The Milky Way stretches over Lake Hawea near Isthmus Peak in New Zealand. Gazing into our galaxy inspired me to begin writing my second novel. Photo by Andrew Coleman, www.intotheworld.co.uk
Yesterday, my heart leapt out of my chest.
You’ll never believe how it happened. I was doing research for my second novel, currently two chapters deep, and the visage of a goddess popped up in my search results.
A woman with her chest bared, depicted in a classic painting, was giving life to both a young child and the world in which we live today. In Greek mythology, this woman was credited with giving birth to the Milky Way.
The Milky Way? What does that have to do with anything? Well, you see, my vision for this new book is concerned with the discovery of galaxies. I’ve only started to do the research — I like to study as I go — but it’s hard not to get excited about the quest I’m embarking upon. Inspired by my love of the night sky, I wanted to launch into another journey through writing, studying the scientific wonders of our world.
Now, I could cry tears of joy at the creative bliss that waits ahead!
After all, our galaxy is vast. The universe is rich with mystery. Space exploration reveals new wonders every week.
An Immigrant Astronomer
Take what happened this month, right here in my home state of Minnesota.
A young woman, who years ago immigrated to the U.S. from Turkey, was studying as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. In partnership with an astrophysicist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, she worked on a project to image and study a new galaxy.
Burcin Mutlu-Pakdil, still a Ph.D. candidate at the Minnesota Institute for Astrophysics, discovered a rare new world.
The new galaxy was catalogued under the name, PGC 10000714, and it hasn’t yet received a formal name. Through her studies, Mutlu-Pakdil determined that the galaxy resembled Hoag’s Object, an unusual ring galaxy with a round core and a detached outer ring, containing “no signs of a hidden substructure.”
Most galaxies, like our own, are shaped like a flat disc. Orbits and gravitational pull affect how stars and planets move and align with each other, if I understand correctly. I was never that great in science class, but I’ve taken up the challenge of trying to understand outer space myself!
What is clear—based on factual reporting from the press and quotes from respected scientists—is that this galaxy is extremely rare.
Not only was it discovered by a woman, but it was discovered by an immigrant woman living in my beloved state of Minnesota!
This potentially unique galaxy, that shows signs of containing a rare double ring, was discovered by a bright-eyed student. And not just any student, but a student who studied at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, on the very shore of Lake Superior, where I first saw the Milky Way!
Honoring Women in Science
Pan out to my writing desk, where I’m conducting research on galaxies, in the interest of writing a page-turner with an engrossing story arc.
I’m in the midst of plotting out the quest of a college junior, as she embarks on a journey to connect with her deceased father. I know through my notes that this fictional protagonist was the daughter of a renowned scientist, who left behind a strange series of artifacts after his death.
As a creator of fiction, my questions are numerous. How does the protagonist relate to her father, the astrophysicist? How will she live up to her perceived ideas about her father’s pride? How does she see herself as a woman in the male-dominated field of science? What contributions will she make to the world along her journey of self-discovery?
If you can’t tell already, the goal of writing this novel is to write a book worthy of being called literary fiction. In itself, that is a formidable task.
What many people don’t realize about fiction is that, through fiction, readers want to discover the truth. Readers want stories that convey what is real.
So a fictional novel must accomplish the task of showing us a true and plausible world. The writing must invite the reader to “suspend disbelief,” and immerse themselves in a story that is true to life. The writer’s characterization must be deep and three-dimensional, and it must spark in the reader a sense of recognition.
Every character should be sympathetic.
Believe it or not, here I am, trying to identify the life’s work of the fictional man, the father and astrophysicist in this story. Yet in real life, it is a woman who has just turned science on its head. It is a woman who has broken new ground, by making a discovery that could change the way we think about galaxies.
As a writer determined to covey the truth, I’ve had to stop and think. I’ve had to consider the ethics about writing this story—the story of a female protagonist in her journey through the field of scientific discovery.
Giving Life to Galaxies
Unofficially named Burcin’s Galaxy, the Hoag-style galaxy I researched could lead to new evidence that explains how galaxies are born.
Just look at this line from the CNN article I linked to above:
“So few of them are known that scientists still don’t have definite conclusions about their nature, evolution or systematic properties.”
At what moment did my heart leap out of my chest? Upon reading about this discovery. I was nearly moved to tears—pardon my politics—especially in a time when the rights of women and immigrants are among two of the top issues under debate in the U.S.
Back to the creativity…
From an ancient Greek goddess to a ground-breaking immigrant astronomer, women, both fictional and real, have lent their lives to the discovery of galaxies.
My thanks to Andrew Coleman, a photographer and traveler who is embarking on a journey with his wife to see the wonders of the world, for this beautiful photo from New Zealand! Please visit his website at: http://www.intotheworld.co.uk/