Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 5

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.

The Universe in Verse: Regina Spektor Reads “Theories of Everything” by Astronomer, Poet, and Tragic Genius Rebecca Elson

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.”

The spiral galaxy NGC 7331, located in the constellation Pegasus about 45 million light-years from Earth, discovered by William Herschel in 1784. (NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope)

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.

Rebecca Elson, 1987

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.

BP

John Steinbeck’s Stunning, Sobering, Buoyant Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

“A writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.”

“Mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself. Therein lies our hope and our destiny,” the great marine biologist and author Rachel Carson addressed the next generations as she catalyzed the environmental movement with her courageous exposé of the industry-driven, government-concealed chemical assault on nature.

Six months after Carson delivered her poignant and prescient commencement address, another writer of rare courage and humanistic idealism took another stage to deliver a kindred message that reverberates across the decades with astounding relevance today.

On December 10, 1962, John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) took the podium at the Swedish Academy to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.” Two decades after he contemplated the contradictions of human nature and our grounds for lucid hope, the sixty-year-old Steinbeck proceeded to deliver a stunning, sobering, yet resolutely optimistic acceptance speech, later included in Nobel Writers on Writing (public library) — the collection that gave us Bertrand Russell on the four desires driving all human behavior, Pearl S. Buck on the nature of creativity, and Gabriel García Márquez’s vision of a world in which “no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible.”

John Steinbeck

After some endearing and strangely comforting opening remarks, indicating that even he — one of the world’s most celebrated minds, standing at the podium to receive the Nobel Prize — is bedeviled by impostor syndrome, Steinbeck considers the abiding role of storytelling in human life:

Literature was not promulgated by a pale and emasculated critical priesthood singing their litanies in empty churches — nor is it a game for the cloistered elect, the tin-horn mendicants of low-calorie despair.

Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it and it has not changed except to become more needed. The skalds, the bards, the writers are not separate and exclusive. From the beginning, their functions, their duties, their responsibilities have been decreed by our species.

In a sentiment Iris Murdoch would echo a decade later in her insistence that throughout history “the artist has tended to be a revolutionary or at least an instrument of change in so far as he has tended to be a sensitive and independent thinker with a job that is a little outside established society,” Steinbeck bows to the lineage of great truth-tellers but raises the artist’s duty to a higher plane of humanism, tasked with more than merely exposing fault:

Humanity has been passing through a gray and desolate time of confusion. My great predecessor, William Faulkner, speaking here, referred to it as a tragedy of universal physical fear, so long sustained that there were no longer problems of the spirit, so that only the human heart in conflict with itself seemed worth writing about. Faulkner, more than most men, was aware of human strength as well as of human weakness. He knew that the understanding and the resolution of fear are a large part of the writer’s reason for being.

This is not new. The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.

Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit — for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.

Art by Shaun Tan from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Having witnessed the devastation of the atomic bomb — a gruesome turning point in our civilization’s balancing act of technological ascent and moral grounding — and speaking at the peak of the Cold War, Steinbeck offers a sentiment that has only swelled with poignancy in the half-century since, as we have continually let our technological capacities run unconsidered, outpacing our ethics:

The present universal fear has been the result of a forward surge in our knowledge and manipulation of certain dangerous factors in the physical world. It is true that other phases of understanding have not yet caught up with this great step, but there is no reason to presume that they cannot or will not draw abreast. Indeed, it is part of the writer’s responsibility to make sure that they do. With humanity’s long, proud history of standing firm against all of its natural enemies, sometimes in the face of almost certain defeat and extinction, we would be cowardly and stupid to leave the field on the eve of our greatest potential victory.

With an eye to the dark backstory of how the Nobel Prize was founded, Steinbeck reflects:

Understandably, I have been reading the life of Alfred Nobel; a solitary man, the books say, a thoughtful man. He perfected the release of explosive forces capable of creative good or of destructive evil, but lacking choice, ungoverned by conscience or judgement.

Nobel saw some of the cruel and bloody misuses of his inventions. He may have even foreseen the end result of all his probing — access to ultimate violence, to final destruction. Some say that he became cynical, but I do not believe this. I think he strove to invent a control — a safety valve. I think he found it finally only in the human mind and the human spirit.

To me, his thinking is clearly indicated in the categories of these awards. They are offered for increased and continuing knowledge of man and of his world — for understanding and communication, which are the functions of literature. And they are offered for demonstrations of the capacity for peace — the culmination of all the others.

Echoing Carson, Steinbeck considers the choice before humanity half a century after Alfred Nobel’s death — a choice that remains the same, though posed with exponentially greater urgency, yet another half a century hence:

The door of nature was unlocked and we were offered the dreadful burden of choice. We have usurped many of the powers we once ascribed to God. Fearful and unprepared, we have assumed lordship over the life and death of the whole world of all living things. The danger and the glory and the choice rest finally in man. The test of his perfectibility is at hand.

