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A Responsibility to Awe

Rebecca Elson

Edited by Anne Berkeley, Angelo di Cintio and Bernard O'Donoghue

Cover Picture of A Responsibility to Awe
RRP: GBP 12.95
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ISBN: 978 1 903039 54 0
Categories: Women
Imprint: OxfordPoets
Published: October 2001
217 x 137 x 12 mm
160 pages
Publisher: Carcanet Press
Also available in: Paperback, eBook (EPUB), eBook (Kindle)
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  • 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
        the sun
    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.
    Rebecca Elson
    REBECCA ELSON was an astronomer. Her principal work focused on globular clusters, teasing out the history of stellar birth, life and death. Born in Montreal, Quebec, of Canadian and US parents, she studied at Smith, St Andrews, and the University of British Columbia. She took her PhD at Cambridge, where she ... read more
    Bernard O'Donoghue
    Bernard O'Donoghue teaches Medieval English at Wadham College, Oxford,and has published seven books of poems, including Gunpowder, which won the Whitbread Prize for Poetry in 1995, and his Selected Poems (Faber, 2008). His verse translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was published by Penguin Classics in 2006. ... read more
    'A writer poised between professional scientific awareness and the pleasures and pains of personal life.'
    Dilys Wood, Artemis Poetry
    'If Stephen Hawkin's last book opened your eyes to science writing, Rebecca Elson's reissued A Responsibility to Awe will open your heart to it.'
    Tristram Fane Saunders, The Telegraph
    'With great poignancy, she shows us the world through the eyes of a human being faced by her finite time.'
    The Economist Books of the Year, 2001
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