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Review of A Responsibility to Awe

Dark matter in poetic measure
Peter Howard PhysicsWeb January 2002

There has been much interest recently in collaborations between art and science. One difficulty with such ventures is that you have to bring together scientists who understand and appreciate art, and artists who understand science. This isn't always easy to achieve. Rebecca Elson, who died in 1999, would have been ideal for such a venture. She was both a successful astronomer and a fine poet, as this remarkable book, which brings together both her science and her art, makes clear.

Elson was born in Montreal in 1960, the daughter of a geologist father. Her interest in poetry began as a child, although it was not until 1987 that her first poems were published. At university she studied physics, obtaining an MSc from the University of British Columbia and then a PhD from the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University. After holding several post-doctoral fellowships in the US, she returned to Cambridge, where she worked from 1991 until her death. Her research focused in the main on stellar populations and star clusters in different environments.

Elson's concern was always to ground her scientific work in human terms. This cannot have been easy when studying the most distant globular cluster system ever observed. As she writes in an essay reprinted in the book: "There are times when the enterprise seems mechanical...and the mysteries of the Universe seem irrelevant to the lives we humans live down here." But time and again you can see her making connections between the physical and the moral, the universal and the human.

This is not a straightforward book of poetry. The first third contains Elson's poems, with a further half or so of the book devoted to extracts from her laboratory notebooks. It concludes with an essay entitled "From stones to stars", which describes her scientific education and career - from assisting with her father's geology fieldwork as a child, to her research into star clusters at Cambridge.

The essay was originally prepared for a forthcoming collection of autobiographical essays by alumnae of the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College in the US. It contains several sharp comments on academic society from the perspective of a female scientist. Cambridge is fortunate to get off much more lightly than Princeton. As Elson writes: "Of course Cambridge was dominated by men, but...Princeton on the other hand was irrefutably male, both in the occupants of E building, where the astronomers worked, and in the way the place was run. In indefinable ways, it was alienating."

Elson's poems tend to be highly compressed, and visually very specific. There are echoes of Dickinson, Millay, even Plath, in places. None of those poets, though, could have written a poem that begins:

Having picked the final datum
From the universe
And fixed it in its column,
Named the causes of infinity,
Performed the calculus
Of the imaginary i...

Elson not only writes such a poem, she makes it sexy, and calls it Carnal Knowledge.

Many of her poems relate science to the human scale, which often results in beautiful metaphors of scientific concepts. In the poem Explaining Relativity, for example, she gives about as good an explanation of general relativity as one could hope for in three lines:

It's so much more a thing of pliancy, persuasion,
Where space might cup itself around a planet
Like your palm around a stone

Not all the poems are concerned with science. From one perspective, Elson was a person who just happened to do science. Her poems reflect her concerns, which happened to include science. But there are also poems about nuns bathing, hanging out her husband's boxer shorts to dry, and a reunion in which family members are portrayed as boats. There is a hilarious poem about kitchen appliances, followed by a reflection on the mice that researchers use to study the cancer from which she ultimately died. By mixing her science poems with those of a more general nature, Elson makes them seem less specifically "scientific" and more just part of her concerns as a human being. This makes them less frightening and easier to approach for readers without a scientific background.

The notebook extracts - which are literary, rather than scientific - are arguably the most fascinating part of the book. They contain material from four notebooks that were written by Elson between 1991 and her death. Although there are references to her astronomical work, these occur when she is using that work as material for a poem or essay. There are no equations and no musings on any astronomical data.

Many of the notebook entries are in verse, and it is often tempting to read these as poems. However, this approach should be resisted. The entries are quite clearly drafts and experimental approaches - rather than final, polished works. Nevertheless, there is more poetry in some of these drafts than in many "finished" poems I have seen, and the temptation to read them as completed pieces can be irresistible.

Consider the following example, from an entry headed Travelling Light, written on 11 September 1996:

We carry what comforts and sustains
Which can be space itself & time
Not things, which only weigh us down
Stepping gently over the earth
If you could move like light
How things would slow, & stop

Sometimes Elson can be seen worrying at the same idea over several years, trying different approaches, different articulations to her poetry. Her notebook extracts, for example, reveal the various attempts that she made to communicate the idea of dark matter. She is not trying to explain the concept, but trying to convey why it is fascinating to her, why it is important. The five-line poem Dark Matter that emerges from this process is a model of clarity and concision:

Above a pond,
An unseen filament
Of spider's floss
Suspends a slowly
Spinning leaf.

It must have been very difficult and also frustrating for the editors of the notebook extracts - Angelo di Cintio (Elson's husband), and her friend and fellow poet Anne Berkeley - to decide what to include in the book, which seems to contain less than a fifth of the original material. The editors have, however, tried to show the range of the material in the notebooks, and to give an impression of Elson's working methods. I think they've succeeded. But rather like trying to infer the properties of dark matter from the stars you can see, it is difficult to tell when you do not know what was left out.

I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone interested in poetry or science, or who simply wants to learn more about the remarkable Rebecca Elson.

Peter Howard is a telecommunication systems design consultant and a poet, e-mail He knew Rebecca Elson through her poetry, and was a member of the same writing group in Cambridge
Previous review of 'A Responsibility to Awe'... To the Rebecca Elson page... To the 'A Responsibility to Awe' page...
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