Having taken God-like power, we must seek in ourselves for the responsibility and the wisdom we once prayed some deity might have. Man himself has become our greatest hazard and our only hope. So that today, saint John the Apostle may well be paraphrased: In the end is the Word, and the Word is Man, and the Word is with Man.

Couple with the visionary scientist and poet Lewis Thomas, writing another two decades later, on the wonders of possibility of this very choice — a choice that is still before us, and it is not too late for us to make wisely — then revisit Steinbeck on kindness, the discipline of writing, the crucible of creativity, and his timeless advice on falling in love.

BP

Amanda Palmer’s Haunting Reading of Adrienne Rich’s Poem About Love, Perspective, and the Hubble Space Telescope

“…equations letting sight pierce through time into liberations, lacerations of light and dust…”

Amanda Palmer’s Haunting Reading of Adrienne Rich’s Poem About Love, Perspective, and the Hubble Space Telescope

“Mingle the starlight with your lives and you won’t be fretted by trifles,” the pioneering 19th-century astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science, used to tell her Vassar students — America’s first class of women astronomers and the first generation of people trained in what we now call astrophysics: the combination of mathematical physics and observational astronomy.

At the Vassar observatory, both Mitchell’s home and her classroom, she held regular “dome parties” — evenings of telescopic star-study and conversation, during which her students composed poems about whatever they were pondering astronomically.

Maria Mitchell, standing at telescope, with her students at Vassar

A century after Mitchell’s death, humanity launched into the cosmos its most ambitious and versatile instrument yet: the Hubble Space Telescope. “We saw to the edge of all there is — so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back,” the poet Tracy K. Smith wrote in her stunning ode to this triumph of human ingenuity and perseverance, on which her father was one of NASA’s first black engineers and which she read at the inaugural Universe in Verse, held on the telescope’s twenty-seventh birthday and dedicated to Maria Mitchell’s legacy.

Smith — who has since been elected Poet Laureate of the United States — was the age of Maria Mitchell’s students when the Hubble returned its first, enthusiastically awaited images of the cosmos: grainy, fuzzy photographs that were in one sense deeply disappointing to the engineers who had labored on the instrument for years, but in another absolutely thrilling: an unprecedented glimpse of the vast unknown beckoning from the unfathomed depths of the universe.

In the decades since its launch on April 24, 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has helped make landmark discoveries advancing our understanding of the universe and has enchanted humanity with the most beguiling images of the cosmos we have yet seen. It has shown us otherworldly glimpses of galaxies and nebulae. It has studied the light of orphaned stars to illuminate the mysteries of dark matter. It has resolved a longstanding perplexity about the growth rate of the universe and detected the first known interstellar object to visit our solar system. It has challenged us as never before to imagine what may lie beyond the horizons of our own imagination.

“Pillars of Creation,” one of the most recognizable Hubble images, depicting the interstellar gas and cosmic dust of the Eagle Nebula some 7,000 lightyears away from Earth, simultaneously creating new stars and being destroyed by the light of nearby newborn stars. (Photograph: NASA)

Fifteen years into the Hubble’s lifetime, another great poet, Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012), contemplated the existential undertones of its scientific triumphs in another stunning poem: “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho,” which musician, poetry lover, and my dear friend Amanda Palmer read in a haunting performance at the third annual Universe in Verse, held on the eve of the Hubble’s twenty-ninth birthday and benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.

The third annual Universe in Verse. (Photograph: Walter Wlodarczyk.)

In this lovely animation created for the occasion, artist Kelli Anderson brings Rich’s words and Amanda’s voice to life with an inventive animation technique, using a vintage NASA manual to print words and galactic-textured images directly onto the archival paper.

HUBBLE PHOTOGRAPHS: AFTER SAPPHO
by Adrienne Rich (2005)

It should be the most desired sight of all
the person with whom you hope to live and die

walking into a room, turning to look at you, sight for sight
Should be yet I say there is something

more desirable:       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
exposed like a body’s cavity, violet green livid and venous, gorgeous

—beyond good and evil as ever stained into dream
beyond remorse, disillusion, fear of death

or life, rage
for order, rage for destruction

beyond this love which stirs
the air every time she walks into the room

These impersonae, however we call them
won’t invade us as on movie screens

they are so old, so new, we are not to them
we look at them or don’t from within the milky gauze

of our tilted gazing
but they don’t look back and we cannot hurt them

Below is Amanda’s full performance, including her poetic prefatory meditation on art, science, and life:

“Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” comes from Adrienne Rich’s indispensable Collected Poems: 1950–2012 (public library). Complement it with Rich’s poem “Planetarium”, read by astrophysicist Janna Levin at the inaugural Universe in Verse, and her tribute to Marie Curie, read by Grammy-winning musician Rosanne Cash, then revisit Kelli Anderson’s stop-motion animation of Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism,” celebrating nature’s astonishing, humble resilience.

