The ABC of Space
In conversation with Professor James Dunlop, Stuart Delves discovers how a metaphor can be used to decipher infinite ideas and mathematical complexities (and secure a healthy research funding packet to boot.)
Apart from anything else, he’s a dab hand at writing funding applications. His grant applications for research over the last five or six years total £7,289,959″
A burger with a cosmologist. Not any old cosmologist, if such a creature exists. But James Dunlop, Professor of Extra-Galactic Astronomy, and the current Head of the Institute for Astronomy, within the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh. His research interests are in extragalactic astronomy and cosmology: galaxy formation and evolution, the cosmic history of star formation, the first galaxies and cosmic re-ionization, and the connection between the growth of galaxies and black holes. He’s currently part of the global team that won the research opportunity with the Hubble Telescope to look deeper into space, nearer to the beginning of time, than any other human eye has ever done. So, apart from anything else, he’s a dab hand at writing funding applications. His grant applications for research over the last five or six years total £7,289,959.
That last £9 will just about cover the two cans of Punk IPA we’re washing our burgers down with. But I’m paying. I want to talk to him about the importance of good writing in science. I’ve known for a long time that Jimmy is a great communicator. And there’s the cat out of the bag! He’s a friend. Does that make any difference? Maybe only that he’ll not put on any airs and graces, which I’m not sure he’d do anywhere else anyway. More importantly, he’s relaxed. And being relaxed – the Punk helps, the connection helps – makes the conversation flow.
Fifteen years or so ago I asked him how big the universe was. (I was writing an article about Scotland’s contribution to Astrophysics for Scottish Government). “I could answer that in two ways,” he replied. “The first would be by way of a mathematical formula which probably wouldn’t mean much to you…” I nodded in assent and took a swig from the Miller Lite he’d given me…”Or like this: there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on every beach on Planet Earth.” I thought that was brilliant. It was a picture of enormity that the word enormous simply doesn’t convey. And I could sense how you’d need the maths to get a handle on that.
The need for clear language along with metaphors and anecdotes that bring the subject alive are of paramount importance.”
I’m an artist. He’s a scientist. Language is our common tool, the prerogative of neither school. The imperative of ‘only connect’ applies to both. And in the instances of writing for a lay audience or, probably more pertinently in the case of my lunch guest, an interdisciplinary audience, the need for clear language along with metaphors and anecdotes that bring the subject alive are of paramount importance.
Jimmy himself writes with masterly impact (the £7m) and creativity (those end to end beaches) and there was much agreement, over the scrunching of scrumptious courgette fritters, of the prerequisites and craft of good writing. (The fascination for me was the minefield and politics of grant-giving panels with its camps of allies and doubters.)
The necessity of clear, engaging writing was a given and is probably within the armoury and skillset of most leading academics, whatever their discipline. Jimmy and his ilk are in the middle, the equatorial layer of jam and cream in the Victoria Sponge. The need, in his view, for what Invisible Grail can offer, would be for early career post-docs to help them crystallise their thinking and – on the top layer – for VCs and Heads of School to help them navigate the political waters and reach the good port Clarity. (And save them reaching for any other kind of port.)
So, we’ve got something right! Next time I see Jimmy – which will be a teetotal event of course – I’ll ask him how this unbelievably vast universe can continue to expand at an ever increasing rate. It’s beyond me. But I’m confident, that through the right choice of words, Professor Dunlop will give me a handle.