Monday, 15 September 2008

Observing the Big Bang and Responsibility to Awe

So the epicentre of an almighty cosmic catastrophe did not occur in Switzerland. Whizzing particles were busy saying cheese for the camera (or should that be Swiss cheese as a friend pointed out to me) and no black hole or the entrance to another parallel universe or an unscreened episode of Buffy, opened.

It’s always the way when you are observing something nothing spectacular ever happens, the moment you turn your back of course all hell may make loose. I can’t begin to count the number of fabulous photographs I could have taken seconds after I stopped looking through the viewfinder. The one at the top just failed to catch a spectacular leap out of the water by a whale. I have several photographs of a dustbin just as a skunk has left, I even have a rowing eight on the Cam seconds before it crashed into a barge at a rate of knots. But then the Swiss can be relied upon for 24 hour surveillance (why else would billionaires keep their money there) and the boffins are too shrewd to let anything get past them. You don’t spend years and millions of Euros building something whose sole purpose is to hurl things together then step outside for a quick fag or shuffle off to the coffee machine at 3 am and miss it all. I enjoy physics although I don’t understand it at any level other than the most basic but then you don’t have to read a single note of music to enjoy a symphony.
All the hoo-ha about Cern and the observation of the big bang a nano second after made me revisit a wonderful collection of poetry by Rebecca Elson called ‘A Responsibility to Awe’ (published by Carcanet). I knew Rebecca slightly as we attended a poetry workshop together for a while in Cambridge. She was an extraordinary woman, an astronomer who had worked on the Hubble Telescope project, specialised in looking for Dark Matter and who wrote some of the most wonderful poetry about her science and sadly later her diagnosis of cancer. She died at only 39 and I am sure if not for the cancer she would have gone on to be a major figure in the world of astronomy and poetry. The collection was lovingly put together after her death by her husband and her friend and fellow poet Anne Berkeley, who I know spent countless hours pouring over Rebecca’s notebooks, diaries and essays to produce the book which not only contains her poems but extracts from her notebooks and an essay about how she came to be a scientist. If you are at all interested in science and poetry this book repays any time spent reading it. Below are a couple of her poems about astronomy to wet your appetite.

Girl with a Balloon
(Most of the helium in the universe was created in the Big Bang)

From this, the universe
In its industrial age,
With all the stars lit up
Roaring, banging, spitting,
Their black ash settling
Into every form of life,

You might look back with longing
To the weightlessness, the elemental,
Of the early years.

As leaning out the window
You might see a child
Going down the road,
A red balloon,
A little bit of pure Big Bang,
Bobbing at the end of her string.

The Last Animists

They say we have woken
From a long night of magic,
Of cravings,
Fire for fire, earth for earth.
A wind springs up.
The birds stir in the dovecotes.
It is so clear in this cold light
That the firmament turns without music,
That when the stars forge
The atoms of our being
No smith sweats in labour.

Day dawns,
The chill of reason seeps
Into the bones of matter
But matter is unknowing.
Mathematics sinks its perfect teeth
Into the flesh of space
But space is unfeeling.

We say the dreams of night
Are within us
As blood within flesh
As spirit within substance
As the oneness of things
As from a dust of pigeons
The white light of wings.


Tasha said...

I found a book of Rebecca Elson's poems just after reading 'A Brief History of Time' and 'In Search of Schrodinger's Cat'. I was moved by her beautiful use of language, as well as her way of articulating her wonder at the universe. I'm not religious per se, but it was wonderful to see such a brilliant mind expressing her view that science and spirituality are not mutually exclusive.

Tasha said...

I found a book of Rebecca Elson's poems shortly after reading A Brief History of Time, and was deeply moved by her beautiful use of language, and her ability to eloquently express her views that science and spirituality are not mutually exclusive.
I love physics but am not scientifically minded enough to pursue it professionally, what they are doing in CERN looks very exciting, and I enjoyed your article on it.