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Taiwanese researcher popularizes science with literature

Veteran pedologist proves some scientists can not only write but write well

Chiu Chih-yu holds 15th-anniversary edition of publication he edited for Biodiversity Research Center.

Chiu Chih-yu holds 15th-anniversary edition of publication he edited for Biodiversity Research Center. (Taiwan News photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — "The trouble with poetry is that it encourages the writing of more poetry." A longing to write haunted American poet laureate Billy Collins, but it has also guided a Taiwanese researcher determined to bring the public closer to nature.

Many would rather not keep up with the latest scientific happenings by going through pages of research full of jargon and charts. Instead, more and more people watch explainers online or tune in to scientific podcasts.

A few, however, prefer to capture the wonders of the world between rhyme and meter.

Researcher Chiu Chih-yu (邱志郁) has worked at Academia Sinica for more than three decades. He is a pedologist studying the origin, composition, and distribution of soils. He is also a microbiologist, writer, and poet who has dedicated his professional life to tracking the dynamics of underground ecology as well as putting the right words in the right place.

"The first step of writing a successful scientific article is to get rid of jargon and trivia. The second step is to make it fun, which can be done by using vivid pictures and telling stories from them," he explained.

Despite being trained as a scientist, Chiu has always been fond of literature and history. However, his creative journey did not really take off until a disagreement at the nation's highest research institute.

At that time, there were plans to tear down a historical house made of hinoki cypress that dated back to Academia Sinica's establishment — to make way for a new Genomics Research Center. Chiu opposed the plan and decided to publicize his disapproval in the institute's weekly newsletter.

In an article, Chiu attached a caption to a picture of the wooden house. It quoted a poem from Li Yu (937-978 A.D.), the "Last Lord of the Tang." The poem was written after Li lost his kingdom and was poisoned.

This quote reflected Chiu's discontent and implied consequences for opposing those who wanted to demolish the house. Although the article did not save the building, it was applauded by colleagues and boosted Chiu's confidence as a creative writer.

After this event, Chiu started sending his pieces to local poetry publications. Drawing on his background as a biologist, Chiu writes about animals and plants, especially those with unique features or significance in the ecosystem.

Taiwanese researcher popularizes science with literatureTaiwanese researcher popularizes science with literature
Striking photos and poetic captions are the essence of Chiu Chih-yu's work. (Taiwan News photo)

In his poem titled "Forgotten Wild Lily," Chiu uses lily bulbs as a metaphor for the oppression of those who were imprisoned on Green Island during Taiwan's White Terror period (1947-1987). The flower's downward-facing white petals, refreshing scent, and budding after heavy spring rains, on the other hand, represent the dignity and innocence of those freedom-seekers.

Although Chiu's ability to convey biological information in easily digestible language puts him in a strong position publication-wise, it does not overshadow his achievements in documenting the environmental impact of invasive species.

In 2019, Chiu landed on Taiping Island, Taiwan's southernmost territory, after a three-day voyage. During his visit, he witnessed the dire consequence of a careless decision made by the authorities years ago.

In a satellite image, Taiping Island now looks like an emerald bisected by the airplane runway cutting through verdant forest. Chiu determined that the asphalt road has reduced the forest's capacity to hold freshwater and facilitated the invasion of the notorious river tamarind (Leucaena leucocephala).

Taiwanese researcher popularizes science with literatureTaiwanese researcher popularizes science with literature
Taiping Island's tropical coastline. (Google Earth image)

Taiping Island used to stand out among the islets dotting the South China Sea for its diversified tropical coastal forestry, coconuts, Indian almonds, and bayhops. However, after the runway was built, river tamarinds, which originated in central America, quickly spread along the runway due to its fast-growth and ability to thrive in barren condiditions.

"A-bian is to blame for all this," Chiu says, referring to former Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), who insisted on visiting Taiping Island before his tenure ended. The runway is long enough for medium-sized transport aircraft but not for fighter jets, so the nation's military presence in the region cannot be improved despite China's island-grabbing, he added.

Taiwanese researcher popularizes science with literature
River tamarind is a nightmare for Taiping Island's vegetation. (Pixabay image)

For Chiu, striking a balance between research and creative writing has always been a challenge. "Even during my most prolific period, I did not dare dive too deep into writing. After all, I am still a researcher, and I usually take my time to polish my work until it reaches its best version."

As a poet, Chiu is a proponent of the romantic style. "Romantic poets like Wen Yiduo (聞一多) believe contemporary Chinese poetry should be musically and structurally beautiful, with multi-layered meanings. It's a style that matches my taste," Chiu said.

Looking into the complexity and variety of both creative writing and the underground ecosystem, it is perhaps not so difficult to figure out why Chiu feels at home with both.

Taiwanese researcher popularizes science with literature
Academia Sinica garden where Chiu sustains his love for land. (Taiwan News photo)