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A Brave and Startling Truth: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Maya Angelou’s Stunning Humanist Poem That Flew to Space, Inspired by Carl Sagan

“Out of such chaos, of such contradiction / We learn that we are neither devils nor divines…”

A Brave and Startling Truth: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Maya Angelou’s Stunning Humanist Poem That Flew to Space, Inspired by Carl Sagan

The second annual Universe in Verse — a charitable celebration of science through poetry, and a voice of resistance against the assault on nature — opened with the poem “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928–May 28, 2014), which flew to space on the Orion spacecraft and which Angelou dedicated to “the hope for peace, which lies, sometimes hidden, in every heart.” I chose this poem to set the tone for the show in part because it is absolutely stunning and acutely relevant to our cultural moment, and in part because the first time I read it, it sparked in me a sudden insight into the often invisible ways in which science and poetry influence and inspire one another — into how the golden threads of thought and feeling stretch and cross-hatch across disciplines to weave what we call culture.

Angelou composed the poem for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in 1995. In 1994, Carl Sagan delivered a beautiful speech at Cornell University, inspired by the Voyager’s landmark photograph of Earth seen for the very first time from the outer reaches of the Solar System — a now-iconic image the spacecraft took on Sagan’s spontaneous insistence before shutting off the cameras upon completion of the planned mission to photograph the outer planets.

The “Pale Blue Dot” photograph captured by the Voyager 1 (NASA/JPL)

In describing what the Voyager captured in that grainy photograph of mostly empty space, Sagan limned Earth as a “pale blue dot.” That became the moniker of the photograph itself and the title of his bestselling book published later that year, in which he wrote that “everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives” on this “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

This poetic phrase imprinted itself on the popular imagination and permeated culture in the months following the book’s publication — the months during which Angelou was composing her poem. Like all great poets, she was extremely precise and deliberate about her word choice. Mote is a rather peculiar word, particularly in this cosmic context, and I can’t help but think that by using the phrase “mote of matter” in the final stanzas, Angelou was paying tribute to Sagan and to the message of the Voyager — a message about our place in the cosmic order not as something separate from and superior to nature, but as a tiny pixel-part of it, imbued with equal parts humility and responsibility.

Reading the poem at The Universe in Verse is astrophysicist Janna Levin — a recent performer of some beautiful poetry and a member, alongside Sagan, of the tiny peer group of working scientists who write about science with uncommon poetic might. Please enjoy:

A BRAVE AND STARTLING TRUTH

We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth

And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze

When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse

When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

“A Brave and Startling Truth” was published in a commemorative booklet in 1995 and was later included in Maya Angelou: The Complete Poetry (public library).

More highlights from the second annual Universe in Verse will be released at here over the coming weeks and months. For some high points of the inaugural event, see Levin’s exquisite reading of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy and U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, then savor the complete show for a two-hour poetic serenade to science.

BP

Carl Sagan on Mystery, Why Common Sense Blinds Us to the Universe, and How to Live with the Unknown

“We are bathing in mystery and confusion on many subjects, and I think that will always be our destiny. The universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it.”

Carl Sagan on Mystery, Why Common Sense Blinds Us to the Universe, and How to Live with the Unknown

In our recent On Being conversation, NASA astrophysicist and exoplanet researcher Natalie Batalha said something that stopped me up short: as sentient beings endowed with awareness, we are “the universe itself becoming aware.” Echoing poet Diane Ackerman’s lovely notion of “the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else,” Dr. Batalha added: “It took 13.7 billion years for the atoms to come together to create the portal to the universe which is my physical self. So in that statement is this idea, or the fluidity of time and space. And I kind of see it all at once. And I don’t know what ‘me’ is. I just feel part of everything. And I feel such deep gratitude for being able to take this conscious look at the universe — at myself as being part of the universe.”

The sentiment reminded me of a beautiful interview Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934–December 20, 1996) gave shortly after the premiere of his epoch-making documentary Cosmos, later included in Conversations with Carl Sagan (public library).

In late August of 1980 — two years after he conducted Susan Sontag’s most dimensional interview and nine years before his magnificent conversation with Leonard Bernstein — interlocutor extraordinaire Jonathan Cott visited Sagan’s home in Los Angeles to interview him for Rolling Stone. In the soaring the conversation that followed, Sagan stepped into his native nexus of the scientific and the poetic to contemplate our understanding of the universe and of ourselves, the nature of reality and of human knowledge, and how to live with the unknown.

