The Journey

This is the first of three poems that I wrote and performed at the ‘Poetic Science’ event which was part of the Southampton Science and Engineering Festival Goes Digital in March 2021. The idea of the event was that a group of academics would write poetry about their research, I was one of the academics. Our first task from Dr Helen Eastman, who ran the workshops, was to write a poem about how we ended up doing our research, an origin poem, so this is mine, and it’s called ‘The Journey’.

So,

super

massive

black

holes

exist.

An actual thing,

at the very centre,

of every galaxy:

remarkable, colossal.

One hundred million suns,

squashed beyond physics.

Wheeled into the classroom, the large TV, the creaky wheels, our teacher, she pushes it and smiles.

I’m sat up front, first wooden bench, high on rickety wooden stool. Everyone is fixated in wonder.

The pure excitement of watching television in a science class. This is today’s lesson, watching TV.

Energy grows in all of us, the expectation, the theatre of it. Trolley wheels stop creaking, centre stage.

The show, Horizon, recorded by the teacher last night, she just had to show it to us all. Today.

The room is silent, brown wooden and cold – outside grey. Here we learn about Biology, normally, nature

but these blackholes on the screen, so big. They are nature too. Apparently,

so the screen says. How can they be? Our very own galaxy,

all the 100 billion galaxies, they all have one. A super massive black hole.

Sarah shouts ‘Is this right Miss? Is this really science?’ Miss responds ‘Yes’.

I’m totally transfixed. Behind me Kelly and Alex are giggling, some gossip,

but I don’t care. This new information, immense. My mind sparked. I didn’t know!

Could our Milky Way galaxy really be the host of something so enormous?

The scale and mass of it. It’s all so vast. Yet, it is… real.

The centre of everything.

You can do it. You. Make maps of active galactic nuclei A.K.A supermassive black holes.

See, examine. Be the first. You know, some have jets that extend for hundreds of light years.

Some don’t. It’s a mystery. You’ll get paid – to look at space, explore, travel to big telescopes.

Be the first to unravel it all, analyse data – this puzzling light.

You will be the centre. No-one else. No-one before you,

not this galaxy anyway, not in this way. It’s an enigma,

this science,

a dark art.

Radio waves

extending,

tracing jets.

X-rays too,

mapping

the swirl.

Become

an artist,

a witch.

Interpret

EM light.

The secrets.

The event

horizon.

Singularity.

It will be you.

You, the centre.

Image credit: here

This poem is also a ‘concrete poem’ in that I have tried to reflect the shape of the region around a supermassive blackhole in the shape of the words on the page so the middle section, the block of text represents the accretion disc around the black hole and then the longer stanzas either side represent the jets that are launched from near the edge of the blackhole and are linked to strong magnetic fields. You could also think of the final stanza’s shape as the path of material inside the blackhole to the singularity – which links well with me being at the centre of the research at the end of my PhD journey.

#Ilovemyjob

I really love my job, and we do so much exciting astronomy research here that I never run out of things to discuss with people. I organise events like our Stargazing Live! Evening events on campus and our #AstroAirport event in the departure lounge of a local airport and I also manage our school visits with the ‘Soton Astrodome’ mobile planetarium. I started a PhD and then got a job in outreach and public engagement. My PhD research was on Radio and X-ray Astronomy and specifically focused on the supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy called NGC 4051.

Why is it interesting?

NGC 4051 is a really interesting galaxy, it is very ‘active’ which means it is very bright when viewed through X-ray telescopes and it varies a lot. Based on it’s galaxy type you would not expect to see jet emission from near the supermassive black hole. However, when we used a radio telescope called the Very Large Array (VLA) we could in fact see evidence of a jet. So, a large part of my PhD thesis involved analysing data from this galaxy, and that of similar smaller mass black holes in an effort to understand why we saw jet emission where we did not expect to.

What got you into (your science)?

As a teenager I can remember wanting to be many things, my job aspirations changed on a monthly basis. I am not one of these people who has always dreamed of being an astronomer, I did not actually look through a telescope till I started my PhD here, in my early 20s. I have always found space really cool, of course, but along with dreams of being an astronaut or a pilot I also had played with the idea of becoming a Nun (like in Sister Act, with all the singing and Whoopi Goldberg as my best friend), a hair dresser, a graphic designer, an interior designer, a fashion designer and a web designer. I chose my A-levels Physics, Maths, Computing and Art with the idea of becoming one of the later, more creative careers. However, my Physics and Maths teachers were amazing and they made me realise how cool science was. I realised there were actually so many jobs related to Physics that I could do, and given I wasn’t that great at art a Physics degree seemed a better choice for me. I didn’t realise as a teenager that with a Physics degree you can actually aspire to be much more than a teacher or a scientist. Now, I realise that I did kind of become a mixture of both of those job personally, but I am very happy about this, and don’t regret this for a second! However, many of my friends who did Physics degrees with me have gone on to work in a variety of careers e.g. Engineering, Finance, Big Data, Medical Physics etc.


And finally, a fun fact about you…

I have recently taken up roller derby and after passing my minimum skills test in March 2017 I am now a member of the B Team with the Portsmouth Roller Wenches. It’s such a fun sport, you get to roller skate, meet amazing friends and get your aggression out in a constructive and competitive way. It’s one of the only sports where there are more women competing than men and I’m absolutely loving meeting all these strong, ambitious women and seeing them compete in this very physical sport, also being in a female dominated environment is not something I am used to working in a Physics department, so it’s a really nice change!