Popular science writing

These are a selection of poems written by Prof Anne Osbourn for the Poetry of Science: 'Poetry from the 'Looking up' series', followed by a series of writings.




What am I?
Fingers, hands, arms,
feet, legs, torso;
the spines of a star
crossing the core.

I hold my palm to the light.
It glows a bloody sunset.
Fleeting corpuscles
safely contained in their
high-pressure vessels.

Oxygen traces the
upside-down tree
and slips across into the warm river,
colour changing blue to red.

The scent of mock orange.

rods and cones.
Light becomes chemicals,
neurones flash starbursts.

The brain reads the electric braille.
The brain sees.

It sees you.


When I was little
I would sit
in the middle
of the gravel drive
and concentrate myself cataleptic.

Pale orange dress,
pattern: white blossom, green leaves.

I am not real.
I am not here.

A sense of dizziness.
The world is spinning out.
The universe is yawning,
and I am at the eye.

The garage,
the coal bunker,
Mr Kershaw’s fence.
The purple moor.

Not there.
Don’t exist.

Two universes,
one spinning out,
the other spinning in.

But I would only be cataleptic
until tea time.


The egg that will be me is already there
in the ovary of the unborn child
in the belly of the woman
behind the counter at “Stan’s Plaice.”

Russian dolls.

Not the full proto-doll, though.
This egg will contain
twenty-three chromosomes.
Half of the pieces in the jigsaw.

“Fish and chips twice, love.”

The scale of things is something to consider.
Andromeda, two million light years away
and retreating.

The egg.
A tiny dot.
A jot of protoplasm.


Photons are dispensable.

The requirement for light -
reflected, scattered, refracted -
can be short-circuited.
Electrical stimuli
can make the brain see,
even in the dark;

images that are not from the real world.

Half of me

Half of me

thinks that I can hear the muffled sound of a trombone
except, of course, I have no ears.
I’m just a jot of
Merely a

Brush strokes

Eva is an artist.
She paints chromosomes.

The gene for love, coloured red
lies close to the telomere on chromosome five
next to envy
green as cat’s eyes.

Hope is polygenic,
scattered through the genome
like gold dust.

Questionable judgement

Even Newton had to please the peer reviewers.

Nepotism, cronyism and corruption are always a concern in scientific publishing. But there isn’t anything new about this. It is an age-old tradition. Take, for example, this letter, which was shown to me by one of the archivists at the Royal Society:

Dear Mr Newton

Thank you for submitting your manuscript “The theory of light and colours, Newton, I” (m/s no. 1672-6) to The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. The manuscript has now been assessed by three independent reviewers. Their comments are as follows:

Reviewer #1:

Newton reports the splitting of white light into different colours (he claims at least seven). The data are well presented and the figures are visually appealing. However my concern is that Newton’s observations are artifacts arising from the corruption of light by aberrations in his prism. Newton has attempted to counter this criticism by using a glass lens (which may also have its imperfections) to focus the coloured rays onto a wall. The result of this experiment was white light. Newton regards this as an unequivocal demonstration that white light is indeed comprised of multi-coloured components. I disagree. Two wrongs do not make a right; seven colours do not make white light. I regret that I am unable to support the publication of this treatise in The Philosophical Transactions. I trust that the more specialized journals will be equally cautious.

Reviewer #2:

White light is pure. Newton, with his cut-glass prism and his warped lens, has adulterated it - transformed it into vulgar colours. He has destroyed purity and created an illusion. In my view Newton spends too much time in a darkened chamber illuminating things, with only a dog for company. I believe that he should get out more; fresh air will replenish his soul (although I do appreciate that the Plague has made life a little tricky recently). The Philosophical Transactions is a highly regarded journal. It will lose all credibility if it agrees to publish heresy of this kind.

Reviewer #3:

Newton has destroyed the majesty of the rainbow. He has taken something intangible and called it “refrangible”. This is untenable in my view.

As you can see from the above comments, the response to your treatise has not been favourable. Reviewers #1 and #2 have substantial doubts about the validity and ethics of your interpretations, respectively, while reviewer #3 has more aesthetic concerns. I have re-read the reviewers’ comments several times and have studied your manuscript in detail. The decision has not been easy. However I also consulted the Editor-in-Chief, who confirms that he did indeed make light in many colours. Or at least he thinks he did. He can’t quite recall the details; it was a very long time ago. In summary, after much careful consideration, and in view of your generous gift of a reflecting telescope to the Society, I am pleased to say that I am willing to accept your article for publication in The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Please note that the cost of production of colour figures is likely to be substantial. Blew, in particular, is an expensive pigment.

I wish you continued success in your new areas of research on gravity, tidal forces and the universe.


Henry Oldenburg

Secretary to the Royal Society

The poetry of science

"During the past year, I have taken part in an experiment in which I have been the experimental animal. I was awarded a fellowship that gave me the opportunity to take a sabbatical from science and spend a year in the School of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.

The School of Literature and Creative Writing is internationally renowned, and past students include household names such as Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Trezza Azzopardi and Tracy Chevalier.

I have a keen interest in creative writing and had written a few short stories. This was a formidable but thrilling challenge. During my adventure, I realised that, in many ways, I was coming home..."

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