The Universe in Verse: Regina Spektor Reads “Theories of Everything” by Astronomer, Poet, and Tragic Genius Rebecca Elson
Lyrical reflections at the crossroads of truth and meaning.
By Maria Popova
In her haunting ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, Adrienne Rich serenaded “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.” It is a peculiar meta-miracle, to fuse these complementary modes of sensemaking — mathematics, the language of truth, and poetry, the language of meaning — into something that enlarges both, expanding the horizons of beauty and understanding in the mind beholding the fusion.
This miracle is what The Universe in Verse celebrates, and no person embodies it more exquisitely than the Canadian astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999), who belonged to that rare species of genius with extraordinary talent in not just one but two, and thoroughly different, domains of creative endeavor.
The daughter of a geologist, Elson grew up as a keen observer of the natural world, spending large swaths of her childhood exploring the shores of a prehistoric lake. By the age of six, she could distinguish sandstone pebbles from limestone pebbles. By nine, she had grown besotted with the dazzling nocturnal skies of northern Canada, with the way they emanated the infinite question of what it means for the universe to be infinite, beguiled by the cosmic wonders filling that infinity. By sixteen, she was in university, falling further in love with astronomy. Her first glimpse of Andromeda, our sister galaxy, dazed her with its “delicate wisp of milky spiral light floating in what seemed a bottomless well of empty space.”
At twenty-six, having completed her Ph.D. at Cambridge — Newton’s hallowed ground — Elson received a postdoctoral research fellowship at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study — Einstein’s hallowed ground — to work with the first data from the Hubble, which was about to launch later that year. But when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded before the grief-stricken eyes of the world, the horizons of space exploration darkened, the launch of the Hubble was delayed, and Elson’s research assignment vanished. Trapped in Princeton’s unwelcoming atmosphere of systemic sexism, without support and without a riveting project at hand, she found herself withdrawing as a researcher.
One thing solaced and perhaps even saved Elson as her astronomical career took this dispiriting dip — the lively Tuesday evening gatherings of poets, whose company and camaraderie she found to be “far more expansive and congenial” than the stranglehold of the scientific patriarchy. Verse opened up new frontiers of inquiry and observation — not of the universe without, but of the universe within. She came to cherish it and practice it with the same passion she had brought to astronomy.
In her twenty-ninth year, just as she began teaching creative writing at Radcliffe-Harvard during a fellowship there and became the youngest astronomer to serve on a decennial review committee in the history of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Elson was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma — a blood cancer that most commonly afflicts people in their sixties and seventies. She transmuted the brutality of the treatment into raw material for poetry — “Not outer space, just space / The light of all the not yet stars,” she writes in “Antidotes to Fear of Death” — and continued pursuing her first and greatest scientific love: galaxy formation and the study of how stars are born, live, and die.
Upon returning to Cambridge in her early thirties, with her illness in remission, Elson and her team used the deepest image of space the Hubble had ever taken to determine the limits of how much regular stars contribute to the mysterious halo of dark matter enveloping the Milky Way — a major contribution to our understanding of the universe and a bittersweet metaphor for Elson’s life and body of work, hovering in that liminal space between limit and possibility, darkness and light.
Elson returned her stardust to the universe at only thirty-nine, leaving behind 56 scientific papers, a slender, sublimely beautiful book of poetry titled A Responsibility to Awe (public library), and the devastating question of what else a person of such uncommon genius would have given the world had chance granted her a longer life.
At the third annual Universe in Verse, I invited Regina Spektor, one of the most intensely poetic songwriters of our time, to honor Elson’s singular, tragic, transcendent genius with a lovely reading of her poem “Theories of Everything” — a meditation on our eternal struggle to discern the unfeeling laws of the universe, over which we have no control and by which we must abide, and to project ourselves onto them, creating cosmoses of beauty and meaning within their indifferent parameters, all the while ourselves remaining mere projections of these very laws.
THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
(When the lecturer’s shirt matches the painting on the wall)
He stands there speaking without love
Of theories where, in the democracy
Of this universe, or that,
There could be legislators
Who ordain trajectories for falling bodies,
Where all things must be dreamed with indifference,
And purpose is a momentary silhouette
Backlit by a blue anthropic flash,
A storm on the horizon.
But even the painting on the wall behind,
Itself an accident of shattered symmetries,
Is only half eclipsed by his transparencies
Of hierarchy and order,
And the history of thought.
And what he cannot see is this:
Himself projected next to his projections
Where the colours from the painting
Have spilled onto his shirt,
Their motion stilled into a rigorous
Design of lines and light.
A Responsibility to Awe is a breathtaking read in its slim totality.
For other highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her stirring homage to Stephen Hawking, U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie, then revisit Regina Spektor reading “The Everyday Enchantment of Music” by Mark Strand — one of the most beautiful things ever written about the power of music.