Astronomy and Literature

6 October 2012

by Pippa Goldschmidt

2012 Writer-in-Residence


Tomorrow I’m giving a talk here about astronomy and literature. I’ll read out some poetry inspired by astronomy, including a poem by Rebecca Elson. She was a professional astronomer as well as a writer who died young several years ago.


She used data from telescopes to try to work out how galaxies were structured, how many stars they had and how much dark matter was required to keep them stable.


She was looking forward to using the Hubble telescope after its launch in 1990, but it was soon discovered to have something wrong with its optics (caused by human error when the lenses were made) so that all the images were out of focus.


Astronomers and engineers made some corrective lenses (a bit like spectacles) but until these could be flown out to the Hubble and attached they had to cope with the wonky images.


An ideal astronomical image shows the stars and galaxies as sharp as possible. The stars should be as small as possible – pinpricks of light. If they’re out of focus the light gets smeared out, and it’s more difficult to see where each star ends and the night sky begins.


When astronomers look at a cross section of a blurry star they refer to the smeared-out bits as ‘wings’. And it was this that inspired Rebecca Elson to write a poem about the Hubble before it was fixed, called ‘Aberration’, in which she’s made a thing of beauty from this mistake.


This is what I love about literature inspired by science. It can give you a picture that is more immediate than a formal scientific description. It can evoke emotions. Good scientific writing can do this, and an anthology like ‘The Faber Book of Science’ has some wonderful pieces. But too often the formal processes of producing science squeeze out the subjective response, the bit that allows the reader to make a connection with the scientist. This gap can be filled by imaginative literature.