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The Universe in Verse: Cosmologist and Saxophonist Stephon Alexander Reads “Explaining Relativity” by Astronomer and Poet Rebecca Elson

“It is this, and the existence of limits.”

The Universe in Verse: Cosmologist and Saxophonist Stephon Alexander Reads “Explaining Relativity” by Astronomer and Poet Rebecca Elson

When Einstein radicalized science with his general theory of relativity, the fulcrum of which shifted our understanding of reality more profoundly than anything since the Copernican reordering of the universe, he had made several daring leaps of the informed imagination to demonstrate that space and time are interwoven into a single entity — the foundational fabric of the universe — and that both are not static absolutes, as it was believed for millennia, but dynamical quantities responsive to the energy and matter in the universe.

But Einstein’s boldest leap remains obscured by his theory’s name. At a time when other scientists believed that the speed of light was variable, Einstein took it as a fixed limit of nature and made it the absolute non-negotiable around which all other variables and parameters enfolded. Only in doing so — against every common-sense intuition — was he able to arrive at the relative nature of space and time, from which followed other previously unfathomed revelations: that gravity is a force caused by spacetime, that the universe is expanding, that black holes exist, that time ends in a singularity. Relativity was thus built upon this one absolute — a supreme testament to the generative power of limits, of deliberate constraints as a catalyst for creative breakthrough, consonant with Kierkegaard’s insistence that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.”

That is what the Canadian astronomer, poet, and tragic genius Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999) celebrates in a spare, stunning poem titled “Explaining Relativity,” found in her sole poetry collection, A Responsibility to Awe (public library). Elson — who made major contributions to the understanding of galaxy formation, dark matter, and how stars are born, live, and die — died at only thirty-nine, leaving behind fifty-six scientific papers and this one slender, splendid book of poetry.

Rebecca Elson, 1987

At the third annual Universe in Verse, theoretical cosmologist and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander — who belongs to Elson’s rare species of genius with immense scientific talent paralleled by a commensurate talent in an art — brought the poem to life, with a lovely prefatory reflection on his own improbable path, from the black magic tradition of his Aruban high priestess grandmother to his dual calling as a scientist and an artist.

by Rebecca Elson

Forget the clatter of ballistics,
The monologue of falling stones,
The sharp vectors
And the stiff numbered grids.

It’s so much more a thing of pliancy, persuasion,
Where space might cup itself around a planet
Like your palm around a stone,

Where you, yourself the planet,
Caught up in some geodesic dream,
Might wake to feel it enfold your weight
And know there is, in fact, no falling.

It is this, and the existence of limits.

Complement with Regina Spektor reading Elson’s “Theories of Everything,” then revisit other highlights from The Universe in Verse: U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, 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, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie.


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. (Available as a print.)[

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.

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.


Lost Radio Talks from the Harvard Observatory: Cecilia Payne, Who Discovered the Chemical Fingerprint of the Universe, on the Science of Stars and the Muse of All Great Scientists

“A common chemistry and a common physics run through the universe.”

Lost Radio Talks from the Harvard Observatory: Cecilia Payne, Who Discovered the Chemical Fingerprint of the Universe, on the Science of Stars and the Muse of All Great Scientists

In his stirring poem “The More Loving One,” W.H. Auden asked: “How should we like it were stars to burn / With a passion for us we could not return?” It is a perennial question — how to live with our human fragility of feeling in a dispassionate universe. But our passions, along with everything we feel and everything we are, do belong to the stars, in the most elemental sense. “We’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself,” Carl Sagan proclaimed in his iconic series Cosmos — a scientific statement so poetic and profound that it has enchanted more imaginations and infected more lay people with cosmic curiosity than any other sentiment in the history of science. It is also a statement Sagan could not have made without the foundational work of the English-American astronomer and astrophysicist Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (May 10, 1900–December 7, 1979).

In 1925, in her 215-page Harvard doctoral thesis that made her the first person to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy at Radcliffe-Harvard, Payne discovered the chemical composition of stars — the “stuff” the cosmos is made of, which was, much to scientists’ surprise, the selfsame “stuff” of which we too are made. It was a shock and a revelation — a landmark leap in our understanding of the universe and of ourselves.

