from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Friday, 26 August 2011

never too late to repent (science for artists)

How I wish I'd paid more attention to my science lessons at school. Biology consisted in low-level stand-offs between me and the somewhat eccentric Sister Consuela (with whom I got shut in the catacombs in Rome once – another story, full of terror, trauma and shudderings; life has never been the same since), when my radicalised 11-year-old self refused in a quiet well-mannered Good Catholic Girl way to dissect frogs, mice, and bulls' eyes. 

Chemistry was a blur of boredom once broken by a minor explosion. 

Maths: well, I never really got the hang of it, and in fact failed my GCE O level (twice), unlike my younger sister who's a bit of a mathematical genius. But I love the patterns in maths; the excitement of its appearances in, say, phi, the Fibonacci sequence to which the Golden Section in art and architecture conforms, and which lies behind the spiral forms of fiddlehead fern, a pine cone, a nautilus shell – even the breeding patterns of rabbits! (And now as a creative writing tutor I can offer poetry sessions in maths classrooms and work in the Fibonacci sequence...) 

Physics was a different matter – I didn't always get that entirely, either, but how I loved some of the concepts, and I didn't do too badly in my O level exam. And a beginner's enthusiasm for quantum reality has inspired many poems; as has the occasional conversation with my friend Mario Petrucci, himself a poet and physicist.

So here I confess to being a poetry traitor – some of my work is adulterated courtesy of the New Scientist. You can't read novels or poetry all the time; not even right-on heavyweight non fiction books. If I want to relax, it's Asterix. If I want to be stimulated in small soundbites it's the less intense news pieces in NS. And sometimes some of the things I learn find their way into my poems. And this week there were some interesting little snippets, in Michael Brooks' Science column in the New Statesman, which I'll share with you here this wet Devon Friday morning:
  • Researchers think that earth was formed dry and water arrived on meteorites
  • Hydrogen, oxygen and carbon atoms make up more than 90% of your body weight
  • The gas cloud Sagittarius B2 contains roughly a billion billion billion litres of alcohol at 200% proof – more alcohol than human beings have distilled in their history... the bad news is that filling a single glass would involve trawling a volume roughly the size of earth, Brooks cautions those minded to head off for a space party...

The poem below, from my 2005 collection Looking for Icarus, was inspired as it says by a crash course in an aspect of physics:

Physics Lesson

Optoelectronics: you scribe the tongues
of lithium, niobium - molecules
which rearrange the fabric of us all
as surely, as improbably as love.

I’m picturing tectonics: grinding plates
of continents beneath the heaving oceans
meshing in uneasy shifts beyond the reach
of light, of all our knowing.

This spinning planet’s wild arcane interior,
throbbing secret lives, drawn briefly
down to this: this triangle on paper, captive
atoms whirling in their disenfranchised

orbits, knocking on the sides, against each other
in their frenzy to be free  and glyph-less –
these fish-tanks, when what they wanted
                                                            was the sea.
© Roselle Angwin 2005


  1. oh yes, I too wandered through the sciences not quite getting it. I loved the van diagrams and algebra but never managed to get do any sums with it. But my maths teacher used to suck sugar violets and I loved that. She would put her head on her (raised) desk and cry when I showed her my attempts. And we had to spit into test tubes and the boys were disgusting, getting as much phlegm as possible, which really put me off mircroscope work.
    I too am interested in reading the odd scientific article even if it is just to feel I am on the edge of the unknown!

  2. That made me smile, Veronica!


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