Essay on Jocelyn Bell Burnell

The following essay was completed for the first year English course Literature, Science, and Technology. It was written following Burnell’s appearance at Mount Allison University for her “Reflections on a Life in Science’, delivered in early 2012.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell: Reflections on a Life in Science

“[Poetry is] the blossom and fragrance of all human knowledge, human thought, human passions, emotions, language.”[1]

-Samuel Taylor Coleridge

For Coleridge, Wordsworth, and the English Romantics, poetry was the fullest manifestation of human existence through the medium of artistic expression. It was through their alluring prose that they found personal fulfillment and meaning in a world otherwise cold, crude, and indifferent. In the work and through the words of Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, we see a renewal of this humanistic aspect of poetry, evident throughout her address on A Life of Science, delivered to Mount Allison University in January of 2012.

There is much to be found in the character of Dame Burnell, not limited to her scholarly accomplishments and discoveries as a scientist. In her address, she displayed personal conviction and moral dignity, and articulated her thoughts with both clarity and eloquence. In her reflections on poetry, another side of Dame Burnell is revealed. Her work on astronomy within poetry and prose must be read as artistic expressions of her identity as a scientist, combined with her aspirations as an artist – aesthetic reflections on the joys, pleasures, trials, and transgressions of her lived experience.

Poetry is often considered to be one of the highest forms of art, an attempt to seemingly create meaning from nothing or “out of nothing”.[2] But poetry is never a completely generative endeavour. All poetry could be understood as the result of some particular historical conjecture; in the text there can be found a reflection of the various social processes, cultural mores, or economic circumstances that gave rise to contexts within which such texts could be created. Science and technology are both important determinants of such conditions, and exert great influence on the nature and extent of all artistic pursuits, not only limited to the realm of poetry and prose.

Despite the revolutionary advancement in science, technology, and civilization since the age of the English Romantic Poetry, humans still look for meaning in their lives. Dame Burnell is an astronomer whose professional life is largely concerned with studying objects throughout the cosmos, sometimes hundreds of millions of light years away from this planet, an experience which inevitably leads one to question one’s own role and place in a universe, otherwise cold and indifferent. I was interested to discover that Dame Burnell also a person with devout religious convictions, and a strong believer in God.[3] This conflict between science and religion is becomes implicitly apparent in a close reading of her work on poetry.

In dark matter: poems of space, Bell presents an anthology of poetry by various poets, from Dante to Robert Frost, all of which concern the stars and other aspects of outer space. Bell explains that “research in astronomy … [and] our working culture requires total attention – it helps to be obsessive”.[4] Her anthology is an attempt to explore poetry, which has become one of her primary interests when she is not in the lab.

Dame Burnell’s foray into poetry is much more than attempts to merely explore a new interest. It is an attempt to find meaning and fulfillment in human life, in the same spirit of the English Romantics. Burnell’s own work she has produced on astronomy in poetry is itself a byproduct of the “fast-moving, dynamic and unpredictable” professional environment. Dame Burnell has been widely credited with discovering neutron stars called Pulsars. Decades later, her disposition towards discovery and curiosity is ever evident in her explorations of poetry.


[1] Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Arthur Symons, Poems of Coleridge, Reprint ed. ([Whitefish, MT]: Kessinger Publishing, 2004), pg. 14, accessed Winter 2012, http://books.google.ca/books?id=F-x9JswYsPIC.

[2] Michael Mack, “The History of Creativity,” in Sidney’s Poetics: Imitating Creation (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2005), pg. 20, accessed Winter 2012, http://books.google.ca/books?id=Quw8LGsS2v0C.

[3] Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, “Belief,” interview by Jim Al-Khalili, BBC Radio 4, October 25, 2011, Transcript, accessed Winter 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b016812j.

[4] S. Jocelyn. Burnell, “Introduction,” introduction to Darkmatter: Poems of Space, ed. Maurice Riordan, Illustrated ed. (London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2008), pg. 16, accessed Winter 2012, http://moodle.mta.ca/file.php/13592/Dark_Matter_-_Intro.pdf.

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About amchartrand

I am a fourth year undergraduate student pursuing a Bachlor of Arts degree with Honours in International Relations.
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