Essential Information

Royal Observatory

18 Oct 2015

On Thursday November 12th, in the Peter Harrison Planetarium, scientists and poets gather to launch Laboratorio.

The title of this new anthology refers to UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL) but nestled within it is oratorio: this is science for voices, verbal music, song, poetry, lyricism, wordplay, and maybe even a dash of mysticism. We hear from the author and editor Simon Barraclough.

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Laboratorio is the most tangible fruit of my year as poet-in-residence at MSSL in 2014. Drawn to the enigmatic facility (it hides out in the Surrey hills disguised as a genteel country house) while researching  my latest book Sunspots, I felt strangely at home despite being something of an outsider.

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I loved getting lost in its corridors, climbing the stairs flanked by a genuine Skylark rocket, hiding out in the library, peering into ‘cleanrooms’, weaving between engineering huts full of fascinating components for space missions. The lab is a treasure trove for a poet interested in astronomy, science, history and people.

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So I proposed a stint as resident writer and with help from Professor Lucie Green and the Science and Technology Facilities Council, I started visiting the lab regularly in January 2014. Over the course of the year I ran ‘poetry sessions’ open to anyone with an interest in poetry, creative writing, extra-curricular pursuits, meeting new colleagues, getting to know the site better, and of course to anyone who wondered what on Earth a poet was doing in their workplace.

We looked at work by Edwin Morgan, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Shakespeare, Andre Breton, Phillipe Soupault, Samuel Beckett, P.K. Page and several others. One of the more memorable sessions involved 16 of us sitting out in the surprisingly hot April Sun performing Morgan’s ‘The First Men in Mercury’, and enjoying that poem’s transformation of Mercurian into English and vice-versa.

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I encouraged individual writing and collaborations and six of us wrote a performance piece about, and set in, the tiny observatory in the gardens of the lab. It’s called ‘Observatoratorio’ and can be heard online at Soundcloud.

I’m thrilled with the range and quality of work produced over the year and Sidekick Books’ beautiful design (featuring photos from the lab, and silverfish) enters completely into the spirit of the project.

Across 100 pages you will find: a poignant tale about the Iron Age foremothers of the site the lab is built on; a fabulously inventive sequence in which Physics clashes sabres with The Multiverse; you will find out what happens to the Earthbound ‘flight spare’ that is left behind while its double explores the universe; there are a couple of terrific guest poets who I met en route; there’s a meditation on what would happen if Jupiter didn’t exist and there are poems about the intricacies and mundanities of the life scientific…there really is far too much to summarise here.

The launch event will reveal even more and the Planetarium is the perfect place for all these subjects, styles and personalities to come together. Join me, Marek Kukula, Professor Lucie Green and contributors to Laboratorio to hear more and to join in the discussion about science, art, poetry, collaboration and the cross-pollination of disciplines. As a quick taster, here are a few lines from the book’s closing poem:

My heart detects gamma rays

they sent it into space

on a long-forgotten mission and now

it’s a paperweight

All we have are data points and mathematics

you told me midway through That Time by Beckett

as we sat in the Sun burned

by its data

(from Missal by Simon Barraclough)