Carl Sagan

Sagan tells Cott:

It’s a critical moment in the history of the world… We are the representatives of the cosmos; we are an example of what hydrogen atoms can do, given fifteen billion years of cosmic evolution. And we resonate to these questions. We start with the origin of every human being, and then the origin of our community, our nation, the human species, who our ancestors were and then the riddle of the origin of life. And the questions: where did the Earth and Solar System come from? Where did the galaxies come from?

Every one of those questions is deep and significant. They are the subject of folklore, myth, superstition, and religion in every human culture. But for the first time we are on the verge of answering many of them. I don’t mean to suggest that we have the final answers; we are bathing in mystery and confusion on many subjects, and I think that will always be our destiny. The universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it.

Earthrise (December 24, 1968)
Earthrise (December 24, 1968)

To be sure, understanding the whole of the universe seems like too grandiose an aspiration when we are continually struggling to understand the tiny subset of the universe that is ourselves. Three summers before this interview, Sagan had spearheaded The Golden Record — a poetic attempt at such self-comprehension, mirroring humanity back to itself. Now, with an eye to another landmark triumph of self-reflection made possible by scientific progress — the iconic Earthrise photograph taken by the astronauts of Apollo 8 in 1968 — Sagan considers the immense and paradoxical gift of cosmic perspective:

You saw [Earth] for the first time as a tiny blue ball floating in space. You realized that there were other, similar worlds far away, of different size, different color and constitution. You got the idea that our planet was just one in a multitude. I think there are two apparently contradictory and still very powerful benefits of that cosmic perspective — the sense of our planet as one in a vast number and the sense of our planet as a place whose destiny depends upon us.

In this awareness resides a humbling and disquieting reminder of our creaturely limitations. We navigate the world by our common-sense perception, but that perception has blinded us to reality again and again. We have mistaken our sensorial intuitions for facts of the universe — for millennia, we held wrong beliefs about Earth’s shape, motion, and position, because it feels flat and static beneath our feet, and central to the order of the cosmos. We have mistrusted processes and phenomena beyond the boundaries of what we can touch and feel with our limited senses — from evolution, which unfolds on scales of time too vast to be visible within a human lifetime, to quantum mechanics, which operates on subatomic scales imperceptible and almost inconceivable to the human observer. Long before Sagan equipped us with an antidote to the “common pitfalls of common sense” in his timeless Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking, he tells Cott:

Common sense works fine for the universe we’re used to, for time scales of decades, for a space between a tenth of a millimeter and a few thousand kilometers, and for speeds much less than the speed of light. Once we leave those domains of human experience, there’s no reason to expect the laws of nature to continue to obey our expectations, since our expectations are dependent on a limited set of experiences.

[…]

We have to be very careful not to impose our hopes and desires on the cosmos, but instead, in the scientific tradition and with the most open mind possible, see what the cosmos is saying to us.

Sagan points to one particularly blatant obfuscation of reality driven by our self-centered hopes, desires, and delusions — astrology:

[Astrology is] like racism or sexism: you have twelve little pigeonholes, and as soon as you type someone as a member of that particular group, as long as someone is an Aquarius, Virgo or Scorpio, you know his characteristics. It saves you the effort of getting to know him individually.

Sagan ends by considering the nature of human knowledge itself. Drawing on its past, he projects its future:

Human knowledge is a set of successive approximations… There are all sorts of things that we’ve gotten wrong, and all sorts of mind-boggling things that we can’t even glimpse that will be the established fact in a century or two.

[…]

There are two extremes to worry about. One is the extreme in which everything is known and there’s nothing left to do. The other is where everything is so complicated you can never begin to do anything. We are lucky to live in a universe were there are laws of nature and things to discover, but they’re not impossibly difficult, so we can understand them to some extent. But they’re also difficult enough so that we’re nowhere near understanding them all. There are exhilarating discoveries yet to be made. It’s the best possible world.

Complement with Diane Ackerman — a favorite poet of Sagan’s, who was her doctoral advisor — on our longing to know the universe beyond ourselves and Primo Levi on the spiritual value of space exploration, then revisit Sagan on the value of uncertainty, the enchantment of chemistry, and the most important perspective in the human world.

BP

Carl Sagan on the Enchantment of Chemistry, with Stunning Illustrations by Artist Vivian Torrence

“We too are made of starstuff.”

