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Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman

“Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”

Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman

“To soothe and spiritualize, and, as far as may be, solve the mysteries of death and genius, consider them under the stars at midnight,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) wrote in his daybook upon receiving word of another great poet’s death. “Is there not something about the moon, some relation or reminder, which no poem or literature has yet caught?” he wondered as he approached the end of his own life.

As a young man, Whitman had written in the preface to his Leaves of Grass, which forever changed the soul and sinew of poetry:

The sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests, mountains, and rivers, are not small themes… but folks expect of the poet to indicate more than the beauty and dignity which always attach to dumb real objects… they expect him to indicate the path between reality and their souls.

No literary artist has wrested grander themes out of the reality of the natural world, nor channeled those themes more beautifully, than Whitman, for whom astronomy was a particularly beguiling lens on humanity’s intimacy with nature. He lived through a golden age of American astronomy, when the first university observatories were being erected, when comet discoveries and eclipse observations regularly made the front pages of the nation’s newspapers. After astronomers at the U.S. Naval Observatory discovered the first moon of Mars, and soon the second, Whitman exulted in his notebook: “Mars walks the heavens lord-paramount now; all through this month I go out after supper and watch for him; sometimes getting up at midnight to take another look at his unparallel’d lustre.”

But as much as Whitman relished the discoveries of astronomy, the undiscovered cosmos called to him with even greater allure and he called back with uncommon divination. More than a century before the first confirmed detection of an exoplanet, this poetic seer peered far out into “the orbs and the systems of orbs.” Half a century before Edwin Hubble glimpsed Andromeda, upending humanity’s millennia-old conviction that ours is the only galaxy in the universe, Whitman envisioned that “those stellar systems… suggestive and limitless as they are, merely edge more limitless, far more suggestive systems.” A century before scientists theorized a multiverse, he bellowed from the invigorating pages of Song of Myself: “Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”

“Give me nights perfectly quiet… and I looking up at the stars.” Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass.

And yet as much as the triumphs of science thrilled him, as ecstatically as he sailed along the ever-expanding shorelines of knowledge into the vast expanse of the knowable, Whitman fixed his gaze on the horizon of the known, aware that past it lay an oceanic immensity infinitely vaster. A century before Carl Sagan insisted that “the universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it,” Whitman revolted against the hubris of certitude and celebrated what science does not yet know, and perhaps might never know, in his poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” published in 1855 and brought to life in a stunning reading by astrophysicist and poetic science writer Janna Levin at the opening of the third annual Universe in Verse, benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first-ever public observatory at Pioneer Works — a dream many times dreamt since the founding of the city, many times attempted, and many times failed, including an effort in the middle of the 19th century advertised in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, in which Whitman made his name.

WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER
by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Complement with John Cameron Mitchell reading Whitman’s ode to the unfathomed universe below the surface of the ocean and Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity at the second annual Universe in Verse, then join me in supporting Pioneer Works and making this long-dreamt observatory dream a reality.

For more wonder and splendor at the intersection of poetry and science, savor Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by the astronomer, poet, and tragic genius Rebecca Elson, Amanda Palmer reading “Hubble Photographs” by Adrienne Rich, and James Gleick reading Elizabeth Bishop’s poignant poem about the nature of knowledge.

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101-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor Helen Fagin Reads Walt Whitman

“The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me, / The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.”

“Whitman is a projection into literature of the cosmic sense and conscience of the people, and their participation in the forces that are shaping the world,” the great naturalist and essayist John Burroughs wrote of Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) in his more-than-biography of this titanic poet whose verses continue to stir the hearts and minds of readers two centuries hence. Their sublimest, most enduring gift springs from Whitman’s resolute insistence on embracing our variegated, inconstant, polyphonous selves — on harmonizing the individualistic and the egalitarian, nature and culture, the body and the soul. “Do I contradict myself?” he asked unselfconsciously. “Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” His poems bellow the bold, countercultural assurance that in acknowledging the contradictions within us, we collapse the contradictions between us; that only by exploring the myriad facets of selfhood, from its brightest summits to its darkest recesses, can we begin to dissolve the illusion of separateness and the antagonisms of otherness that divide us from one another.

