Tag Archive: Darwin’s Microscope

The Muse

May 2011.

I have a full draft of Double the Stars: the Life and Adventures of Miss Caroline Herschel. The past months, since last autumn, I’ve been ‘working on’ the novel in the sense of letting it rest and brew, or simmer, in the back of my mind. Phrases and scenes will float up, and I’ll jot them down. I’m gearing up to revise this draft, and I’m not sure exactly when that’s going to happen, but I’m hoping to really sit down and thrash it out sometime in the next few months.

The reason I say ‘I’m hoping’ (because really, don’t I just have to do it?) is because I’ve been completely immersed in researching anatomical wax models for this poetry play, Venus Heart. The Wellcome Library will either stick a barcode on me or start charging rent. Happily, I was accepted as a Founding Member of Henry’s Club, so I have a place to go have tea when the dissected bodies all become too much.

Meanwhile, I’ve been writing poems and re-drafting for a chapbook, or pamphlet-length work, Atlantic. At present, I’m not sure if it will become a pamphlet, or if it will wait until it’s ready to be a full-length poetry collection. These are very personal poems about my father’s death, my grandparents ageing and dying, and ideas of family, and living abroad. It is themed around the Atlantic ocean, but not so strictly as the themes in Darwin’s Microscope, or of course the close-framed story and history in Venus Heart.

So while the novel simmers, the hand turns to poetry.

Poetry at the Whipple: Darwin’s Microscope

Thursday 23 July, 2-3pm, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Cambridge.

Free and open to the public.

Kelley Swain is working in collaboration with The Whipple Museum of the History of Science as writer-in-residence to promote science literature through a series of readings, lectures, and writing workshops. On 23 July, Kelley will read from her first book of poetry, Darwin’s Microscope, (Flambard Press,) inspired by her research on Charles Darwin as well as her own studies in biology, from rhododendron to mangroves, sea scallops to cetaceans. The reading will be held in the gallery where Darwin’s own microscope is currently on display as part of a new exhibition.

Kelley is the Secretary of the British Society for Literature and Science. She holds a BA in English from Randolph College and is a graduate of the Munson Institute for Maritime Studies. Her current work is on Caroline Herschel, sister of the famous astronomer William Herschel.

‘Darwin’s Microscope is a rich and personal engagement with Darwin and his science – both helping to bring the feeling of his lived experience into the mind of the reader and connecting our time – and our experiences – with those of the celebrated Victorian man of science.’ –Dr John van Wyhe, Director, The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online, University of Cambridge.

Aberdeen-(Part I) Cafe Sci

My first trip to Aberdeen– and the first events on the Darwin’s Microscope book tour agenda– were all excellent. I feel spoilt in a most wonderful way. I must thank Ken Skeldon from the University of Aberdeen for arranging everything, the team at Waterstone’s Cafe Scientifique for the invitation to read, the hospitality, the cake(!) and the lovely book on Old Aberdeen they gave me as a thank-you.

A Darwin Birthday Cake

A Darwin Birthday Cake

Congratulations to Gillian’s friend Heather for making the five excellent ‘Darwin’ birthday cakes! I believe she makes cakes for all occassions at http://www.heatherscakes.com, based out of Edinburgh.

Thank you to Marie, Yashka, Gillian, and Sandra at the University of Aberdeen Natural History Centre, to Jenny from the Reading Bus, and to Iain, the man with the racing pigeons. Also thanks to Sue & Jenny Downes from the University, and thank you to the Aberdeen Geological Society for their invitation to a lovely dinner after an excellent lecture by Lyell Anderson, who is working on Darwin’s geology collection at Cambridge’s Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences.

Thank you to Kevin Mackenzie, from the U of Aberdeen Microscopy & Imaging Facility, for an absolutely breath-taking crash course on Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM, like the image on DM’s book cover,) and other microscopy. 

Everyone was kind, welcoming, intelligent and wonderfully generous with their time and help. I will be returning to Aberdeen for the Sunday events of the Word Festival and I am looking forward to it immensely!

I arrived in Aberdeen on Wednesday afternoon to be greeted by Ken and Sue, who whisked me on the senic (beachside) route to my lovely little boutique hotel, the Carmelite. It is very chic and has excellent food and service- you may notice that ‘excellent’ is actually the ideal word to describe the entire trip. The breakfasts were massive (far too big, in fact,) and amazing. The first day I had a massive omlette (which I simply could not finish) and the second, eggs balmoral, fluffy scrambled eggs topped with, of course, smoked salmon. Amazing.


In the Hotel Carmelite

In the Hotel Carmelite

Fortunately, I had time to unwind from the flight and prepare for my reading that night at Waterstone’s. I also had time to fret about the suddenly heavy snowfall!