Carl Sagan on the Enchantment of Chemistry, with Stunning Illustrations by Artist Vivian Torrence

I have always been fascinated by transformation — the seemingly magical process, sometimes delicate and sometimes violent, by which a something becomes a something-else. This, perhaps, is why I chose chemistry as a concentration in my science-intensive Bulgarian high school. When I came to the United States for university, I was bewildered to realize that the college-level American textbooks of my high school curriculum were not necessarily a reflection of my teachers’ academic overambition but of the fact that high-school-level chemistry textbooks were simply a rarity bordering on a nonentity in America, where chemistry was not a required subject in the high school curriculum.

Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934–December 20, 1996) laments this fact in his poetic foreword to Chemistry Imagined: Reflections on Science (public library) — a beautiful and unusual book, part primer and part lyrical serenade, by the Nobel-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, intended to ignite in young people a zest for the enchantments of chemistry through the intersection of art and science. A believer in the fertile common ground between poetry and science, Hoffmann — himself a poet as well as a scientist — weaves original poems about the processes, phenomena, and history of science throughout his elegant expository prose. Accompanying his writing are intricate collage paintings by artist Vivian Torrence, who came to the project through the gates of wonderment, governed by her conviction that modern science is “a symbolic search, using the powers of logic and intellect as the driving force to find what is real.”

“Patterns” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.

Although as a scientist, Sagan had always been animated by an electric love of chemistry’s charms — his explanation of how stars are born, live, die, and give us life is a classic — he must have composed his foreword from a far more personal place. At that particular point in time, the mutations of myelodysplasia — the rare form of cancer that would eventually take his life — were already coursing through his body. Chemotherapy would soon be his lifeline. In order for his body not to reject the bone marrow transfusion he received from his sister, Sagan would take seventy-two pills labeled “BIOHAZARD” in a single sitting — chemistry at its most acutely double-edged.

“A Hands-on Approach” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.

In these final years of his life, Sagan brings his singular gift for science and romance to the foreword:

Except for the two simplest, hydrogen and helium, atoms are made in stars. A cascade of thermonuclear reactions builds hydrogen and helium up into ever larger and more complex atoms which are then spewed out into interstellar space as the star ages and dies. There they drift for ages, occasionally coming close enough to one another to make a bond. Then two or more atoms make a commitment to go through life together. These bonds are the business of chemistry. In an eon or two a maelstrom of self-gravitating interstellar matter gathers up solitary atoms, and those bonded with their fellows, and plunges them into a forming planetary system. Four and a half billion years ago, that is what happened in our neck of the galactic woods. Our warm and well-illuminated little world is one result. All the atoms of Earth (hydrogen and helium still excepted) derive from these distant and ancient interstellar events — the silicon in the rocks, the nitrogen in the air, the oxygen atoms in a mountain stream; the calcium in our bones, the potassium in our nerves, and the carbon and other atoms that in exquisite detail encode our genetic instructions and job orders for making a human being. We too are made of starstuff.

There is hardly an aspect of our lives that is not touched fundamentally by chemistry: electronics and computers; food and nutrition; depletion of the protective ozone layer; mining and metals; medicine and pharmaceuticals; every disease including AIDS and cancer, schizophrenia and manic-depressive syndrome; drugs, legal and illegal; toxic water; and much of what we call human nature. We are, at least in large part, the way we are because of the atoms and molecules that make us up, and how they interact. In a deep and fundamental way chemistry makes us us.

There is something of William Blake in Torrence’s stunning drawings, which bring to life Hoffmann’s narrative tracing the history of chemistry from the rudimentary ideas of the Ancient Greeks, who first theorized the atom, to the transmutations of the medieval alchemists, in whose hands science and superstition commingled, to the catalytic breakthroughs of eighteenth-century science, which inspired titans of poetry like Goethe and Coleridge, to the advent of spectroscopy in the nineteenth century, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe, to the atomic age of the twentieth century, which forever changed our relationship to nature.

“Radium” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Greek Air” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Greek Earth” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Greek Fire” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Greek Water” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Natural Cycles” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“The Periodic Table” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Amazing Growth” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Energy and Form” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Theory and Practice” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“The Chemist” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Simply Burning” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“The Philosopher’s Stone” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Celebrating Solutions” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Phlogiston” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Air of Revolution” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Intermediary” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Chinese Elements” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Blood Counts” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Seeing to the Center of Things” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Affinities” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Possibilities and Pragmatics” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Chemical Arts” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“The Grail” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“On the Crystal Scale” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Steps and Processes” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Formulation” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Forces Constant” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.