Nowhere is Whitman’s unflinching belief in the indivisibility of the human spirit distilled more exquisitely than in the opening verse of the twenty-first section of his poem “Song of Myself,” included in the self-published 1855 masterpiece Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain) and read here by 101-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin, who escaped Nazi-occupied Poland as a young woman, having embodied the most powerful testament to how literature saves lives. After arriving in America without speaking a word of English, this impassioned and devoted reader went on to earn a Ph.D. and to teach literature for decades, remaining to this day an ardent lover of poetry in general and of Whitman in particular. To hear Whitman’s humanistic and humanizing words channeled through a voice that has lived through humanity’s darkest hour, through a century of incalculable trials and triumphs of the spirit, is to be reminded of what it means to be alive, to be human, to be a pulsing, breathing, beautifully contradictory multitude.

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate
into a new tongue.

Couple with Fagin’s cousin Neil Gaiman reading to her Ursula K. Le Guin’s poem about timelessness on the eve of her 101st birthday, then revisit Whitman’s timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life, his wisdom on democracy, and his serenade to the universe.

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May 29, 1919: The Animated Story of How Eddington’s Historic Eclipse Expedition Confirmed Relativity, Catapulted Einstein into Celebrity, and United Humanity

How one of humanity’s greatest scientific achievements became one of humanity’s most humane moments, uniting a divided world under the same sky after its darkest hour.

May 29, 1919: The Animated Story of How Eddington’s Historic Eclipse Expedition Confirmed Relativity, Catapulted Einstein into Celebrity, and United Humanity

On May 29, 1919, the young English astronomer Arthur Eddington (December 28, 1882–November 22, 1944) catapulted Albert Einstein into celebrity by proving the most significant scientific model of the universe since Newtonian gravity: the general theory of relativity, completed four years earlier.

For a quarter millennium, Newton’s conception of space as static and absolute had gone unquestioned. According to his instantaneous-action-at-a-distance theory, gravity is a force that, like magnetism, acts through space but not on space, and light travels only in straight lines. According to Einstein’s theory, space and time are one entity — the foundational fabric of the universe — and gravity is a force caused by spacetime: Massive objects don’t merely draw small objects with their gravitational pull but bend the fabric of spacetime itself with their mass, pulling smaller objects into the depressions and bending light along the curvature.

Arthur Eddington (left) and Albert Einstein

At a time when very few scientists considered relativity plausible, and very few Englishmen would risk their reputation by defending a German’s ideas, Eddington set out to test Einstein’s theory against reality in an ingenious experiment nature herself had furnished. With his small team, he traveled to the remote island of Príncipe off the western coast of Africa to observe the longest total solar eclipse — 6 minutes and 51 seconds — in five centuries. When the Moon curtained the sun, Eddington hoped to see light of the Hyades cluster positioned directly behind the sun from Earth’s vantage point. If Einstein was right and Newton wrong, the sun’s massive gravitational field would warp spacetime itself, bending the path of the light to make it visible from Earth. The Hyades starlight would thus be deflected from its baseline nighttime position, which Eddington had recorded several months earlier.

It was an incredibly ambitious endeavor, both conceptually and practically. After days of heavy rains and overcast skies, resigned to failure, Eddington and his crew watched in awe as the clouds parted just in time for the eclipse, clearing the way for the telescope they had hauled to their cliffside encampment. As totality swept its otherworldly veil over the island, they took several photographic plates. All but two were ruined by the crude technology — but in those two, the Hyades clearly speckled the side of the Sun, matching Einstein’s theoretical prediction and disproving Newton.

One of Eddington’s photographic plate negatives.

