stray far from the Sun, so most of the time it is easily lost in the glow of sunrise or sunset; however, Mercury reaches greatest eastern elongation on May 7, which simply means that it will appear about as far from the Sun in the evening sky as it can get.  During this time Mercury can be found as a moderately bright “star” just above the west-northwestern horizon after sunset, and the planet will take on a very small, crescent-moon shape when viewed through backyard telescopes.  Mercury and Venus both go through a complete cycle of phases for the same reason that our Moon exhibits phases.  At all times, half of the surfaces of Mercury, Venus, the Moon, and any other round body orbiting the Sun are always illuminated just as half of the Earth is experiencing daytime as you read this.  Using his small telescope Galileo Galilei was the first to observe this in the early 1600s, and these observations provided direct observational proof that some objects, namely Venus, go around the Sun and not the Earth.  In addition, as these planets move closer to and farther away from us as we all orbit the Sun, they appear to enlarge and shrink in telescopic views due to the changing distances between us and them.  If you get a chance to observe Venus and Mercury through a backyard telescope, you will see both of these phenomena quite well.

Speaking of Venus, even casual observers will have noted the bright planet in the western sky after sunset. Over the past few months, Venus has been creeping higher up in the evening sky as it rounds the Sun to catch up to the Earth.  For the next few months, Venus will only be outshone by the Moon in the evening sky as it continues parading as the “Evening Star.”  Venus’s high brightness is due to its clouds, which are highly reflective and completely enshroud the Venusian surface.   Just like Mercury, Venus’ orbit will never let it stray far from the Sun in our skies, but its larger orbital radius lets it get significantly higher in the sky as compared to Mercury.  On June 6, Venus will reach greatest eastern elongation and show a distinctive half-moon phase when viewed telescopically.  From this point onward, it will grow larger in telescopes as it takes on a thinner and thinner crescent phase.  When it finally catches up to and passes us in August, Venus will begin creeping up in the eastern sky before sunrise as it changes to its “Morning Star” persona.

Jupiter continues to ride high in the sky just after sunset.  The most massive of the solar system’s planets puts on a new display each night as its four largest moons, also discovered by Galileo, continually change positions.  Folks with medium- to large-aperture telescopes will note that each of these moons appears as a small disk under high magnification as opposed to pinpoints of light.  Though these moons are roughly a half-billion miles from us, they are large enough (about the size of our moon, to first order) that even backyard telescopes can resolve them.  Occasionally we are treated to additional performances by the moons as their ink-black shadows are cast on the planet and sweep across its atmosphere in a matter of hours.

Finally, the real gem of the solar system makes its debut in the evening skies by early May.  During the first part of May, Saturn will appear as a bright “star” near the east-southeastern horizon just above the star Antares, the brightest star of the constellation Scorpius.  As the month progresses, Saturn will gradually slide west among the stars and move from Scorpius to Libra.  Normally, as Earth and the other planets orbit the Sun, one would expect the planets to move eastward among the stars.  However, as Saturn approaches opposition on May 23 (another fancy term that simply means Saturn rises as the Sun sets), it will appear to move backward in its orbit as Earth catches up to and passes it.  This retrograde motion will continue until the start of August at which point skywatchers will note that Saturn will halt its backwards movement and resume its normal, easterly trek among the stars.  Opposition is a great time to view Saturn as it means that the planet will also be visible for the majority of the night, giving those with telescopes plenty of time to admire the giant rings of the planet and even spot a few of its moons.