That treasures like Chemistry Imagined fade out of print fills me with sadness for a system that is supposed to steward books and infuse the body of culture with substantive literature, but instead prioritizes what is easily marketable over what is lastingly meaningful. Complement this particular forgotten treasure, which is well worth a trip to the library or the second-hand bookstore, with Edward Livingston Youman’s splendid Victorian diagrams of how chemistry works, the story of how Mendeleev discovered his periodic table in a dream, and Berenice Abbott’s arresting black-and-white photographs of scientific processes and phenomena, then revisit Sagan on the power of books in protecting democracy and his timeless, increasingly timely wisdom on moving beyond “us” vs. “them” in bridging the divides of culture.

BP

Carl Sagan on the Power of Books and Reading as the Path to Democracy

“Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.”

“Someone reading a book is a sign of order in the world,” wrote the poet Mary Ruefle. Four centuries earlier, while ushering in a new world order, Galileo contemplated how books give us superhuman powers — a sentiment his twentieth-century counterpart, Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934–December 20, 1996), echoed in his shimmering assertion that “a book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

Shortly before his death, Sagan expounded on this passionate conviction in an essay titled “The Path to Freedom,” co-written with Ann Druyan — creative director of the Golden Record project and the love of Sagan’s life. It was published in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (public library) — the indispensable volume that gave us Sagan on moving beyond us vs. them, science as a tool of democracy, and his increasingly needed Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking.

With his wide cosmic lens, Sagan places the nascent miracle of the written word in evolutionary perspective:

For 99 percent of the tenure of humans on earth, nobody could read or write. The great invention had not yet been made. Except for firsthand experience, almost everything we knew was passed on by word of mouth. As in the children’s game “Telephone,” over tens and hundreds of generations, information would slowly be distorted and lost.

Books changed all that. Books, purchasable at low cost, permit us to interrogate the past with high accuracy; to tap the wisdom of our species; to understand the point of view of others, and not just those in power; to contemplate — with the best teachers — the insights, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history. They allow people long dead to talk inside our heads. Books can accompany us everywhere. Books are patient where we are slow to understand, allow us to go over the hard parts as many times as we wish, and are never critical of our lapses.

More than a century after Walt Whitman insisted that literature is central to a healthy democracy, Sagan adds:

Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.

Echoing Hannah Arendt’s piercing insight into how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression — and what more crushing isolation than to be severed from the life of the mind? — Sagan writes:

Tyrants and autocrats have always understood that literacy, learning, books and newspapers are potentially dangerous. They can put independent and even rebellious ideas in the heads of their subjects. The British Royal Governor of the Colony of Virginia wrote in 1671:

“I thank God there are no free schools nor printing; and I hope we shall not have [them] these [next] hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them and libels against the best government. God keep us from both!”

Considering the complex socioeconomic forces that conspire in constricting opportunity and the powerful way in which books counteract those forces — power to which James Baldwin so beautifully attested — Sagan reflects on his own experience:

Ann Druyan and I come from families that knew grinding poverty. But our parents were passionate readers. One of our grandmothers learned to read because her father, a subsistence farmer, traded a sack of onions to an itinerant teacher. She read for the next hundred years. Our parents had personal hygiene and the germ theory of disease drummed into them by the New York public schools. They followed prescriptions on childhood nutrition recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as if they had been handed down from Mount Sinai. Our government book on children’s health had been repeatedly taped together as its pages fell out. The corners were tattered. Key advice was underlined. It was consulted in every medical crisis. For a while, my parents gave up smoking — one of the few pleasures available to them in the Depression years — so their infant could have vitamin and mineral supplements. Ann and I were very lucky.

Art by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston from A Child of Books, an illustrated love letter to reading
Art by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston from A Child of Books, an illustrated love letter to reading

With an admiring eye to the example and legacy of the freed slaved turned pioneering social reformer Frederick Douglass, Sagan concludes:

The gears of poverty, ignorance, hopelessness, and low self-esteem mesh to create a kind of perpetual failure machine that grinds down dreams from generation to generation. We all bear the cost of keeping it running. Illiteracy is its linchpin…. Frederick Douglass taught that literacy is the path from slavery to freedom. There are many kinds of slavery and many kinds of freedom. But reading is still the path.

The Demon-Haunted World remains one of the most important books written in the cosmic blink since we first began writing and its central message is, rather sadly, increasingly relevant in our time of unreason. Complement this particular portion with Gwendolyn Brooks on the power of books, Rebecca Solnit on why we read and write, Anaïs Nin on how books awaken us from the slumber of almost-living, and Mary Oliver on how reading saved her life, then revisit Sagan on science and spirituality and this lovely animated adaptation of his famous Pale Blue Dot monologue about our place in the universe.

BP

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