Let’s start with a question. When you step outside on a clear night and look upwards what is it you feel? There you are, gazing up at the milky swirl of stars nesting in the infinite immensity of the universe. Do you suddenly think all our human problems are laughably unimportant when set against the cosmic scale of deep space and time? Do you reckon that really as a species we have an overinflated sense of ourselves? Do you realise, in short, that humanity quite frankly bums itself up rather too much?

No? Just me?

Helen Sedgwick starts laughing when I bring up our possibly overinflated sense of importance in the face of the cosmic. “You can look at it both ways,” she says consolingly. “I find the vastness of the universe incredibly comforting personally. I know people who find it the opposite of that. You can look at it and think ‘we’re insignificant, we’re nothing in all of this.’

“But you can also look out and think ‘we’re part of this and look at how huge it is. We’re connected to something that is indescribably massive and so full of potential that we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of. So, in a way, I love that feeling of being part of something that is so much larger than myself.”

Mankind’s importance (or otherwise) in the grand scheme of things seems like a good way to start a Friday morning. A Friday morning, in this case, after the night before. Last evening Sedgwick was at the Glasgow launch of her debut novel The Comet Seekers, a novel that rather wonderfully rubs up the vastness of space and time against human love and desire. How’s her head this morning? “It’s a little tender,” she admits.

And yet here she is in a Glasgow hotel looking bright-eyed and bubbling with enthusiasm about art and science and the fact she is now a published author at the third time of asking (she’s got two unpublished novels in her drawers and for a time she worried that The Comet Seekers would be joining them.)

Thankfully that is not the case. Sedgwick’s novel is elegantly structured, full of feeling and really rather good.

The Comet Seekers is both a scientific romance and a romantic vision of science. As the title suggests, comets are involved. Sedgwick uses them as a way of bridging time and narrative as she jumps back and forth through the centuries and the various stories she tells. The novel takes in the Bayeux Tapestry (on which Halley’s Comet makes a guest appearance) and the icy wastes of Antarctica. (“I would love to go to Antarctica,” Sedgwick says. “I’ve never been. That was pure wish fulfilment.”)

Sedgwick herself is something of a human bridge between the arts and science, “two cultures”, as scientist and novelist CP Snow suggested back in 1959, far, far apart. She's been both a literary editor and a research physicist in her time.

Now 38, Sedgwick was born and brought up in Chiswick in London fascinated by the night sky and with a father who was equally as interested (in fact, she tells me, he’s just finished a PHD in astrophysics himself). Stargazing is, she thinks, the origin of her own interest in science.

“Wanting not just to look at them but to understand what it was I was looking at. The more you know the more fascinating it becomes. You realise you are looking into the past as well. You’re looking back to what’s already happened.”

She went to Bristol to study astrophysics before coming to Edinburgh in 2000 to do a PhD. She stayed on in an academic position before switching to work on cancer research in the bioelectronics groups at Glasgow University.

“While I was in Glasgow I started to realise that perhaps I didn’t want to be a scientist forever. I was working with some fairly nasty chemicals at Glasgow University in a clean room etching into glass and silicon, wearing the full clean suit working in this funny light because you have to keep natural light away from your samples. So I was going home every day with a splitting headache for one thing.

“And it’s quite stressful and I just thought ‘actually this isn’t how I want my whole life to be,’ even though I loved the ideas, I loved talking about the science, I loved what I was trying to achieve. But the day-to-day reality didn’t really suit me.”

She went part-time and started studying for an MLit with the Creative Writing group at the university. Two unpublished books later she finally got a call last June saying she was going to be a published author. ”That was one of the best moments,” she says, smiling.

Having been on both sides of CP Snow’s divide does she think, more than 50 years on, the gap has narrowed between the arts and science? No, Sedgwick says. In her experience they’re still quite separate.

“I think it’s happening at school. You’re having this separation from a young age and you’re either pushed towards the sciences or you’re pushed towards the arts. My school was very accommodating. I wanted to do a mixture of both. I did three sciences for GCSEs and I wanted to do music, but there was a clash so I ended up doing music at another school.

“My school tried hard to allow me to do that but it was obviously not the way the system was set up. You had to choose one way or the other. That’s how it’s timetabled.”

She worries too, that at school, science is presented as a subject that requires hard answers. Yes or no. Right or wrong. “I think that’s a very uninspiring way to approach it because science should be about asking questions and about curiosity.

“I did an event a little while ago where I said I thought scientific discovery was magical. A scientist got in touch with me afterwards and said ‘you’re missing the point. Science is not magic. Science is fact.’ And I would say: ‘Yes, science is rooted in fact and you’re looking for proof, you’re looking for evidence.

“But at the same time there’s something incredibly magical about the way the world works. Magic doesn’t have to mean ‘unexplained’. It can mean something that’s beyond our common sense, that goes further than our own experience. I think that’s what science does do and that’s why I find it magical.”

That’s not typical though, is it? It’s become something of a truism to say there are not enough girls studying science. Was that borne our during her science career? “The women were certainly a minority in all the universities I’ve ever worked at. But I never felt I was unwelcome. I think universities would love to have more women scientists. I think it’s something that is happening much, much younger.”

So what should schools do? “If I knew that I’d be in politics. I think it’s about encouraging ideas and imagination. Using the arts within science to explore some of the ideas and open them up in a more imaginative way could really help.”

Her book does that, of course. “Yeah, I want to make it exciting again.”

Not that the arts always help the situation. Where else does the stereotype of the cold, unfeeling scientist come but from fiction? “It’s so strange. It’s certainly not something I’ve encountered in real life. Scientists are passionate and creative and complex human beings.”

She could be describing herself of course. In person, she comes across as a mixture of restless energy and eloquent precision.

These days Sedgwick is living in Tain in the Highlands with her photographer boyfriend Michael. They both wanted a break from city life. And it turns out living in the country suits her, she says. “There’s something about having the peace, the head space, to think really deeply about something. In cities sometimes there’s so much noise intruding – other people, what’s happening and who’s doing what and where should I be and this constant anxiety. I’ve moved out to the country now and it’s gone. It’s so peaceful and I find it so much easier to write there.”

Good for writing then and presumably good for night skies? “So good. It’s wonderful. Everything from comets to the aurora. I think we’ll be here a while. But we’ve only been here a year and looking at my track record after four or five years I may want to move on. So we’ll see. I might make Antarctica yet.”

The Comet Seekers is published by Harvill Secker, priced £12.99. Helen Sedgwick will be discussing her novel at the Wigtown Book Festival on Sunday, September 25 at 3pm. To book tickets visit wigtownbookfestival.com/