“Dear Mother, joyous news today,” Einstein wrote upon receiving word of the triumphant results, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe and shaped the course of modern physics. “New theory of the universe,” the London Times soon proclaimed under the heading REVOLUTION IN SCIENCE, “Newtonian ideas overthrown.”

The scientific triumph was also a heartening, humane moment — just after the close of World War I, a pacifist English Quaker, who had refused to be drafted in the war at the risk of being jailed for treason, and a pacifist German Jew united humanity under the same sky, under the deepest truths of the universe. It was an invitation to perspective in the largest sense — one to which the third annual Universe in Verse was dedicated.

In this lovely short film, animated by English artist Hannah Jacobs and produced by Massive Science, astrophysicist, author, and my Universe in Verse co-conspirator Janna Levin elucidates the science behind the historic expedition and contextualizes the triumph of relativity, the legacy of which animates her sublimely beautiful book Black Hole Blues.

Eddington, unlike some of his compatriots, had no urge to denigrate Einstein’s accomplishments, although he was a citizen of a country so recently a bitter enemy — Einstein, born in Germany, and Eddington, in England. Out of the shadow of the War into the shadow of the Moon, they were citizens of the same Earth and relativity was heralded as one of humanity’s greatest achievements.

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“Little Prince” Author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on Losing a Friend

“Old friends cannot be created out of hand. Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions.”

“Little Prince” Author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on Losing a Friend

“Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship,” Seneca counseled in considering true and false friendship, “but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul.” To lose a friend who has earned such wholehearted admission into your soul is one of life’s most devastating sorrows. Whatever shape the loss takes — death, distance, the various desertions of loyalty and love that hollow out the heart — it is one of life’s most devastating sorrows. It is also one of life’s most absolute inevitabilities — we will each lose a beloved friend at one point or another, to one cause or another.

No one has articulated the disorientation of that inevitability more beautifully than Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (June 29, 1900–July 31, 1944) in Wind, Sand, and Stars (public library) — that endlessly rewarding collection of his autobiographical vignettes, philosophical inquiries, and poetic reflections on the nature of existence, published just as WWII was breaking out and four years before The Little Prince, which Saint-Exupéry would dedicate to his best friend in what remains perhaps the most beautiful book dedication ever composed.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

With an eye to his life as a pilot, Saint-Exupéry considers with unsentimental sweetness the common experience of losing fellow pilots to accident or war. In a passage that radiates universal insight into the loss of a friend, whatever the circumstance, he writes:

Bit by bit… it comes over us that we shall never again hear the laughter of our friend, that this one garden is forever locked against us. And at that moment begins our true mourning, which, though it may not be rending, is yet a little bitter. For nothing, in truth, can replace that companion. Old friends cannot be created out of hand. Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions. It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak.

So life goes on. For years we plant the seed, we feel ourselves rich; and then come other years when time does its work and our plantation is made sparse and thin. One by one, our comrades slip away, deprive us of their shade.

One of Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince.

Three years later, Saint-Exupéry would offer the most poetic consolation there is, only consolation there is for this existential sorrow, in the final pages of The Little Prince — a book very much about reconciling the great unbidden gift of loving a friend with the inevitability of losing that friend. In the closing scene, the little prince, about to depart for his home planet, tells the heartsick pilot unwilling to lose him and his golden laugh:

All men have the stars… but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travelers, the stars are guides. For other they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems. For my businessman they were wealth. But all these stars are silent. You — you alone — will have the stars as no one else has them… In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night… And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content to have known me. You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometimes open your window, so, for that pleasure… And your friends will be properly astonished to see you laughing as you look up at the sky!

Months later, much to the sorrow of his own friends and the millions of strangers who had come to love him through his books, Saint-Exupéry himself would become one of the lost pilots, vanishing over the Mediterranean Sea on a reconnaissance mission, his stardust silently returned to the stars that made him.

Couple with trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell on how we co-create one another and re-create ourselves through friendship, then revisit Saint-Exupéry on love and mortality, what the desert taught him about the meaning of life, and how a simple human smile saved his life during the war.

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