A dual serenade to being and non-being, composed in glass, metal, and stardust.
By Maria Popova
This essay is excerpted and adapted from Figuring.
In 1847, the Harvard College Observatory acquired a colossal telescope dubbed the Great Refractor. It would remain the most powerful in America for twenty years. Enraptured by the imaging potential of the mighty instrument, observatory director William Bond befriended the daguerreotypist John Adams Whipple (September 10, 1822–April 10, 1891). Whipple thought of photography as a figurative art rather than a technical craft, but he applied it to the advancement of science. The two men began a series of collaborations that lit the dawn of astrophotography.
Four years into it, the thirty-year-old Whipple would awe the world with his stunning photographs of celestial objects — particularly his photographs of the Moon. Louis Daguerre himself had taken the first lunar photograph on January 2, 1839 — five days before announcing his invention, which marked the birth of photography — but his studio and his entire archive were destroyed by a fire two months later. Whipple’s remains the earliest known surviving photograph of the Moon — an image that continues to stun with its simple visual poetics even as technology has far eclipsed the primitive equipment of its photographer.
Whipple’s collaboration with Bond was the beginning of what would become the world’s largest collection of astrophotography plates at the Harvard College Observatory. From this vast visual library, a team of women known as the Harvard Computers would wrest pioneering insight into the nature of the universe, patiently analyzing and annotating the glass plates that today number half a million.
A year before his Moon photograph, Whipple had used the Great Refractor to make the first daguerreotype of a star: Vega, the second-brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere, object of one of Galileo’s most ingenious experiments supporting his proof of heliocentricity. An emissary of spacetime, Vega’s light reached the telescope’s lens from twenty-five light-years away to deliver an image of the star as it had been a quarter century earlier.
When the pioneering astrophotographers of Whipple’s generation began pointing one end of the telescope at the cosmos and affixing the other to the camera, we could behold for the first time images of stars that lived billions of light-years away, billions of years ago, long dead by the time their light — the universe’s merchant of time and conquistador of space — reached the lens. Against the backdrop of the newly and barely comprehensible sense of deep time, the blink of any human lifetime suddenly stung with its brevity of being, islanded in the cosmic river of chaos and entropy, drifting, always drifting, toward nonbeing.
We say that photographs “immortalize,” and yet they do the very opposite. Every photograph razes us on our ephemeral temporality by forcing us to contemplate a moment — an unrepeatable fragment of existence — that once was and never again will be. To look at a daguerreotype is to confront the fact of your own mortality in the countenance of a person long dead, a person who once inhabited a fleeting moment — alive with dreams and desperations — just as you now inhabit this one. Rather than bringing us closer to immortality, photography humbled us before our mortal finitude. Florence Nightingale resisted it. “I wish to be forgotten,” she wrote, and consented to being photographed only when Queen Victoria insisted.
I wonder about this as I stand amid the stacks of the Harvard College Observatory surrounded by half a million glass plates meticulously annotated by the hands of women long returned to stardust. I imagine the flesh of steady fingers, atoms spun into molecules throbbing with life, carefully slipping a glass plate from its paper sleeve to examine it. In a museum jar across the Atlantic, Galileo’s finger, which once pointed to the Moon with flesh just as alive, shrivels like all of our certitudes.
Pinned above the main desk area at the observatory is an archival photograph of Annie Jump Cannon — the deaf computer who catalogued more than 20,000 variable stars in a short period after joining the observatory — examining one of the photographic plates with a magnifying glass. I take out my smartphone — a disembodied computer of Venus, mundane proof of Einstein’s relativity, instant access to more knowledge than Newton ever knew — and take a photograph of a photograph of a photograph.
The half million glass plates surrounding me are about to be scraped of the computers’ handwriting — the last physical trace of the women’s corporeality — in order to reveal the clear images that, a century and a half later, provide invaluable astronomical information about the evolution of the universe. There are no overtones of sentimentality in entropy’s unceasing serenade to the cosmos.
“When one is considering the universe, unseen matter, our small backyard of the stuff, I think it is important, sensible even, to try and find some balance between laughter and uncontrollable weeping.”
By Maria Popova
“I’m stricken by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else,” poet Diane Ackerman wrote in her Cosmic Pastoral, which so enchanted Carl Sagan — her doctoral advisor — that he sent a copy of the book to Timothy Leary in prison. “Wonder,” Ackerman observed nearly half a century later in her succulent performance at The Universe in Verse, “is the heaviest element in the periodic table of the heart. Even a tiny piece of it can stop time.”
That ricochet wonder, in its myriad kaleidoscopic manifestations diffracted by various scientific phenomena, reflected by various facets of this splendidly interconnected universe, and hungrily absorbed by the human heart, is at the center of Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe (public library) by Ella Frances Sanders — the boundlessly curious writer and artist who gave us Lost in Translation, that lovely illustrated dictionary of untranslatable words from around the world.
