When you ask a scientist why they chose their career, quite a few will cite some form of science fiction as an early inspiration. In turn, science fiction is often the source of some the most influential technologies now in use or being actively pursued in research labs.
British novelist Arthur C. Clarke, for instance, is probably most famous for penning 2001: A Space Odyssey. But he is also frequently credited with popularizing the concept of a space elevator in his 1979 novel The Fountains of Paradise.
Artist’s concept of a space elevator
For me, one of the more innovative uses of literature to get the public excited about astronomy has got to be the Space Poem Chain, an outreach project run by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
“JAXA i” public information center, Marunouchi Oazo, Tokyo
—Photograph by Victoria Jaggard
Volume 3 of this unique collection got underway this month, with JAXA announcing the fifth link in the current chain today.
The idea behind a poem chain is for different authors to create a new poem based on the one that came before it, linking the verses by theme. JAXA’s version outlines some very specific rules for contributors to follow.
Akin to the syllable count of a traditional haiku, the poem chain must follow a 3-5-3 rule—if the previous poem had three lines, the next will have five, then three again, and so on. Authors are then asked to use a word or phrase from the previous poem as a starting point without making the connection too obvious.
For example, contest judge Kiwao Nomura notes that the fifth poem follows the theme of love set out by the fourth poem’s last line, but it “changes the tone completely.”
The light of hope breathing in each leaf and blade of grass
The cosmos is not dark once you take wing into its bosom
Man and woman being a couple of daisies in love
Though we hold hands we are as sun and earth an eternal distance
Is the tick-tock of the clock measuring
our time? Or is it erasing our time?
Each time the universe revolves
our future life turns in an instant into the past
Anyone from around the world can submit their poems over the Internet, although occasionally JAXA asks an astronaut, astronomer, or professional poet to send in a link. Poet Ryoichi Wago, for example, has been asked to submit the sixth poem by October 3.
The finished chain will be 24 verses long, and a copy will be sent for storage on Japan’s Kibo module aboard the International Space Station.
My only beef with the project so far is that none of the winning entries have much to do with actual space science, it’s really all abstract art.
Since it’s kind of a moot point in terms of entering the contest, here’s what I would have submitted for poem 6—anyone else want to give it a go?
In five billion years the light will give birth to a giant
Will we still stand as witnesses to the blossoming red? Or
Are we doomed even before our marbled home is swallowed whole?