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June 2002

Science and poetry go hand-in-hand for MMM researcher

John Latham. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

When MMM’s John Latham won first prize this year in Britain’s prestigious Housman Poetry Competition, he put a new sheen on an already distinguished poetry career. The physicist has published five collections of his poetry and taken first prize in about 20 national poetry competitions in the United Kingdom—although the Housman, with its winning prize of £1,000 (about $1,500), is probably the most notable.

"Poetry to me is magical," he says. "I love words and I want to use them as well as I can."

John, who started composing verse about 20 years ago, confesses to a "quirky voice" in poetry. "I’m interested in the ludicrousness of life," he says. His winning entry in the Housman competition, "Construction on the Queen’s Highway," is a farcical—almost surrealistic—account of a police constable’s objections to the construction of a bus shelter for the blind made out of snow.

Partly because he wanted to spend more time writing poetry, John retired in 1988 as chair of the University of Manchester’s physics department in England. But he didn’t leave the atmospheric science field altogether. A periodic visitor to NCAR since 1965, John now works on a part-time basis as a senior research associate in MMM. His two primary areas of research are global lightning activity and the influence of clouds on global climate change. He was recently awarded a U.K. Tyndall Center Research Fellowship to work on the latter topic.

As for writing, John plans to publish a sixth volume of verse. He is also continuing to write plays and short stories (the BBC has broadcast some of them), and to teach aspiring writers in England.

How does he square his creative writing with the pursuit of hard scientific data?

"A lot of my friends ask, ‘Isn’t it schizophrenic to write poems and do science?’" John says with a smile. "But I would disagree. When you’re writing poems, you’re often looking for links between things and going into territory we don’t know much about. You’re looking for shapes and indications. That’s also true of scientific research: you’re searching for something that hasn’t been established before." • David Hosansky

Construction on the Queen’s Highway

Mr Woodberry is building a shelter for the blind
out of snow, at the bus-stop
which serves Whitley Marsh twice daily.
Last week’s heavy fall has settled,
his spade slices it as crisply as meringue,
and as he trolleys it in cubes
out of the damson field, he skips
to the crunch of iron wheels on ice.
By noon, when PC Seligman stops by,
it’s almost done—buttressed walls,
a bench to seat six passengers,
armrests for each one
with ashtrays hollowed from his elbow’s heat;
the roof and windows—his tour-de-force—
ice-sheets from Mr Maddock’s pond.
The constable ticks off his objections:
a permit is required for bus-stops,
no-one in the village is classified as blind,
even Mrs Carter’s cataracts are on the mend
and she never goes to Whitley anyway;
the shelter’s pretty, but his arse is frozen.
Mr Woodberry says he plans to stuff some sacks
with feathers, and who knows who might go blind
before the thaw. When the constable wonders
why he’s bothered to put windows
in a shelter for the blind,
he says Beethoven was deaf
yet his ears were always full of song.
Next morning, en route to the Post Office,
he spots a blind man in his shelter
who looks a little like PC Seligman
in dark glasses.
When Mr Woodberry smiles the man raises his cane.
—John Latham

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Edited by David Hosansky, hosansky@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Carlye Calvin
Last revised: Wed June 26 17:08:40 MST 2001