Don's diary: Science of catching the light

January 9, 2004

Friday: 8pm

We are back on board ship after opening up the British Antarctic Survey's summer base at Signy. I am taking time out from my astroplasma physics research to travel with the survey as an artist, and will spend a month on this science ship followed by a month on base on the peninsula.

The concept here is for a scientist to express the experience of discovery through art. What better symbol of discovery than Antarctica?

As we chat, the captain mentions, in a studiedly casual way, that I might consider getting up early tomorrow.

Saturday: 4.30am

On the bridge, there is not much to see at first. I begin to wonder if the biologists were right and this is just another wind-up to get the arty type up early. But the captain is at the helm and the chief mate is doing the navigation.

I peek at the chart. The Washington Straights is a narrow channel between the two main groups of the South Orkneys. We cut off a corner by taking this route, but it looks narrow and jagged, filled with icebergs, and the chart describes it as "uncharted, see note".

There is a serious hush on the bridge, that special time when it is just you and the bridge crew quietly working while nature unfolds its spectacle all around.

We set a course into the straights. The chief checks the charts by sextant observation of the land on either side, and this must have been the decisive moment - it has passed in complete silence without me noticing - as the chief suddenly rubs his hands together and says: "Right then, who's for a cup of tea?"

It reminds me of a live chess game years ago in London - Kasparov versus Short. After the opening preliminaries, Kasparov spent 25 minutes on a single move, the audience held rapt in silence. As soon as the move was made, everyone relaxed, and collectively wandered off to get drinks, shop and what have you. The course of the game was set.

I look out of the window and here are the chess pieces - huge white icebergs and black, snow-dusted mountains, teethjagged, all carefully arranged on a millpond-calm sea. The game is far from over, however, as we must now negotiate these leviathans in the confines of the channel. The captain steers us gingerly round them while the chief tracks our position carefully on the chart. I watch our progress unfold in pencil.

The ice is beautiful now, lit by the early morning light, and I start to sketch. Completely focused on the incandescent ice, I must simply fix down on paper something of the wonder of this place, this moment.

This may sound exactly like art and nothing like science. But consider, even as I work rapidly to catch the dawn light playing on the ice, I am thinking, using technique learnt through long practice. "Catching the light" - it feels to me like that exact experience of an idea itself, a connection, a sudden revelation of the solution to a long teased-out problem in physics. At that moment, I am swept away with its economy, its beauty, and must simply fix down on paper something of this idea, this moment.


Sandra Chapman is professor of space and astrophysics at Warwick University and a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, Harvard. As a National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts Dreamtime fellow, she is travelling as an artist with the British Antarctic Survey.

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