Cecilia Payne, Harvard College Observatory

In early November 1925, the Harvard College Observatory broadcast the first episode of a series of radio talks about astronomy. Every Tuesday and Thursday for the next eleven weeks, Harvard astronomers would take to the airwaves of Boston’s Edison Electric Illuminating Company, WEEI, and deliver short, surprisingly poetic lectures on everything from comets, shooting stars, and eclipses to the evolution of stars and the search for life beyond Earth. Nothing like this had ever been done before — it was the world’s first public broadcast series of popular science and its printed record, published the following year as The Universe of Stars: Radio Talks from the Harvard College Observatory (public library), became the world’s first book of radio transcripts.

In mid-December 1925, having just completed her revolutionary doctoral thesis, the 25-year-old Payne delivered the fourteenth lecture in the series, titled “The Stuff Stars are Made of.”

Five years before the discovery of Pluto and mere months after Edwin Hubble had refuted Harvard College Observatory director Harlow Shapley’s longtime insistence that our home galaxy was the full extent of the cosmos by identifying stars that must belong to another galaxy, Andromeda — a radical revision of previous ideas about the nature and size of the universe — Payne takes her listeners on a journey into our cosmic neighborhood and beyond, into the unfathomed cosmic unknown:

We are going tonight far out beyond the bounds of the solar system, for this talk relates especially to the universe of stars… This solar system of ours is large enough, measured by earthly standards, since the distance across the orbit of Neptune, the farthest known planet, is some six thousand million miles. Even light, which travels at the furious speed of eleven million miles a minute, takes about eight hours to cross that space. But let us go out into the moonless night. Overhead we shall see thousands of twinkling points of light that we call the stars. Although light takes a third of a day to cross the solar system, the light that reaches us from the Milky Way may have been travelling five thousand years.

Part of the Milky Way, from a study made between 1874 and 1876
One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s stunning 19th-century astronomical drawings, based on his observations at the Harvard College Observatory.

Echoing pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell’s lovely incantation — “Mingle the starlight with your lives and you won’t be fretted by trifles,” Mitchell had told her Vassar students, who paved the way for women at the Harvard College Observatory — Payne reflects:

When we direct our thoughts to the stellar universe, the solar system is dwarfed out of recognition. We only notice it because we happen to be living in it. Until we begin to think in terms of the system of stars, we are liable to overrate the size and comprehensiveness of the system of the planets.

Writing in an era when there was only rudimentary awareness of the existence of stellar nuclei and nuclear reactions, she considers the mystery of our ancient nocturnal companions:

When we look at the twinkling light of the stars, we need all our powers of imagination to visualize what they really are. Every one of those points of light is actually a huge mass, often far larger than the Sun. Every one shines because it is hot — so hot that it glows by its own light. And every one of them is pouring out light and heat into space in enormous quantities. Many bright stars pour out hundreds of millions of tons of light every second.


When you look at the night sky, you are looking at an almost inconceivably great quantity of matter; and therefore when I talk about the stuff the stars are made of I am telling you what we know of the Chemistry of the Universe.

Etching by artist Vija Celmins from her project The Stars.

Payne examines the essence of the question itself: When we ask what things are “made of” in the world around us, we answer by pointing to their material — clay and rocks and water and wood — and then further analyze each material into different kinds of atoms. But because it is impossible to physically fetch atoms directly from a star the way one might fetch a fistful of clay from the ground, scientists can only analyze another aspect of the stellar “stuff”: light. Three centuries after Newton first used the word spectrum — Latin for “appearance” — to describe the beautiful band of rainbow produced when sunlight disperses onto a glass prism, giving rise to the science of spectrography, Payne explains the study of stellar light:

[Stars] are all pouring out light into space and we can catch that light as it strikes the Earth, and analyze it. In a fundamental sense, that light was once as much a part of the stars as clay is a part of the Earth. Light is a form of energy, and it is the energy of a star that makes it shine, and keeps it going, and enables it to survive. A star literally lives on its light.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s embroidery of supernova remnant Cas A. Read the story behind the project here.