During the start of May, around 10pm CDT, folks with clear eastern and western horizons can spot all four of these planets simultaneously.  Starting low on the west-northwestern horizon one can first spot dim Mercury, then brilliant Venus high up in the western sky, then Jupiter almost overhead, and finally Saturn near the east-southeastern horizon.  If the ground were transparent and no atmosphere was present, one could continue this line, known as the ecliptic, around to form a complete circle and also intercept the planets Uranus, Neptune, and Mars.  The Moon would also lie fairly close to this line, and the Sun would lie directly on top of it.  This alignment is not coincidence – the ecliptic is the orbital plane of the Earth, or as viewed from Earth, it marks the apparent path of the Sun through our sky.  The planets and Moon do not stray far from the ecliptic because the orbital planes of Earth and the planets are in close alignment, and this alignment is a result of the formation of the solar system.  Approximately five billion years ago, a large, rotating cloud of gas and dust began collapsing in on itself due to its own self-gravity.  As the rotating cloud collapsed to a smaller, more compact size its rotation speed increased just as a rotating ice skater spins faster as she pulls her arms closer to her body.  But, as anyone who has spun around has experienced, centrifugal force causes a spinning ice skater’s arms to want to fly outwards – this is also experienced by the collapsing cloud.  As the cloud collapses down, it not only spins faster but centrifugal force tries to halt the collapse in the direction perpendicular to the cloud’s rotation axis but not the collapse along the rotation axis. The end result is the cloud flattens down to become a rotating disk – the Sun forms at the center of the disk and planets form in the outer portion.  The planets slowly build up in the rotating disk of material and, once the cloud of material is depleted/dissipated, the newborn planets continue their orbits around the Sun in approximately the same orbital plane.Hot Topics in Astonomy_May 8,2015

Guest Post: Why this Doctor Writes Poetry

Brian Christman, MDMedicineBy Brian W. Christman, professor and vice chair of Vanderbilt’s Department of Medicine as well as chief of medical service at the Veteran Affairs’ Tennessee Valley Health Care System

It is always a bit of a challenge to explain why a physician, a person so intensely interested in the well-being of other people, would move away from the world and craft a few lines about a scene, an observation, or a thought. Sometimes it comes from a sense of obligation, the feeling that someone should think a bit longer about a solitary widow taking a shaving bag home, or a veteran patient smoking and telling stories at sunset, or the obvious but unspoken respect of a granddaughter for the recuperating patriarch. It seems to me that doctors are privileged to be with people during critical episodes in their lives and should not remain unmoved by events and interactions.

Occasionally there is just a snatch of nature, like the endlessly erasing shoreline at sunrise, begging in an undescribed language for translation. Often there is just a phrase, or part of a story, that resonates with a previous experience and sculpts a partial memory into something new.

But this explanation claims too much high ground. Sometimes I just like to noodle around with words and phrases about a topic until something comes together with its own rhythm, rhyme, and silence. It feels good to distill.

Guest Post: Medicine and Poetry, Not so Far Apart after All

By Hester-DougDouglas Landon Hester, an anesthesiologist whose academic work focuses on airway management and resident education

I suspect I’m a poet and a physician for the same reasons. In both, small details define major issues. In both, precision matters. In both, the right word in the right way can help someone. In both, I believe I’m using talents as a steward. In both, there is a wonderful tension between science and art.

In both, relationships are ultimately the bottom line. Whether I am offering a specific drug or procedure or I am trying to connect with a reader I have never met, it is the common humanity between us that allows me to be a physician and a poet.

Medicine and poetry are, for me, about people. I’m blessed to do both.

 

Guest Post: Medicine and Poetry, an Art and a Science

By Irene Planchard Mathieu, a writer and medical student at Vanderbilt University

IMG_0328Being a medical poet has often meant poetic isolation, immersed as I am in the intense educational world of medicine. I have felt very isolated jotting down lines between patients during busy days in the hospital or writing in my apartment after long nights of studying. Last summer, I had the opportunity to attend my first poetry workshop, a two-week immersive experience in Rhode Island. It was like opening the door to the little closet in which I’ve been writing alone and seeing that my small room is part of a sprawling, underground mansion where so many beautiful souls live, each one in a different room, who decorate the mansion’s rock walls with studded jewels and feathers and scraps of cloth.

On the last night of workshop a fellow poet asked me about the parallels between medicine and poetry. I began with the response that I have explicated elsewhere, but as I spoke I realized that my answer had evolved significantly as a result of the past two weeks. It isn’t just that poetry and medicine both offer a window into the totality of human experience, an intimacy with the human condition that few other professions offer.

