Event Review: Astronomy and Poetry, Dame S. Jocelyn Bell Burnell DBE FRS

Hosted by the Museum of the History of Science and Mansfield College, Oxford on Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

The public event ‘Astronomy and Poetry’ was a rarity—one that brought together literature’s stirring power with that of expert scientific knowledge.  Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered radio pulsars as a postgraduate student, is currently Professorial Fellow in Physics at Mansfield College, Oxford.  Until recently, she was president of the Institute of Physics and, in 2010, she received the Michael Faraday Prize and Lecture from the Royal Society in recognition of her excellence in communicating science.  

 Volunteer audience members were privileged to read aloud selected poems from the captivating anthology, Dark Matter: Poems of Space, which Professor Bell Burrell edited with poet Maurice Riordan in 2008, including poems by Diane Ackerman, John Herschel, Stanley Kunitz and Thomas Hardy.  As Paul Murdin of the Cambridge Institute of Astronomy remarked in 2009, ‘we reach for analogy and the architecture of poetry to express dark matter, black holes and red giants.’  Professor Bell’s generous sharing of her astronomical insight and affection for poetry demonstrated not only the aptness of the poetic form for expressing astrophysics but also the inherently poetic virtues of her science.

The event was accompanied by the Museum’s exhibition of science poetry by competition winners, entitled ‘Parallel Universe’ (see http://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/events/).