Exploring the intersection of irreverence and whimsy, or how to expand what we demand from reality.
By Maria Popova
Kelli Anderson is one of the most talented, thoughtful, inspiring young designers working today, bringing to each project an artist’s flair, a scientist’s rigor, and a philosopher’s deliberation. In this fantastic talk from TEDxPhoenix, she pulls the curtain on the machinery of her magic — something she calls “disruptive wonder,” a mechanism for revealing the extraordinary talents of ordinary things.
From a solar-powered popsicle truck, a kind of “physical infographic on wheels,” to a holiday card that makes paper interactive, to a wildly believable counterfeit New York Times from the utopian future, to an ingenious paper record player, her projects probe our most fundamental assumptions — about political reality*, about material experience, about design itself — to deliver a potent cocktail of irreverence and delight. Let these 16 minutes make your day:
The world is full of order that doesn’t necessarily deserve our respect. Sometimes there is meaning, justice, and logic present in the way things are — but sometimes there just isn’t. And I think the moment that we realize this is the moment we become creative people. Because it prompts us to mess things up and do something better with the basic pieces of experience.
“…equations letting sight pierce through time into liberations, lacerations of light and dust…”
By Maria Popova
“Mingle the starlight with your lives and you won’t be fretted by trifles,” the pioneering 19th-century astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science, used to tell her Vassar students — America’s first class of women astronomers and the first generation of people trained in what we now call astrophysics: the combination of mathematical physics and observational astronomy.
At the Vassar observatory, both Mitchell’s home and her classroom, she held regular “dome parties” — evenings of telescopic star-study and conversation, during which her students composed poems about whatever they were pondering astronomically.
A century after Mitchell’s death, humanity launched into the cosmos its most ambitious and versatile instrument yet: the Hubble Space Telescope. “We saw to the edge of all there is — so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back,” the poet Tracy K. Smith wrote in her stunning ode to this triumph of human ingenuity and perseverance, on which her father was one of NASA’s first black engineers and which she read at the inaugural Universe in Verse, held on the telescope’s twenty-seventh birthday and dedicated to Maria Mitchell’s legacy.
Smith — who has since been elected Poet Laureate of the United States — was the age of Maria Mitchell’s students when the Hubble returned its first, enthusiastically awaited images of the cosmos: grainy, fuzzy photographs that were in one sense deeply disappointing to the engineers who had labored on the instrument for years, but in another absolutely thrilling: an unprecedented glimpse of the vast unknown beckoning from the unfathomed depths of the universe.
In the decades since its launch on April 24, 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has helped make landmark discoveries advancing our understanding of the universe and has enchanted humanity with the most beguiling images of the cosmos we have yet seen. It has shown us otherworldly glimpses of galaxies and nebulae. It has studied the light of orphaned stars to illuminate the mysteries of dark matter. It has resolved a longstanding perplexity about the growth rate of the universe and detected the first known interstellar object to visit our solar system. It has challenged us as never before to imagine what may lie beyond the horizons of our own imagination.
Fifteen years into the Hubble’s lifetime, another great poet, Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012), contemplated the existential undertones of its scientific triumphs in another stunning poem: “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho,” which musician, poetry lover, and my dear friend Amanda Palmer read in a haunting performance at the third annual Universe in Verse, held on the eve of the Hubble’s twenty-ninth birthday and benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.
In this lovely animation created for the occasion, artist Kelli Anderson brings Rich’s words and Amanda’s voice to life with an inventive animation technique, using a vintage NASA manual to print words and galactic-textured images directly onto the archival paper.
HUBBLE PHOTOGRAPHS: AFTER SAPPHO by Adrienne Rich (2005)
It should be the most desired sight of all
the person with whom you hope to live and die
walking into a room, turning to look at you, sight for sight
Should be yet I say there is something
more desirable: the ex-stasis of galaxies
so out from us there’s no vocabulary
but mathematics and optics
equations letting sight pierce through time
into liberations, lacerations of light and dust
exposed like a body’s cavity, violet green livid and venous, gorgeous
—beyond good and evil as ever stained into dream
beyond remorse, disillusion, fear of death
or life, rage
for order, rage for destruction
beyond this love which stirs
the air every time she walks into the room
These impersonae, however we call them
won’t invade us as on movie screens
they are so old, so new, we are not to them
we look at them or don’t from within the milky gauze
of our tilted gazing
but they don’t look back and we cannot hurt them
Below is Amanda’s full performance, including her poetic prefatory meditation on art, science, and life:
“The real wealth of the Nation,” marine biologist and author Rachel Carson wrote in her courageous 1953 protest letter, “lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife… Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.” Carson’s legacy inspired the creation of Earth Day and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, whose hard-won environmental regulations are now being undone in the hands of a heedless administration. Carson was a scientist who thought and wrote like a poet. As she catalyzed the modern environmental movement with her epoch-making 1962 book Silent Spring, she was emboldened by a line from a 1914 poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox:
To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men.