Just as there are an “art and science” of medicine, there are both art and science in poetics. I often describe the role of science in medicine as analogous to the role of language in human communication. The point of learning another language usually isn’t simply for the love of language itself (although certainly that love is real and important and can be part of the motivation). Usually the primary purpose of mastering language is for communication, just as a deep understanding of science allows us to use medicine in the service of other people. The memorization of medications and amino acids does not a competent physician make. But this fund of knowledge is the language we use to navigate disease and to describe health and illness. Similarly, strong vocabulary, understanding of literary symbols and devices, and grammatical knowledge are the tools of meaning-making in poetics.

There are systematic ways to approach reading and writing poetry. I can dissect a poem in order to understand or edit it. There is basic anatomy that must be grasped before we can understand poetry or create great work. In poetry, anatomy consists of form, literary devices, symbols, and metaphors. These and other components provide the framework for the poem’s content. As physicians, we must understand the parts of our patients’ bodies – how individuals’ organs do or don’t function, what is “normal” for each person. But we also must remember that a person is not simply her or his body. A person has a body. Who a person is is analogous the content of the poem.

In medicine and poetry, in order to break the rules effectively we have to learn them thoroughly. Learning medicine in a classroom and practicing medicine in a clinic or hospital are two very different things. In the classroom we learn basic rules, mechanisms, and protocols. But rarely do patients fit our textbook definitions. And when they do, their diseases rarely occur in isolation. In clinical settings we have to account for patients’ other ailments and medications, medical history, age, sex, body weight/size, psychosocial conditions, values and goals, etc. Given this, what are the chances that we can do exactly the same thing the same way for every patient with ostensibly the “same” disease? Good physicians learn the textbook rules so they can understand when and how to adapt the knowledge to individual circumstances. Good poets learn the rules of poetry – about structure, form, use of literary devices, grammar – before they can break them to great effect.

Poetry and medicine are both a practice. They must be done consistently to be done well and require lifelong learning. In order to become a better poet you have to become a better reader. In order to improve as a doctor, you have to keep studying and learning about developments in the field. This is the duty of the committed poet or physician. It’s one aspect of professionalism. Professionalism also requires love of the field – a commitment to the evolution of scientific knowledge or of poetics. It requires being a team player – as a medical colleague, an editor, or a mentor to trainees in medicine and in poetry. It requires integrity; in both fields, this means checking our egos frequently and thoroughly.

Of course, poetry and medicine have many differences. I do believe poems have the power to heal and that poetry can be a matter of life and death; why else would so many brutal governing regimes around the world exile prominent poets time and again? Why else would words be censored in times of unrest? But poems are not people. Art imitates life, or vice versa, but art isn’t synonymous with life, and relating to patients is a completely different experience from relating to poems. While I have spent the last several years learning how to do the former, my poetry workshop was an intense course on how to do the latter. For a physician, patients must always come first. For me, poetry happens to come second. I believe the discipline, objective analysis, commitment, integrity, and heart required in each field can fortify my practice of the other.

Guest Post: Doctor Poetry

By Brenda Butka, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt University and Director of the Pulmonary Rehabilitation at Vanderbilt Stallworth Rehabilitation HospitalButka_Brenda-profile

You’re a doctor.  What is this poetry-writing thing?   People wonder, though are usually too polite to put the question quite so baldly.  Poetry?  A pretty pointless way to spend one’s time, isn’t it?  Shouldn’t you be out saving lives?  Or something?

What good, really, is a song, or a painting?  Why pick a blue-glazed platter when a cheap plastic one will do?   All I can really say is that beauty, arranging things in an interesting way, creating useful or intriguing patterns, is simply something humans do, an essential part of being who we are.

As physicians, we are extraordinarily privileged, instantly taken into the lives of patients, their friends and families, often in very sad and tragic times.   We see human bodies, inside and out, and hear how people make do, how they tell their stories, how they cope—or don’t—with loneliness or disability.  We have our own stories to tell, inside the hospital and at home, living in this brilliant and fractious world.

So why do doctors do creative stuff?  Because that’s what human beings do, and, lord knows, we have a lot to be creative about.   So why poetry?  Well, for no good reason.  I just like words, the jangling sounds and rhythm of words, the meanings we stretch between them.  I just do.

 

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