There is clearly a significant connection between imagination and science and between science fiction, science fantasy and actual practical science. Sometimes there is even a physical connection as between Ada Lovelace and her father, Byron, and Friday afternoon's inaugural Ada Lovelace lecture was a delightful exploration of the connections between poetry and astrophysics as evidenced by Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell's poetry collection.
The lecture began on home ground for Professor Burnell with a slide showing the spectrum around which she wove a potted history of developments in astrophysics since the 1950s leading us to our first poem from her collection Robert Frost's 'Star Splitter'. The poem's subject matter, Orion, gave Professor Burnell the opportunity to give a clear explanation of the transit of Orion across our skies and she moved on to elucidate on some of the direct connections between astronomers and poets, and also poets such as Frost and Hardy who were astronomers.
Dame Jocelyn explained that she has been spotting connections and building her collection for the last 20 years and has around 150 poems covering the last 50 years. The subject matter of poems in her collection are varied from Jodrell Bank to the Big Bang, and comets feature very largely. She explained that she is flexible in including poems which are not strictly astrophysically accurate but rejects those with lousy science, in particular, poems focusing on the more romantic aspects of Venus. This assessment was reflected in Professor Burnell's unpretentious and seemingly dispassionate approach to her lecture, but at times there were glimpses of her passion for her subject and peeks of a wry sense of humour e.g. her dismissal of the excesses of venutian poetry. Her request for members of the audience to read the poetry selected was subtly engaging and inclusive, evidencing a sense of Dame Jocelyn's no nonsense approach.
However in her explanation and discussion of comets (and I particularly enjoyed her simple explanation of the physics of a comet's transition and tail) she did acknowledge their central place in the human imagination, especially Halley's Comet, and how they had come to represent to many in their periodic and fleeting passing, the cycle of life. She referenced Kenneth Rexroth's poetry and John Haines 'Little Cosmic Dust', concluding with Carl Sagan's hugely romantic yet profoundly true statement “we are made of starstuff".
Professor Burnell then went on to explore Einstein's theories and how they had been reflected in literature such as C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the concept of black holes and their inverse white holes; the great distances light travels over huge amounts of time to reach our eye as referenced in Elizabeth Jennings's poem 'Delay' and finally the vastness of the universe reflected in Robert Frost's 'Desert Places' and how current astrophysical thinking leads us to an ever expanding, blacker and blacker universe.
And on that happy note we moved on to a brief Q&A covering the metaphysical poets, whether Dame Jocelyn's collection includes any poems not written in English, a question about how black the universe was getting and how quickly which led to a brief discussion of the joys and pitfalls of researching poetry and astrophysics on the web and concluding with a question about whether any astrophysicists had written poetry. So in the first Ada Lovelace Lecture Professor Burnell had not only managed to explore a wide range of beautiful poetry but had interwoven this with a gentle framework of astrophysical fact successfully reconciling the worlds of science and the imagination.