Analyzing that light makes it possible to discern what stars are made of, because matter in the gaseous state emanates light of specific wavelengths, with each atom occupying a different set of wavelengths and thus appearing at a different spot along the color spectrum when its light passes through a prism. This method, Payne notes, revealed that stars are made of the selfsame elements found all around us, even though conditions on those stars are dramatically different from those on Earth, with temperatures reaching tens of thousands of degrees centigrade. After a necessary detour to physics, explaining how the structure of the atom factors into this commonality of matter, Payne concludes with the kernel of the poetic and profound sentiment Sagan would popularize more than half a century later:

In the spectrum of the Sun, we can pick out all the two thousand colors that are given out by an atom of iron; they are exactly the same as the colors that would be given out by a piece of iron, heated in the electric arc in the laboratory. A common chemistry and a common physics run through the universe.


The story that I have told you is one that has wide implications. Not only does it confirm us in our belief that a common physics and chemistry underlie the universe, but it suggests a basis for the study of the fundamental problem of the stability of matter. [This] implies that all stars have the same composition… that the relative amount of the different elements are in some way fixed, and have some fundamental significance in the universe.

This was a revolutionary idea that would lead to entirely new theories about the evolution of the universe. Payne herself would devote the remainder of her life to illuminating these mysteries, becoming the first woman to chair a Harvard department. But such honors meant little to her — she stood with Maria Mitchell, who famously asserted that honors “are small things in the light of stars.” Six decades after her doctoral thesis, Payne ended her autobiography with a short poem of her own, celebrating the scientific muse that governed her trailblazing career — a beautiful articulation of the universal motive force that impels all great scientists to do what they do.

At the third annual Universe in Verse, astrophysicist Natalie Batalha — project scientist on NASA’s Kepler mission, responsible for discovering more than 4,000 exoplanets: whole new worlds unimaginable in Payne’s time, when the very notion of another galaxy was a shock — returned to read Payne’s poem, with a lovely prefatory mediation reaching across space and time to connect Payne to Sagan to her own work and the largest questions human beings bring to and ask of the universe:

by Cecilia Payne

O Universe, O Lover,
I gave myself to thee
Not for gold
Not for glory
But for love.
Our children are immortal,
I am the Mother.
The offspring of our love
Will bear the image of a humble mother
And also a proud imperious Father.
Like Danae
I saw him in a stream of glowing stars;
Like Alkmena
Long, long I lay in his terrible embrace.
Their sons go striding round the firmament;
My children gambol at their heels.

Couple with Cecilia Payne’s advice to the young, then revisit other highlights from The Universe in Verse: Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by the Canadian astronomer, poet, and tragic genius Rebecca Elson, astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to the world’s first professional female astronomer, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her 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.


Music, Feeling, and Transcendence: Nick Cave on AI, Awe, and the Splendor of Our Human Limitations

“What a great song makes us feel is a sense of awe… A sense of awe is almost exclusively predicated on our limitations as human beings. It is entirely to do with our audacity as humans to reach beyond our potential.”

“All truth is comprised in music and mathematics,” Margaret Fuller proclaimed as she transfigured the cultural and political face of the 19th century. Her contemporary and admirer Walt Whitman considered music the profoundest expression of nature, while Nietzsche bellowed across the Atlantic that “without music life would be a mistake.” But something curious and unnerving happens when, in the age of artificial intelligence, mathematics reaches its human-made algorithmic extensions into the realm of music — into the art Aldous Huxley believed grants us singular access to the “blessedness lying at the heart of things” and philosopher Susanne Langer considered our foremost “laboratory for feeling and time.” When music becomes a computational enterprise, do we attain more combinatorial truth or incur a grave existential mistake?

That is what musician and feeling-artisan Nick Cave addresses with great thoughtfulness and poetic sensitivity in answering a question from a Slovenian fan named Peter, posed on Cave’s blog:

Considering human imagination the last piece of wilderness, do you think AI will ever be able to write a good song?

Nick Cave in Belgium, 1986 (Photograph by Yves Lorson)

Nearly two centuries after Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first algorithm and celebrated the human imagination as that wild faculty which “seizes points in common, between subjects having no very apparent connexion, & hence seldom or never brought into juxtaposition” — Cave responds:

Dear Peter,

In Yuval Noah Harari’s new book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, he writes that Artificial Intelligence, with its limitless potential and connectedness, will ultimately render many humans redundant in the work place. This sounds entirely feasible. However, he goes on to say that AI will be able to write better songs than humans can. He says, and excuse my simplistic summation, that we listen to songs to make us feel certain things and that in the future AI will simply be able to map the individual mind and create songs tailored exclusively to our own particular mental algorithms, that can make us feel, with far more intensity and precision, whatever it is we want to feel. If we are feeling sad and want to feel happy we simply listen to our bespoke AI happy song and the job will be done.

