Astronomy and Poetry

Last night I went to a lecture about Astronomy and Poetry by Prof. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell is one of the country’s leading astronomers and a champion of women in science. As a graduate student she discovered pulsars, opening up a new branch of astrophysics. As a hobby she collects poetry about astronomy and space.

Astronomy is a fast moving subject, with new discoveries rolling in regularly. How have poets responded to these discoveries? What topics have caught their attention and what have they not written about? Are they pro-science or anti?

She was introduced along with the idea that art is science and science is an art.  That the two strands, which our society holds separately, were until recently considered parts of a whole rather than distinct paths where one is often seen as more superior than the other.

She touched on many things, obviously given the lecture was only an hour she was unable to go into much depth but it was a great lecture and I’m so pleased I went.  My notes involve half formed ideas which is pleasing.  Hopefully these thoughts will be turned over in my mind, observed from different angles, questioned, prodded until they tumble out as poems.

She mentioned the electromagnetic spectrum and emphasised how little of it we can see with the naked eye.  How different would our experiences be if we could see more of the spectrum?

Orion, the mandatory constellation, was rolled out.  This felt a bit cliched but apparently it is a good one to use from a teaching perspective – it includes stars that are going out and stars that are being born.  Did you know that Betelgeuse (the name of the top left star in Orion) translates as sexy armpit? (Wikipedia disputes this but there you go, make up your own mind).

There were a few readings from poets who have written about astronomy and she looked at themes poets tend to focus on:

  • radiotelescopes
  • the scale of the universe
  • the big bang
  • black holes
  • space exploration
  • comets
  • the moon
  • planets

Apparently in her research into astronomy and poetry she struggled to find many.  There are a few poets who write a lot about astronomy but in the last 50 or so years she managed to find a hundred and something poems about astronomy (discounting those where it makes a passing entrance and those where the science was wildly incorrect).  I really would have expected it to be an overdone topic.  It made me feel better about my own astronomy poem:



A heart

Twice as dark

As coal.

Creator and destroyer.

A tail of chalkdust

Writing history.

Fade to dust.

Burn to catastrophe.

One of the poems read about the size of the universe was Antler’s ‘On Learning on the Clearest Night Only 6000 Stars are Visible to the Naked Eye’ which is well worth a read.  There are about a hundred, thousand, million stars in our galaxy and about a hundred, thousand, million galaxies in the universe.

Do the one hundred

Thousand millions of stars

Scare or liberate?

She also touched on the amount of time it takes for light to travel across a galaxy which bought to mind this poem:

All things pass

All things pass

Stars, even

Constellations now ghosts of myths

Rock solid North Star

Guiding sailors for lifetimes

No longer hangs

In the tapestry

Of the sky

All things pass

The lecture was really interesting and sparked off some thoughts which will hopefully turn themselves into something creative.  I’m really interested in the interplay of science and art and would love to do more to intertwine them.  Five years ago I completed a masters in mathematics and I’ve always wanted to bring this into my writing and the creative aspect of me, I’ve got close a few times but it’s always felt forced and that never brings out the best poems.  I shall keep pondering it.

Some recipes with your poetry?

Writing prompts


No bread and honey

To the family name, just

Granma’s bees, now Dad’s.



A hello today

Marking tomorrow’s goodbye





Equations untying pasts,

Predicting futures

Bit of a plug:

This weekend I went to the Women’s Holiday Centre in Horton in Ribblesdale. The house is an amazing women’s only space which really feels like home.  They charge on a sliding scale to keep it affordable and the cost includes the food that’s kept in the house (all vegetarian) and available for you to prepare meals with.  It’s about a 7 minute gentle walk from a train station and is nestled at the foot of Pen-y-Ghent.  It’s brilliant!  Go along on your own, with a friend or book the whole house like we did.

Whilst I was there, I also booked into a creative writing workshop as the one I did last year was wonderful. Really supportive, inspiring and positive.

Recipes from weekend

The weekend really played into the part of me that likes to cook for people.  ‘Recipes’ may be stretching it a bit but here you go…

Bananajacks (vegan)
A cross between banana bread and flapjack, hence the name!  In a pan, gently heat three handfuls of chopped dates with two handfuls of brown sugar. Once they start to melt together add six chopped bananas. Once melted into a sticky smoothish mix add as many oats as the mix will take. Bake in a greased tray in a preheated oven (180) for 15-20 mins.

Chocolate brownie (vegan)
Make this recipe but I would replace the sugar with brown sugar (I’m really rubbish at fully following recipes but brown sugar makes it stickier). If you can, add chocolate chips.  Once cool, ice with a fudgy buttercream chocolate topping – two tablespoons of (vegan) butter, 1 tablespoon of cocoa powder, a teaspoon of so of (soya/oat) milk and keep adding icing sugar until it’s fairly thick and stiff and when you taste test it, it doesn’t taste too greasy.

Chickpea, lentil and spinach curry (vegan)
70g red lentils per person
80g chickpeas per person
Lots of spinach
Per person, roughly: half a clove of garlic, half a teaspoon of… turmeric, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, ground coriander, garam masala, tiny amount of chilli powder (tip of a spoon)
Lemon juice
Fresh coriander

Fry garlic, turmeric, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, ground coriander, ground cumin, chilli powder into a paste. Stir in lentils. Add water to cover lentils. Keep stirring. After five minutes add chickpeas. You might need to add more water as the lentils absorb it. Once the lentils have cooked down (15-20 mins after putting them on), taste it. It might need a pinch of salt or some more cumin or coriander. Stir in spinach. It will wilt down a lot so you’ll need more than you think. Stir through a splash of lemon juice and some fresh chopped coriander.

Serve with rice, chapattis and yoghurt.  Reheats and freezes well.