Fragile Oasis

Connecting Space and Earth: Learn. Act. Make a Difference.
Projects: Education

The Best Satellite-Generated Poem about Gardening the Earth

Teams of high school student programmers and poets will compete to produce the best computer-generated poem, on the theme of "Gardening the Earth", from a fleet of free-flying chip-scale spacecraft -- KickSat Sprites.


Project Persephone

Competition Goal

The best computer-generated poem from a free-flying chip-scale spacecraft -- KickSat Sprites


Gardening the Earth

Suggested Award Structure

Winner-take-all, within each target language.

Computing Platform

The TI MSP MCU used on KickSat Sprites

Suggested Team Structure for Contestants

A pairing of students, one more interested in literature, the other more in software engineering

Suggested Judge Committee Composition

Published poets (or editors of poetry journals) working in the native languages of the selected nations.

Participating Nations

Spacefaring democracies

   Japan (Japanese)
   United States (English + Spanish)
   EU (France as major space power in the EU) - French
   Russia(?)/Ukraine - Russian/Ukrainian

### Project Persephone Beneficiary Regions

   Kenya + Uganda (English, maybe Swahili)
   Indonesia (Bahasa Indonesia)
   Ecuador (Spanish, maybe major Quechua dialect)

The Inspiration: ARTSAT2 DESPATCH

The linking of spacecraft with the arts has already begun. Japan’s ARTSAT is the current exemplar. Its most recent mission blends sculpture, computer-generated poetry, and even audience participation: DESPATCH has a technical goal of demonstrating a new, socially-networked style of space-to-Earth communications.

Art and technology have long been combined. Space is a new frontier for such collaborations.

Why poetry?

One might reasonably ask, Why? In the international competition among nations to beat each other in student test scores, the arts and the humanities take a back seat to more utilitarian skills: math, science, reading comprehension. In the current economic doldrums afflicting the developing world, public education budgets are tight, and the job market for graduates is daunting. The emphasis now is on imparting general-purpose employable skills - “the three Rs” -- which saps the political will required to fund arts programs in schools. Music, drama, the plastic arts - teaching these arts requires specialized equipment, supplies, and facilities. The budgetary demands of the arts might match what’s required of science departments. In the developing world, many schools simply can’t afford adequate treatment of the arts at all, with the exception of literary arts, which can be pursued even with the simplest, the most common, and the crudest of educational materials.

Giving the humanities and the arts short shrift is short-sighted. Science is very much the driver of innovation, and a very disproportionate percentage of top scientists originally entered small liberal arts colleges with no scientific ambitions. Beauty motivates good scientists. They don’t want to simply produce results. They want the results to look good. Mathematicians, physicists, and even economists working on the foundations of their field, often praise a notable result as “elegant.” Such appreciation is hardly absent from other fields -- engineering designs are often praised with the same term. To these minds, “elegant” does not mean “baroque.” On the contrary. As Antoine Saint-Exupery said, “perfection in design is reached not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.”

Reaching space is expensive, so a minimalist approach to space art makes sense. To enfranchise the developing world in space development through artistic participation, poetry is a good choice. It is the most minimal of arts that can be conveyed to, transmitted from, and/or performed in, space. It can be represented in mere symbols, which can be stored in ever-tinier forms using electronics, and transmitted in very few bits after compression. Indeed, one measure of artistic achievement in poetry is what poets, editors and literary scholars call “compression.” However, as the ARTSAT DESPATCH project recognizes, to simply send a poem to space, to be beamed back to Earth, misses both a technical and an artistic opportunity: the spacecraft might generate poetry, and not just randomly or algorithmically, but also based on spacecraft sensor readings, thus responding to the space environment and its situation within it.

The Theme: Gardening the Earth

Earth is now in an era that some have called “the Anthropocene.” Its ecosystems have been irreversibly changed by the spread of human beings, who bring with them species not native to the lands they reach, and deplete other species to extinction. This is a change process that has been going on since prehistoric times. In more recent centuries, we’ve had industrial revolutions. These have lifted many people out of subsistence agriculture, but the residue of industrial civilization leaves no portion of the Earth’s surface untouched. In the last century, the burning of fossil fuels began to grow dramatically. The composition of the atmosphere is changing, and it’s foolhardy to assume that this won’t have serious consequences if it continues.

Our planet is a common inheritance, with treasures that can be squandered before they are handed down to future generations. When the human population was in the hundreds of millions, plundering and sullying the Earth was not likely to hurt very many people. With perhaps as many as 9 billion people on Earth by the middle of this century, the consequences of collective irresponsibility could be dire, and would hurt Earth’s poorest people the most.

In the longer term, space industrialization might help us halt, even eventually reverse, some of the most threatening changes seen in the Anthropocene. In the medium term -- the next few decades -- space assets such as remote sensing satellites can help monitor the planet’s condition. In the near term, however, the urgent task is to promote the idea that we’ve inherited a garden planet -- quite a treasure, since there probably aren’t very many in the universe -- and to start habitually behaving as if any of our actions can endanger us all, unless we manage the treasure intelligently. When we bring such habits (habits of both thought and action) to our own properties and to what’s growing on them, we call the task “gardening.” Now we have to start gardening the Earth, together.

Unity is not easy. Gardening is hard work. But think about what we will lose if we don’t do that gardening, or if we don’t do it well enough.

Poems are made of words. What are the words for this?