Byrne Seminar: The Poetry of Astronomy
Spring 2019

The Byrne Seminar program is sponsored by the Rutgers Office of Undergraduate Academic Affairs.

Prof. Andrew Baker
Department of Physics and Astronomy
Office: Serin Laboratory W309 (Busch Campus)
Office hours: TBD (or by appointment)
Phone: 848-445-8887
Email (preferred): ajbaker[at]

Prof. Carolyn Williams
Department of English
Office: Murray Hall 020 (College Avenue Campus)
Office hours: TBD (or by appointment)
Phone: 848-932-7680
Email (preferred): carolyn.williams[at]

Wednesday (2:50-4:10pm) in Murray Hall 002

No textbook is required for this course, although students who find the subject matter interesting may wish to purchase A Responsibility to Awe by the late astronomer Rebecca Elson.

Course description
Poetry inspired by the beauty of the night sky dates back more than two thousand years and is still written today. However, the progress of science means that the night sky increasingly offers knowledge as well as beauty and wonder, giving poets new subjects, concepts, and themes with which to work. This seminar will examine the poetry of astronomy — poems written on astronomical subjects, and in some cases by astronomers — from both literary and scientific perspectives, under the guidance of professors from the Departments of English and Physics & Astronomy. Each week will feature discussion of a set of astronomy-related poems with a common theme, building on an introduction to the modern understanding of relevant background material. As a capstone project, each student will conduct an interview with a research astronomer, whose contact information will be provided, and whose subject matter will inform the student's composition of a small set of original poems. The seminar will introduce students to the practice of research in both the humanities and the natural sciences and will have special appeal for those whose interests span both areas, although no familiarity with astronomy or writing poetry is required.

Your course grade will be PA/NC based on two elements:

For the final project, you will be required to (i) interview an astronomer, whose contact information will be given to you, about the subject and methods of his/her research; (ii) compose three poems inspired by your interview — one about the general subject matter of your interviewee's research, one about a specific project s/he is working on, and one about his/her experience of being a scientist; and (iii) provide a short description (just a few sentences) of each poem, providing information on its inspiration in terms of content and style. Final projects should be submitted to both instructors as PDF documents by email, or as paper copies, before the start of class on April 10.

The first meeting of this course will be in the second week of the semester, on January 30. For each of the first six meetings, we will spend the first half of class discussing poems and the second half of the class discussing aspects of astronomy that are relevant to the next week's assigned poems. The seventh meeting will be a practical workshop on how to write poems of your own; the eighth will be entirely devoted to the discussion of poems; and the last two meetings will be dedicated to discussion of students' poems.

  Jan 23 no class no class
1 Jan 30 introduction the night sky
2 Feb 6 the night sky gravity
  Feb 13 no class no class
3 Feb 20 gravity dark matter
4 Feb 27 dark matter cosmology
5 Mar 6 cosmology the stellar life cycle
6 Mar 13 the stellar life cycle instruments; being a scientist
  Mar 20 no class (spring break) no class (spring break)
7 Mar 27 writing your own poems  
8 Apr 3 instruments; being a scientist  
9 Apr 10 student poems  
10 Apr 17 student poems  

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Last updated January 25, 2019.