Science, the multiverse and space inspired poetry

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Science, the multiverse and space inspired poetry

Normally Tom Kitching examines what the universe is made of, but recently he has turned his analytical mind to considering what makes a good poem. He’s one of the scientists who’s work appears in the new anthology Laboratorio: Poems from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory.

The Mullard Space Science Laboratory

The Mullard Space Science Laboratory

I’m a cosmologist at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory. My research involves making observations of galaxies and using these observations to determine what the Universe is made of. I blog about this at http://lateuniverse.org and http://msslastro.wordpress.com but in this blog I’d like to talk to you about science-inspired poetry.

The last time I read a poem, before the collaboration that led to Laboratorio, was in my GCSE English class. At the time it all seemed rather subjective: why should I learn and subscribe to a particular interpretation of The Ancient Mariner or Wordsworth’s poems? After that, A-levels, undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in physics followed and the clean analytic certainty of science, with its observations and papers, evidence and peer reviews, meant that poetry was never, literally or figuratively, part of the equation.

Then, one grey winter’s day, poetry snuck back into my life as the MSSL scientists and engineers began our collaboration with Simon Barraclough. We explored the words that this other Universe opened up: here was an area where it seemed opinion and feelings were important, reaching everything that science cannot (yet) capture. We were told the golden rule was to avoid cliché, a refreshing change to the strict mathematical rules that science demands.

But as we progressed it became clear that there is a fluid structure to poetry: a beat and a rhythm. A kind of ‘inter-subjectivity’ emerged, creating the feeling that some poems really are better than others but sometimes it can be difficult to say why.

Our adventures in reading and writing poetry eventually crystallised into the anthology Laboratorio. My poems focus on the “multiverse” conjecture: that perhaps the Universe is not ‘all-that-is’ but is in fact just one of an infinite number of realities, each one different in some way from the next. In this scenario, the rules of nature are a result of natural selection, or random luck, where we happen to live in a Universe that is clement enough for life to have evolved. What an absurd notion! Or, is it? Some scientists are taking this notion very seriously indeed.

I chose to explore the idea of the multiverse through poetry. If there are an infinite number of Universes, then there must be some in which poetry doesn’t even exist, or one that is identical to ours except for a single poem changed by a missing comma.

If physics could talk, what would it say to the multiverse? In some Universes you are reading this blog and in others not. If there are an infinite number of “yous” in the multiverse, there must be one that is a poet and another that is a scientist. On the other hand, if this Universe is really ‘all-that-is’, are you more alone, or less? The poems I wrote for Laboratorio explore some of these questions.

Laboratorio: Poems from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory

Our world and our everyday lives are infused with science: we use science, we abuse science, we need facts and figures, we live through statistics and predictions. We know that there are a million million stars in a galaxy, water is H20, the hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone. But, it seems to me, in a society that depends so much on science, what is missing is an emotional response. The iron in your blood was made in the core of a super-giant star: how does that make you feel? The Universe is 13.6 billion years old: do you care? The planet is 1 degree warmer: are you scared?

So perhaps science-inspired poetry is extremely important, a glue between facts and feelings, allowing us to explore how these ‘things we find out’ about reality really make us change as people. Perhaps, as we face climate change, technology changing our everyday lives, and science allowing us to live longer, science-inspired poetry is crucial in helping us understand the future we are creating and the Universe in which we live. Then again, maybe poems really are just words on a page but then, so are scientific papers.

Simon Barraclough will be joining a number of scientists from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory on 12 November to launch the new book and speak about his experiences. For more information and to book tickets, visit our website

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