Popular Science Writing

These are a selection of poems written by Professor Anne Osbourn.

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 visually appealing. However my concern is that Newton’s observations are artefacts 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 specialised 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 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

Mrs Linnaeus

It was late September. I’d just put
the little one to bed when he comes
back from his Arctic trip, smelling of
reindeer shit, blowing that damned bugle
like there was no tomorrow.

He throws his kit bag down on the
table, puts his feet up, starts
telling me stories of Tjamotis, Kvikkjikk,
Sorsele, the Lapp who tried to drink
seawater – Oh, how they all laughed.

I used to love those days in the summer
when he would take me
through the North Gates (so to speak),
and out into the meadows,
feed me mead made from mountain honey.

Now he’s become a pain in the arse.
Sends his students off round the world
collecting cocoa, banana, cassava.
Thinks they’ll grow here. Sweden. Imagine it!
Thinks he’ll save us all from starvation.

I didn’t have the heart to tell him
about Darwinian adaptation.

Half of his students have died
of tropical diseases, or sunk with ships,
including that poor boy Tilland;
and I’m the one that the wives come to
when they want to vent.

The house is full of dead plants, insects,
ants from exotic places, remnants of reindeer dung.

Mirabilis jalapa

opens her flowers at night
behind closed doors of darkness,
unfurls her petals;
she is visited by moths.

We pick bunches of her,
put her in a cupboard.
When we open the door
she is caught, exposed,
shyly folds as we watch.

Linnea borealis

Slender stem, split at the top,
two white bell-shaped flowers,
perfectly symmetrical,
as if the plant had pressed herself.

The Tansley Rap

Heads up, this is a state-of-the-nation
for all out there who love vegetation,
from the lowly moss Sphagnum cuspidatum
to the trees and the green plantations.

There’s a rhythm in the breeze,
in the buzzing of the fat bees
that navigate the foxgloves.
Listen my loves:

download Jay-Zee
on your iPad, on your phone,
rap about a pea pod, Acts of God;
C3, C4, fancy photosynthesis

the floral clock, tick tock, tick tock,
take stock of that sweet intricate
nodular talk
that goes on underground

Shout about the drugs they make:
morphine, thebaine,
the opiates that ease the pain

Salvia divinorum
is so full of shit
it can make you think you’re a

Switch on to the fact that
there’s a big green world out there,
grass to roll in, daisies to plait,
leis to put round the neck of Captain Cook.

Look at them there in my garden
the Orchidaceae, the Scrophulariaceae,
the Euphorbiaceae
(those bastards have big genomes);

they are looking at me
with their pollen yellow eyes,
their colourful petals;
oh, how I want to read their DNA,
see their innermost planty secrets,
know how they work.