More highlights from the show can be savored here, including Amanda Palmer’s readings of Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson and his feminist history of science, both composed for The Universe in Verse.

BP

The Complementarity of Multiple Loves: The Victorian Philosopher Edward Carpenter on How Freedom Strengthens Togetherness in Long-Term Relationships

“Sympathy with and understanding of the person one lives with must be cultivated to the last degree possible, because it is a condition of any real and permanent alliance. And it may even go so far (and should go so far) as a frank understanding and tolerance of such person’s other loves.”

The Complementarity of Multiple Loves: The Victorian Philosopher Edward Carpenter on How Freedom Strengthens Togetherness in Long-Term Relationships

“A friend is not to be found in the world such as one can conceive of, such as one needs, for no human being unites so many of the attributes of God as we feel our nature requires,” the pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote as she devised her lovely theory of complementarity in intimate relationships, insisting that rather than burdening one person with the expectation of meeting our every expectation, we ought to scatter our needs and desires across a range of intimates, each chosen for their natural and unstrained ability to meet a particular need.

Curiously, while most of us are able to see the clear and radiant truth of this theory when it comes to our friendships, our cultural mythologies, sculpted by millennia of religious dogma, still hold romantic love to the impossible expectation of having one person meet our every need. We speak easily and gladly of a circle of friends, but in romance we contract the circle to the unitary locus of the idealized lover.

Long before the notion of polyamory entered our lexicon and became an acceptable frontier of the heart’s imagination, the philosopher, poet, and early LGBT rights activist Edward Carpenter (August 29, 1844–June 28, 1929) offered an antidote to this limiting cultural mythology in his uncommonly insightful 1912 book The Drama of Love and Death: A Study of Human Evolution and Transfiguration (public library), which also gave us Carpenter on how to survive the agony of falling in love.

Edward Carpenter, 1900

Two decades after meeting the love of his own life, with whom he would spend the remainder of his days, Carpenter — a contemporary of Mitchell’s who, like her, was ahead of his time in myriad ways — writes:

Sympathy with and understanding of the person one lives with must be cultivated to the last degree possible, because it is a condition of any real and permanent alliance. And it may even go so far (and should go so far) as a frank understanding and tolerance of such person’s other loves. After all, it seldom happens, with any one who has more than one or two great interests in life, that he finds a mate who can sympathize with or understand them all. In that case a certain portion of his personality is left out in the cold, as it were; and if this is an important portion it seems perfectly natural for him to seek for a mate or a lover on that side too. Two such loves are often perfectly compatible and reconcilable — though naturally one will be the dominant love, and the other subsidiary, and if such secondary loves are good-humoredly tolerated and admitted, the effect will generally be to confirm the first and original alliance all the more.

Art by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

More than a decade before Virginia Woolf offered her succinct, incisive recipe for what makes love last across the long sweep of time and habituation, Carpenter offers his:

Two people, after years, cease to exchange their views and opinions with the same vitality as at first; they lose their snap and crackle with regard to each other — and naturally, because they now know each other’s minds perfectly, and have perhaps modified them mutually to the point of likeness. But this only means, or should mean in a healthy case, that their interest in each other has passed into another plane, that the venue of Love has been removed to another court. If something has been lost in respect of the physical rush and torrent, and something in respect of the mental breeze and sparkle, great things have been gained in the ever-widening assurance and confidence of spiritual unity, and a kind of lake-like calm which indeed reflects the heavens. And under all, still in the depths, one may be conscious of a subtle flow and interchange, yet going on between the two personalities and relating itself to some deep and unseen movements far down in the heart of Nature.

Beyond this shared attunement to the pulse of nature, Carpenter argues that the coremost element in an enduring love relationship is not merely tolerance for but a largehearted welcoming of the partner’s other loves and interests, buoyed by the understanding that they enrich rather than impoverish the primary relationship:

Of course for this continuance and permanence of love there must be a certain amount of continence, not only physical, but on the emotional plane as well… New subjects of interest, and points of contact, must be sought; temporary absences rather encouraged than deprecated; and lesser loves, as we have already hinted, not turned into gages of battle. Few things, in fact, endear one to a partner so much as the sense that one can freely confide to him or her one’s affaires de cœur; and when a man and wife have reached this point of confidence in their relation to each other, it may fairly then be said (however shocking this may sound to the orthodox) that their union is permanent and assured.

Complement this excerpt of Carpenter’s altogether visionary The Drama of Love and Death with Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage, Rilke on the balance between freedom and togetherness in a long-term love, and Esther Perel on surrender and autonomy as the two pillars of romance, then revisit Hannah Arendt on how to live with love’s fundamental fear of loss.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated. Privacy policy.