New residency at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory

I have just begun a one-year stint as poet in residence at UCL's Surrey-based Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL for short). This is my first big new (ad)venture in a while and I'm tinglier than 'Space Dust Alka-Seltzer', if there were such a thing.

It all began in March 2013 when I read at The Purcell Room as part of 'Notes from the Universe' along with Public Astronomer Marek Kukula and the artist Honor Harger.

Actually, it began a lot longer ago than that.

It began with the dark skies over West Yorkshire when I was a boy; lavishly illustrated books on cosmology in the school library; Carl Sagan's 'Cosmos' and 'The Sky at Night' on television; and a modest but much loved telescope my parents bought me one Christmas.

I was fascinated by astronomy but had no idea that one could become an astronomer, so I focused on my other great love: literature. Over the years and the publications, I started to write more around astronomy and physics and cosmology, with a little knowledge and lashings of poetic licence.

The planet poems in 'Neptune Blue' led to my new ongoing project, 'Sunspots', and eventually to an invitation to talk at the Purcell Room as part of the 'Light Show' programme at the South Bank.

After the event I spoke with Marek about meeting some actual solar scientists and he suggested I contact the eminent astronomer and TV presenter Dr. Lucie Green, who invited me to visit MSSL.

The delightfully stately exterior of the Mullard Space Science Lab

The delightfully stately exterior of the Mullard Space Science Lab

At first, I thought a relationship with the lab would be good for my solar book but I soon realised that there is far more to explore in the lab than I expected. As well as the 'solar group', there is the 'plasma group', the 'astrophysics group', the 'climate group', the 'cryogenics' group and several other areas and specialisms.

There is also the history of the building itself, its people, the projects they're involved with and the fascinating objects and displays dotted throughout the lab. When I saw a gamma-ray detector that had been in space being used as a paperweight, I knew I wanted to write about the place and the people. What an incredible place to work! And I felt strangely at home, even if only to make the tea.

So Lucie and I began planning for a wider ranging 'residency' which would consider all aspects of the lab, its staff and their work, and which would involve events, workshops, discussion groups, some public interaction and some schools work. 

I have two broad goals: to write a new 'poetic inventory' of the lab (more exciting title to be defined) and to edit an anthology of writing by MSSL staff and perhaps visitors. In pursuit of these goals I'm going to orbit and haunt the lab, sowing seeds of poetry through various events, meetings, and interventions.

I'll be blogging regularly about the experience and inviting you to some events. My next piece will be about my first visit last Wednesday, when I officially introduced myself and met many brilliant scientists and researchers over tea and cake.

If you would like another view, Lucie Green has also blogged about the project here.

The residency is supported by the Science & Technology Facilities Council.