Poetry and space science

My space lab has a new recruit this year. It’s not someone who is here to work on the latest space mission or design a new space instrument though. We have been joined by a poet who will spend the next 12 months finding out about every facet of our work, around which he will write poetry, but more importantly for us he will provide avenues to explore creativity that we may not have thought about before. Our new addition to the lab is the prize-winning poet Simon Barraclough.

We already are a creative bunch at MSSL. We’re always using our imagination to think through the possible areas of science that will lead us to find answers to the questions we have about the Universe. We have to explore the theoretical possibilities and the starting point is having ideas about where to look. Not only do we come up with new ideas about the Universe, we come up with new designs for instrumentation that allow us to gather the data in the first place. Such as the development of the milli-Kelvin cryo-cooler. These are some of the reasons why I enjoy working in space research so much.

It’s not the first time we have had an artist in residence either. A few years back we were lucky enough to work with Joanna Griffin on ‘Satellite Stories’ – a project where, over several months, Joanna gathered the space-related experiences and interests of people both at my lab and outside of any area of research. The project culminated in a story telling evening where we shared our experiences and thoughts in a democratic way as we walked through the MSSL grounds at sunset. It was a departure from our usual public engagement activities and, even though it was rewarding, it also threw up some challenges. We spoke different languages at the start of the project and had different expectations about what should and could be done. However, it’s is a project that I have been wanting to follow-up on. So I was glad that we met Simon.

With Simon we’ll be exploring how the written and spoken word can be used in a scientific community. From my perspective, I want to look at how our scientific writing is shaped by the need to communicate specific and detailed ideas, but how we often include terrestrial terms and analogies to make our extra-terrestrial ideas easier to digest. However, the pictures we paint using these words may conjure up different physical scenarios for different people. I want to see sides of my colleagues (and myself) that are not normally revealed at work because we have been molded by departmental culture. Above all, I want to create an environment where we are stimulated in new ways and challenge our own stereotypes of how scientists can express themselves and communicate. And I want to invite schools and the general public to take part in this.

I hope to give some updates over the coming months and, perhaps a haiku or two.

Image courtesy of Joanna Griffin.

Lanterns made at the Satellite Stories event. Image courtesy of Joanna Griffin and the Arts Catalyst.

This project would not be possible without the financial support of STFC.