So far, each time I've been to the Mullard Space Science Lab it has been pouring down with rain and there has been cake. Scientists, engineers, and PhD students are partial to tea and cake around 3 p.m. it seems.
On Wednesday January 29th, myself and Lucie Green launched our 'poet in residence' project. Staff and students at the lab number around 160 and they're often away on teaching and research assignments, so we were delighted to see around 50 of them in the common room. The lure of cake and, of course, poetry, is strong. And it's good to be indoors in this rainy part of Surrey.
Lucie and I spoke about our aims and intentions for the year and I read my poem Saturn on Seventh, which was the first 'astronomical' poem I ever published, but it was the conversations which followed that really excited me.
While it was all a bit of a blur, with lots of new faces and names from many different departments and parts of the world (the lab is a vibrantly international place to work and study), many fascinating themes emerged from the proximity of science and poetry.
Do terms like 'dark matter' and 'dark energy' have a subliminally melancholic effect on those studying them? Would we be a little happier if we used different, 'lighter' terms?
Isn't it interesting how, when trying to get to grips with extraterrestrial phenomena, we use terrestrial metaphors, like 'Sunquakes' and plasma 'islands'? What would it mean to create extraterrestrial terms and metaphors?
What would happen to the content, style, and meaning of a scientific paper if we rewrote it as a Shakespearean sonnet? Would it be a wrecked and useless hull or a new work of art with something unexpected to offer?
What kinds of poems could we create by performing 'cut-ups' on scientific articles, or redacting words and passages to see the poetry peeping beneath?
We'll be exploring these ideas and methods over the course of the year starting with a discussion group on the poetry of astronomer Rebecca Elson. More on that later.
One of the most amusing chats I had was with an astrophysicist who teased me about my focus on Sunspots: that it's too limited, that the Sun is just a tiny speck in the whole cosmos and I should write about all these other things instead.
Of course he's right, but the great thing about about the Sun is that it enables you to write about anything and everything if you take the right approach.