Sanders writes in the preface to this lyrical and luminous celebration of science and our consanguinity with the universe:
A sense of wonder can find you in many forms, sometimes loudly, sometimes as a whispering, sometimes even hiding inside other feelings — being in love, or unbalanced, or blue.
For me, it is looking at the night for so long that my eyes ache and I’m stuck seeing stars for hours afterwards, watching the way the ocean sways itself to sleep, or as the sky washes itself in colors for which I know I will never have the words — a world made from layers of rock and fossil and glittered imaginings that keeps tripping me up, demanding I pay attention to one leaf at a time, ensuring I can never pick up quite where I left off.
When one is considering the universe, unseen matter, our small backyard of the stuff, I think it is important, sensible even, to try and find some balance between laughter and uncontrollable weeping.
Cry because we cannot even begin to understand how beautiful it is, cry because we are terribly flawed as a species, cry because it all seems so shockingly improbable that maybe our existence could be nothing but a dreamscape — celestial elephants in rooms without walls. But then? Surely, we can laugh.
Laugh because being riddled head-to-toe with human emotions while trying to come to terms with just how indisputably tiny we are in the grand scheme of things, makes absolutely everything and everyone seem quite ridiculous, entirely farcical. We have heads? Ridiculous! There are arguments about who is in charge here? Ridiculous! The universe is expanding? Ridiculous! We feel it necessary to keep secrets? Ridiculous.
In fifty-one miniature essays, each accompanied by one of her playful and poignant ink-and-watercolor drawings, Sanders goes on to explore a pleasingly wide array of scientific mysteries and facts — evolution, chaos theory, clouds, the color blue, the nature of light, the wondrousness of octopuses, the measurement of time, Richard Feynman’s famous cataclysm sentence, the clockwork mesmerism of planetary motion, our microbiome, the puzzlement of why we dream. What emerges is something sweetly consonant with Nabokov’s exultation at our “capacity to wonder at trifles” — except, of course, even the smallest and most invisible of these processes, phenomena, and laws are not trifles but condensed miracles that make the everythingness of everything we know.
It is tempting, then — and Sanders succumbs to the temptation in a most delicious way — to seek the existential in the scientific, even if the thread between the two is slender and human-made, rather than woven by this vast unfeeling universe in which we warm ourselves with wonder. In a chapter on our organic composition, so memorably captured in Carl Sagan’s assertion that “we too are made of starstuff,” Sanders shines a sidewise gleam on the illusion of the solid and separate self:
Depending on where you look, what you touch, you are changing all the time. The carbon inside you, accounting for about 18 percent of your being, could have existed in any number of creatures or natural disasters before finding you. That particular atom residing somewhere above your left eyebrow? It could well have been a smooth, riverbed pebble before deciding to call you home.
You see, you are not so soft after all; you are rock and wave and the peeling bark of trees, you are ladybirds and the smell of a garden after the rain. When you put your best foot forward, you are taking the north side of a mountain with you.
Sanders revisits the subject through the lens of the physics beneath the chemistry in a chapter on the structure and discovery of the atom. In a passage evocative of physicist Alan Lightman’s wonderful explanation of why we are mostly restlessness and empty space, she writes:
Such a beautiful (and until recently invisible) idea, the importance and unavoidable nature of atoms, one that seems to put everyone and everything on a satisfyingly level playing field. Your good and bad decisions, your wingspan, your wholeness as a person — these are all possible because of your own 7 billion billion billion atoms, each one made up of (roughly speaking) a positive nucleus in the middle, and the negative electron cloud surrounding it — a cloud that sort of dances from side to side, alternately enchanting other atoms and pushing them away (the really complicated magic can be left to quantum mechanics). Without atoms, nothing would be here; not the book in your hands, not the pen that leaked into your pocket this morning, not those buildings that are enough to make you scared of heights, nothing. If it weren’t for atoms, there wouldn’t be mass, or molecules, or matter, or me, or you.
The irrepressible human inquiry that magnetizes our imagination and draws us to the inner workings of the universe is the same inquiry Tolstoy scrawled into the diaries of his youth: “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” Sanders weaves these elemental questions — what are we made of and what does that make us? — into nearly every scientific curiosity she picks up, but she addresses them directly in a chapter devoted to our strangely continuous sense of self, devoid of a physical basis of continuity. She writes:
The idea of an unchanging “you” or “self” is inherently fraught with confusion and conflict, and if you consider the topic for too long it can begin to feel clammy, almost suspect. An apparent string running through all the previous versions of you — the one five minutes ago, a few hours ago, several years — the idea of “self” inevitably gets tangled up in things like the physical body and appearance, like memory. It’s clear that you cannot pin yourself down as any one particular “thing” but rather that you resemble a story line, an endless progression, variations on a theme, something that enables you to relate your present “self” to the past and future ones.
We do seem to make sense of ourselves and the world as a part of a narrative — we think in terms of main characters, those we speak and interact with, and where the beginnings, the middles, and the endings are.
