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A Responsibility to Awe
Edited by Anne Berkeley and Bernard O'Donoghue
ISBN: 978 1 903039 54 0
Published: October 2001
216 x 135 x 12 mm
Publisher: Carcanet Press
I was born in the coldest hour of the night
At four in the morning in a blizzard
At the time of the year when the earth comes closest to
On the second day of the decade of free love
And walking on the moon.
from 'Journal, 7 May 1997'
Rebecca Elson was an astronomer. Her work took her to the boundary of the visible and measurable. 'Facts are only as interesting as the possibilities they open up to the imagination,'she wrote. Her research involved 'dark matter' (hidden mass which can be inferred only from its influence on observable objects) 'As if, from fireflies, one could infer the field.' Her poems, too, make inferences and speculate, setting out always from meticulous observation and not deterred by a knowledge of how little we can know of the universe.
She agreed with Einstein's 'A clear explanation that anyone can understand' she makes it possible for general readers to imagine how space curves, how each of us centres a universe of our own, and how much more there may be than our technologically enhanced perceptions allow us to experience. Extracts from notebooks record the ways in which she refined her understanding of 'The known human forces, love & hunger, fear and hope/All the invisible things in this world/That leave their traces'. She also explores her own approaching death.
A Responsibility to Awe collects her best poetry and extracts from her notebooks. An autobiographical essay provides background to this alert imagination, from her upbringing as a geologist's daughter in Canada to her scientific career around the world.
REBECCA ELSON's scientific work focused on globular clusters, teasing out the history of stellar birth, life and death. Born in Montreal, she studied in Canada and took her Ph.D. at Cambridge where she won an Isaac Newton Studentship. She started publishing poems while working on the first Hubble data at Princeton, and researched at the Harvard Centre for Astrophysics. In 1991 she returned to the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge. She died in Cambridge in 1999, aged 39.
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