Poems and photos offer insights into physics

December 24, 1999

Strathclyde University has unleashed two radical weapons - poetry and photography - in the battle to improve public understanding of science.

Dino Jaroszynski and Brian McNeil of Strathclyde's physics department have won Pounds 20,000 from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to help communicate their work to a wider public through poet Ian McDonough and photographer Peter Fraser.

The two visitors have spent some three weeks sitting in on laboratory experiments and interviewing academics, technicians and students. They plan to take a travelling exhibition of their work around schools, colleges and other universities.

Dr Jaroszynski, son of two artists, decided with Dr McNeil to use art to interpret the creativity of physics, rather than opting for workshops or a website. "Poetry and photography share properties with scientific research," he said.

"Poetry uses concise and elegant language to derive general principles from the chaos of everyday existence and is able to make intuitive leaps in describing the universe. Photography has an ability to observe and 'catch' the outer state of an object in a moment of time and at the same time illuminate its inner qualities or workings."

Scientists could be equally creative, spotting interesting juxtapositions or working on a hunch, he said.

"Look at some of the outstanding legacies in science that occurred through leaps of the imagination arising from the subconscious mind. There's Einstein's theory of relativity and Francis Crick's discovery of the structure of DNA," he said.

Here is an extract from "Strathclyde University Physics Department" by Ian McDonough:

Like an atheist concealed among the cloisters

I struggle through weak forces, leptons, quarks

Ears ringing with the plainsong of an alien world.

But this is our world. The quantum testaments,

More cryptic than a Gnostic text, reveal the workings

Of transistors, electricity, our household techno-Gods.

Labs hum with prayers of femtosecond lasers.

How many angels fit a pinhead? It depends

On where you make your observation from.

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