Radiating from the book is lucid, lyrical consolation for the elemental disquietude of existence — the fact that haunting the fundamental laws of the universe and the sturdy certitude of their mathematics is the daily chaos of uncertainty with which we must somehow live, keeping one eye on our greatest loves and greatest losses, on the trifling urgencies of the mundane, and the other, wincing, on the only certainty there is: that one day we shall cease to exist. Sanders writes:
A lot of our time is spent trying to tie up loose ends, trying to shape disorder into something recognizably smooth, trying to escape the very limits that hold us close, happily ignoring rough edges and the inevitable. We separate ourselves out into past, present, and future, if only to show that we have changed, that we know better, that we have understood something inherent; if only to draw neat lines from start to finish without looking back.
The problem is that chaos is always only ever sitting just across the table, frequently glancing up from its newspaper, from its coffee cup filled with discolored and imploding stars. Because chaos too waits. Waits for you to notice it, for you to realize it’s the most dazzling thing you’ve ever seen, for all of your atoms to collectively shriek in belated recognition and stare, mouth open, at how exquisitely embedded it is in everything. Because we are not designed to be more orderly than anything else; seams have a tendency to come apart with time — you and the universe are the same in this way, which makes for a delicately overwhelming struggle.
So, then, if you can’t ever end things neatly, can’t ever put them back quite the way you found them, surely the alternative is to remain stubbornly carbonated with possibility, to never rest from your rotation. To keep assembling stories between us, stories about how everything was everything, about how much we loved.
“Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”
By Maria Popova
“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.”
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.
An incantation to “join the imperfect universe at peace with the disorder that orders.”
By Maria Popova
“We must be less than death to be lessened by it — for nothing is irrevocable but ourselves,” Emily Dickinson wrote of what she so stunningly termed “the drift called the infinite.” And yet we are, of course, less than death — we are inherently revocable, for death is the sole inevitability of life. For Dickinson, the irrevocability of human life was to be found in the living — in the truth and beauty we cast ourselves upon, in the loves we love. Amid a culture of extreme piousness, she rejected traditional religion and was only a child when she came to doubt the immortality so resolutely promised by the Calvinist dogma of her elders. Soon, she would write in her love letters to Susan Gilbert: “Sermons on unbelief ever did attract me.” In a poem, she would proclaim that “Faith is Doubt.” A century before Simone de Beauvoir asserted that “faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly,” Dickinson intuited that religion’s claims of immortality don’t comport with the nature of existence, which inclines always and without exception toward nonexistence — a fact as true on the scale of the individual as it is on the scale of the species and the Solar System and even the universe itself: In another four billion years — just about as long as our planet has so far existed — our sun will live out its final moments in a wild spin before collapsing into a white dwarf, its exhale bending spacetime itself into a well of nothingness that can swallow every atom that ever touched us and every poem we ever made — an entropic spectacle devoid of why.
A century after Dickinson drifted into the infinite, another poet — perhaps more improbable, yet all the more insightful for his particular strain of improbability — suspended this eternal subject between poetic truth and scientific fact. In a poem titled “The Devil Teaches Thermodynamics,” the Nobel-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann — one of those rare working scientists who are also literary artists — addresses the human longing for permanence, and religion’s illusory assurances thereof, in a universe we know to be governed by impermanence and entropy.
THE DEVIL TEACHES THERMODYNAMICS by Roald Hoffmann
My second law, your second law, ordains
that local order, structures in space
and time, be crafted in ever-so-losing
contention with proximal disorder in
this neat but getting messier universe.
And we, in the intricate machinery of our
healthy bodies and life-support systems,
in the written and televised word do declare
the majesty of the zoning ordinances
of this Law. But oh so smart, we think
that we are not things, like weeds,
or rust, or plain boulders, and so
invent a reason for an eternal subsidy
of our perfection, or at least perfectibility,
give it the names of God or the immortal
soul. And while we allow the dissipations
that cannot be hid, like death, and — in literary
stances — even the end of love, we make
the others just plain evil: anger, lust,
pride — the whole lot of pimples of the spirit.
Diseases need vectors, so the old call
goes out for me. But the kicker is that the struts
of God’s stave church, those nice seven,
they’re such a tense and compressed support
group that when they get through you’re really
ready to let off some magma. Faith serves up
passing certitude to weak minds, recruits for
the cults, and too much of her is going to play
hell with that other grand invention
of yours, the social contract. Boring
Prudence hangs around with conservatives,
and Love, love you say! Love one, leave
out the others. Love them all, none will love
you. I tell you, friends, love is the greatest
entropy-increasing device invented by God.
Love is my law’s sweet man. And for God
himself, well, his oneness seems too
much for natural man to love, so he comes
up with Northern Irelands and Lebanons…
The argument to be made is not
for your run-of-the-mill degeneracy, my
stereotype. No, I want us to awake,
join the imperfect universe at peace with
the disorder that orders. For the cold
death sets in slowly, and there is time,
so much time, for the stars’ light to scatter
off the eddies of chance, into our minds,
there to build ever more perfect loves,
invisible cities, our own constellations.