“Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”
By Maria Popova
Each spring, I join forces with my friends at Pioneer Works for an improbable idea that began in 2017 and has taken on a life of its own: The Universe in Verse — a charitable celebration of the science and splendor of nature through poetry.
With our sleeves rolled up and sweat-soaked in preparation for the 2020 virtual edition (“trailer” here), and with the world stunned and stilled and looking to fill the blur of days under quarantine with something of substance and succor, we have released the full recording of the 2019 show, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Sir Arthur Eddington’s historic eclipse expedition to Africa, which confirmed relativity and catapulted Einstein into celebrity. “Dear Mother, joyous news today,” Einstein wrote upon receiving word of the results, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe and shaped the course of modern physics. 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 German Jew united humanity under the same sky, under the deepest truths of the universe. An invitation to perspective in the largest sense.
The show — an evening of poems, music, and stories about eclipses, relativity, spacetime, and Einstein’s legacy, featuring readings by musicians David Byrne, Regina Spektor, Amanda Palmer, Emily Wells, and Josh Groban, astrophysicists Janna Levin and Natalie Batalha, poets Elizabeth Alexander and Marilyn Nelson, actor Natascha McElhone, theoretical cosmologist and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander, comedian Chuck Nice, choreographer Bill T. Jones, On Being host Krista Tippett, and the inimitable Neil Gaiman reading an original poem generously composed for the occasion — was a monumental labor of love, with every single person involved donating their time and talent, and all proceeds from the tickets benefiting Pioneer Works’ endeavor to build New York’s first-ever public observatory, a dome of possibility for future Eddingtons and Einsteins.
Both the costly production and this recording were made possible entirely by donations. Please enjoy — and if it gives you some perspective, some relief, perhaps even some rapture, do consider supporting this labor of love with a donation to Pioneer Works to offset some of the costs, help us build that dome of possibility, and make future universes possible.
Find the complete show and the full poem playlist below:
- “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman and poem #1397 by Emily Dickinson, read by Janna Levin
- “Education” by Elizabeth Alexander, read by the poet herself
- “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” by Adrienne Rich, read by Amanda Palmer
- “Theories of Everything” by Rebecca Elson, read by Regina Spektor
- “A Solar Eclipse” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, read by Natascha McElhone
- Musical interlude: Amanda Palmer
- “As If to Demonstrate an Eclipse” by Billy Collins, read by Chuck Nice
- “Achieving Perspective” by Pattiann Rogers, read by David Byrne
- “The Shampoo” by Elizabeth Bishop, read by me
- Musical interlude: Regina Spektor
- “Research” by Cecilia Payne, read by Natalie Batalha
- “Faster Than Light” by Marilyn Nelson, read by the poet herself
- “Explaining Relativity” by Rebecca Elson, read by Stephon Alexander
- “Poem to My Child, If Ever You Shall Be” by Ross Gay, read by Bill T. Jones
- “After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics” by W.H. Auden, read by Josh Groban
- “Figures of Thought” by Howard Nemerov, read by Krista Tippett
- “In Transit” by Neil Gaiman, read by Neil Gaiman
- “Einstein’s Daughter” by Jennifer Clement, read by Emily Wells
- Musical finale: Emily Wells
You can find the full recordings of previous seasons, and livestream details for the upcoming show, on this page.
ALSO: My friends at Pioneer Works have just launched their own newsletter, delving into their archives to deliver some of the world’s fiercest and most fertile minds — scientists and artists, Nobel laureates and Pulitzer-winning authors — in conversation and contemplation at the edge of our search for truth and our hunger for meaning, straight to your inbox. Be a pioneer and give it a try — I promise it will be spare and wonderful.