A sudden fall of snow!

A sudden fall of snow!

Ken (Skeldon, from the U of Aberdeen, coordinator for all of the science outreach and education events), told me that he was hoping for about 40 people– that would be a good turnout, especially in the snow, and it was about  how many people attended the last Cafe Sci (which was the first of this season). 

Seventy-two people attended. 72!~ Of course we were all thrilled. I had no idea until afterwards, when the Waterstone’s staff counted & let me know. Fantastique! Thanks to Waterstone’s and their friendly staff for hosting the Cafe Sci. It is a wonderful event and more bookstores should do something of the kind.

I must thank Michael for posting photos of the reading. Amidst all the activity I didn’t get to take any photos with my camera! Please have a look at Michael’s photos.

The evening began with me reading for about 20 minutes from DM. Then there was a nice little break for coffee, drinks, and more Darwin Birthday Cake! Some people bought the book and I was able to sign copies and chat with some very lovely and enthusiastic people.

Then came probably the most interesting part of the evening, where a number of people asked questions and I did my best to answer them, and there was also some discussion among the people gathered there. Many people were curious about integrating creativity and more artistic measures into their science work, which was wonderful to hear. I believe the use of descriptive words is a big part of this– many people complain of ‘dry scientific writing,’ but poets and scientists both have to look very closely at things. ‘Into the Light of Things,’ I believe Wordsworth said. 

Many people also appreciated the accessibility  of the poetry. It is interesting, taking two things which can sometimes be very intimidating (poetry and science,) but putting them together in such a way where both become more accessible or welcoming or interesting. 

The evening was certainly a success. I do hope those who attended enjoyed it as much as I did.

Next: the Reading Bus & Natural History Centre on the 12th,  the 200th anniversary of the birthday of Charles Darwin! Poetry & Pigeons (and more cake)…

Book Cover!


Flambard Press, early Feb 2009

I recently received the final version of my book cover for Darwin’s Microscope. (Dance happy dance here.) I say ‘final version’ because I was able– very fortunately– to ask for some adjustments, which I gather is a privilege only really available when working with a small press. I have to say Flambard was great (Will and Peter at Flambard were great) at agreeing to a number of little picky requests I made.

The flexibility might be a poetry thing, too; I’m not sure. Covers for novels are probably subject to marketing editors and I doubt authors get any say in that…which makes sense but also seems odd. A book is usually, in its way, a piece of art, and the author’s creation, so the author having a say in the cover design makes sense to me. The ‘art’ element is more evident with poetry, though– not that novels aren’t art! Just in the more abstract, total creation sense. The object of the poetry book is the art as well as the poetry itself. So I’m happy to have been able to choose the image for my book cover and instruct on what I was looking for. My friend Tom at Edinburgh deserves my thanks for pointing me in the direction of macro-micro-photography (super enlarged photos of microscopic organisms taken with a microscope/camera). When he heard about my book he thought an image like that would be perfect for the cover, and he was quite right!

In the end, it’s quite simple. I wanted the image, the title, and my name. I looked at poetry books I own and I think those with a cover of that style look best. It also makes me think that the graphic designer who is hired to design the cover must find his (or her) job rather boring. I could probably do it…my computer-geek husband could certainly do it. Maybe the graphic designer gets to be more creative with other projects. Sorry, graphic designer, if I made your job boring– but I love my book cover! So thank you.

The cover image is a photo of radiolaria. I found it on the Science Photo Library, which is great. For the book, on one of the first pages, we have a description of the picture, which is SPL’s own caption:

Radiolaria. Coloured scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of the shells of various radiolaria. Radiolaria are single-celled protozoans that are found in marine plankton. They have a silicate skeleton with pores through which pseudopodia (false feet, not seen) of protoplasm project. As the animal floats in ocean currents the pseudopodia trap food particles on which the radiolarian feeds. Magnification: x150 when printed 10 centimetres wide.

Me, Richard Dawkins, Summer

Me, Richard Dawkins, Summer

It is always interesting when you only know an author by his (or her) back-cover photo, and then you meet him (or her) and are completely surprised at how different he (or she) looks. I think especially with established authors, ONE photo from like 1972 gets circulated around and then by the time you meet him (or her) he (or she) is now 65 and totally not what you were expecting…even though you knew he (or she) was older than that. This happened to me when I met Richard Dawkins. He’s still a rosy-cheeked dapper British intellectual, but a lot of his PR photos are definitely from a number of years back! Actually, the photo I have of him with one of my best friends, Summer, is on his publicity website…I just told her the other day that she looks timelessly lovely while I’m kooky/crazy (as usual)…so maybe that’s one I’m going to look back on and ask what was I thinking. Of course you can also say, guess which girl is the poet & which is the philosopher?


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