Dedicated to Rachel Carson’s legacy, the 2018 show was a sort of prelude to Figuring. More than a thousand people packed in to celebrate the Earth — from the oceans and trees and volcanos to bees and kale and the armadillo — with poems by Maya Angelou, Adrienne Rich, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Lucille Clifton, Elizabeth Bishop, Denise Levertov, Walt Whitman, and more, read by musicians Amanda Palmer, Zoe Keating, and Sean Ono Lennon, astrophysicists Janna Levin and Natalie Batalha, authors A.M. Homes and James Gleick, poet Terrance Hayes, artist Maira Kalman, bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, and actors, writers, and directors America Ferrera and John Cameron Mitchell. Three of the great poets of our time — Jane Hirshfield, Marie Howe, and Diane Ackerman — read their own work. Gracing the evening was an original poem by Neil Gaiman, composed for the occasion, and a special musical surprise.
The full recording, released as we announce the 2019 Universe in Verse, is below. As usual, prefacing each poem is my introduction of the reader and some connective tissue contextualizing the poem choice. The poem playlist follows, with links to the individual reading and full text of each poem, where available — please enjoy:
FINALE: “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell, arranged by Amanda Palmer and performed by The Decomposers: Amanda Palmer (vocals), Zöe Keating (cello), Sean Ono Lennon (guitar and vocals), and John Cameron Mitchell (vocals)
Prefacing her reading, Ackerman reflected on how the intuitive sense that art and science are complementary rather than contradictory shaped her life, her work, and her orientation of being:
Ever since I was a child, I wanted to be a nature poet — it’s just that what I meant by “nature” included everything from quarks to exoplanets to water bears and neurons. Science and art both seem to be throwing buckets of light into the dark corners of existence, and I was enthralled. It didn’t make sense that we would be separating science and art, or that we would be separating nature and human nature. It seemed like we should be taking the universe literally — as one verse.
Wonder is the heaviest element in the periodic table of the heart. Even a tiny piece of it can stop time.
Savor the full prefatory reflection on art, science, and wonder, along with this feast of a poem, in this recording from the show:
THE CONSOLATION OF APRICOTS by Diane Ackerman
Especially in early spring,
when the sun offers a thin treacle of warmth,
I love to sit outdoors
and eat sense-ravishing apricots.
Born on sun-drenched trees in Morocco,
the apricots have flown the Atlantic
like small comets, and I can taste
broiling North Africa in their flesh.
Somewhere between a peach and a prayer,
they taste of well water
and butterscotch and dried apples
and desert simooms and lust.
Sweet with a twang of spice,
a ripe apricot is small enough to devour
as two hemispheres.
Ambiguity is its hallmark.
How to eat an apricot:
first warm its continuous curve
in cupped hands, holding it
as you might a brandy snifter,
then caress the velvety sheen
with one thumb, and run your fingertips
over its nap, which is shorter
than peach fuzz, closer to chamois.
Tawny gold with a blush on its cheeks,
an apricot is the color of shame and dawn.
One should not expect to drink wine
at mid-winter, Boethius warned.
What could be more thrilling
than ripe apricots out of season,
a gush of taboo sweetness
to offset the savage wistfulness of early spring?
Always eat apricots at twilight,
preferably while sitting in a sunset park,
with valley lights starting to flicker on
and the lake spangled like a shield.
Then, while a trail of bright ink tattoos the sky,
notice how the sun washes the earth
like a woman pouring her gaze
along her lover’s naked body,
each cell receiving the tattoo of her glance.
Wait for that moment
of arousal and revelation,
then sink your teeth into the flesh of an apricot.