But, I am not sure that this is all songs do. Of course, we go to songs to make us feel something — happy, sad, sexy, homesick, excited or whatever — but this is not all a song does. What a great song makes us feel is a sense of awe. There is a reason for this. A sense of awe is almost exclusively predicated on our limitations as human beings. It is entirely to do with our audacity as humans to reach beyond our potential.

More than half a century after computing pioneer Alan Turing posed playfully the most serious and abiding question about AI in wondering whether a computer could ever enjoy strawberries and cream, and two centuries after Frankenstein author Mary Shelley raised the most fundamental questions about what makes us human, Cave writes:

It is perfectly conceivable that AI could produce a song as good as Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” for example, and that it ticked all the boxes required to make us feel what a song like that should make us feel — in this case, excited and rebellious, let’s say. It is also feasible that AI could produce a song that makes us feel these same feelings, but more intensely than any human songwriter could do.

But, I don’t feel that when we listen to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” it is only the song that we are listening to. It feels to me, that what we are actually listening to is a withdrawn and alienated young man’s journey out of the small American town of Aberdeen — a young man who by any measure was a walking bundle of dysfunction and human limitation — a young man who had the temerity to howl his particular pain into a microphone and in doing so, by way of the heavens, reach into the hearts of a generation. We are also listening to Iggy Pop walk across his audience’s hands and smear himself in peanut butter whilst singing 1970. We are listening to Beethoven compose the Ninth Symphony while almost totally deaf. We are listening to Prince, that tiny cluster of purple atoms, singing in the pouring rain at the Super Bowl and blowing everyone’s minds. We are listening to Nina Simone stuff all her rage and disappointment into the most tender of love songs. We are listening to Paganini continue to play his Stradivarius as the strings snapped. We are listening to Jimi Hendrix kneel and set fire to his own instrument.

What we are actually listening to is human limitation and the audacity to transcend it. Artificial Intelligence, for all its unlimited potential, simply doesn’t have this capacity. How could it? And this is the essence of transcendence. If we have limitless potential then what is there to transcend? And therefore what is the purpose of the imagination at all. Music has the ability to touch the celestial sphere with the tips of its fingers and the awe and wonder we feel is in the desperate temerity of the reach, not just the outcome. Where is the transcendent splendour in unlimited potential? So to answer your question, Peter, AI would have the capacity to write a good song, but not a great one. It lacks the nerve.

Love, Nick

And if an AI were to ever sign a letter to a human being who cherishes its music with “Love, Nick,” would that not be a mere simulacrum of the human experience the word love connotes and of the sense of self with which we imbue our own names? Alan Turing laid the foundation for these perplexities with the central question of his famous Turing test — “Can machines think?” — but it is impossible to consider the implications for music without building upon Turing’s foundation to ask, “Can machines feel?” Cave’s insightful point comes down to the most compelling and as-yet poorly understood aspect of human consciousness — the subjective interiority of experience known as qualia. Nina Simone knew this when she sang I wish you could know what it means to be me in her iconic 1967 civil rights anthem, which might well be the supreme anthem of qualia and the paradox of AI. Franz Kafka knew it when he told his young walking companion that “music is the sound of the soul, the direct voice of the subjective world.”

We don’t yet know, and we might never know, how to algorithmically map, dissect, project, and replicate what it feels like to have a particular subjective experience — we only know how to feel it. This knowledge is non-transferrable with the current tools of science. It is most closely relayed to another consciousness through the language and poetics of art, which Ursula K. Le Guin well knew is our finest, sharpest “tool for knowing who we are and what we want.” And if Susan Sontag was right, as I feel she was, in insisting that music is “the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts,” then music would be the art least susceptible to machine creation.

The Gnomes: "He played until the room was entirely filled with gnomes."
One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1917 illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

Complement with German philosopher Josef Pieper on the hidden source of music’s singular power and Regina Spektor’s lovely reading of Mark Strand’s poem “The Everyday Enchantment of Music,” then go listen and feel to some AI-irreplicable Nick Cave.


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