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Wonder and the Sacred Search for Truth: Ann Druyan on Why the Scientific Method Is Like Love

An invitation “to feel more intensely the romance of science and the wonder of being alive right now, at these particular coordinates in spacetime, less alone, more at home, here in the cosmos.”

Wonder and the Sacred Search for Truth: Ann Druyan on Why the Scientific Method Is Like Love

“We, this people, on a small and lonely planet / Traveling through casual space / Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns / To a destination where all signs tell us / It is possible and imperative that we learn / A brave and startling truth…” So begins Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, one of the most beautiful and poignant poems ever written — a poem that flew to space, a poem that came from space: a poem inspired by Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot — his lyrical meditation on the landmark photograph of Earth, which the Voyager spacecraft took in 1990 as an afterthought upon completing its unprecedented photographic survey of our Solar System, and which Sagan spent years petitioning NASA to permit.

The “Pale Blue Dot” photograph captured by the Voyager 1 (NASA/JPL)

The Voyager, which had sailed into space thirteen years earlier, carried alongside its instruments The Golden Record — a visionary, intensely poetic effort to capture the essence of Earth in sounds and images that would convey to another planetary civilization across spacetime, and, perhaps even more vitally in the middle of the Cold War, mirror back to us who and what we are: a single symphonic species.

Tasked with the impossible, inspired work of distilling that essence was the project’s creative director, Ann Druyan. In the course of composing the record, Sagan and Druyan, to their own wonder-stricken surprise, found themselves composing a stunning love story with their lives. They spent the remaining two decades of Sagan’s life fathoming and figuring the universe together — writing poetic inquiries into the origin of comets, dreaming up children’s book ideas, collaborating on the iconic 1980 television series turned book Cosmos, which The Library of Congress listed among 88 books to have shaped the country’s conscience, alongside epoch-making triumphs of courage and vision that have changed the course of culture and the understanding of nature — books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Art by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Two decades after Sagan’s death — decades coruscating with dazzling scientific discoveries that have disquieted us into shedding more myths and beholding more of reality — Druyan picked up the thread of wonder to write and produce a continuation of Cosmos, starring astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and soaring into these new frontiers of our ever-evolving understanding of space and time. In the companion book, Cosmos: Possible Worlds (public library), she extends an invitation “to feel more intensely the romance of science and the wonder of being alive right now, at these particular coordinates in spacetime, less alone, more at home, here in the cosmos.”

Tracing our cosmic story — from the cyanobacteria through which life first bloomed on our rocky world billions of years ago to our search for life on possible worlds many lightyears away; from the cave walls on which early humans first mapped their spatial coordinates to the Rube Goldberg machine of discoveries that led to the lasers with which these caves are now studied; from the symbiotic evolution of plants and the pollinators that feast on them to the Russian scientists who starved to death in a murderous dictatorship to protect their precious collection of seeds ensuring our planet’s biodiversity far beyond their lifetimes — Druyan takes up the mission not as a scientist herself but as a lifelong student and steward of the scientific mindscape, a self-described “hunter-gatherer of stories”: stories that begin with the human, with individual scientists or teams of scientists, and beget the cosmic, parting the curtain to let in a few more golden rays of reality, chiseling some precious fragment of knowledge from the immense monolith of the unknown.

At the center of her expansive reach into past and future is a lucid, luminous look at the realities and responsibilities the present is calling us to rise to — an inquiry into what it would take for us to transcend our human limitations and foibles so that we may endure as stewards rather than destroyers of this irreplaceable planet. In a testament to the fundamental fact that science is “a truly human endeavor,” Druyan writes:

Science, like love, is a means to that transcendence, to that soaring experience of the oneness of being fully alive. The scientific approach to nature and my understanding of love are the same: Love asks us to get beyond the infantile projections of our personal hopes and fears, to embrace the other’s reality. This kind of unflinching love never stops daring to go deeper, to reach higher.

This is precisely the way that science loves nature. This lack of a final destination, an absolute truth, is what makes science such a worthy methodology for sacred searching. It is a never ending lesson in humility. The vastness of the universe — and love, the thing that makes the vastness bearable — is out of reach to the arrogant. This cosmos only fully admits those who listen carefully for the inner voice reminding us to remember we might be wrong. What’s real must matter more to us than what we wish to believe.

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Learning not to confuse the strength of our beliefs for the strength of the evidence is, of course, one of the greatest, most difficult triumphs of our growth — as individuals, as societies, and as a species. In consonance with the tenets of Sagan’s timeless Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking, Druyan offers her simple, elegant formula for telling the two apart:

Test ideas by experiment and observation. Build on those ideas that pass the test. Reject the ones that fail. Follow the evidence wherever it leads. And question everything, including authority. Do these things and the cosmos is yours.

She opens and closes the book with the words of Albert Einstein, spoken at the 1939 World’s Fair, where he had gone to leave a time-capsule of wisdom for posterity:

If science, like art, is to perform its mission truly and fully, its achievements must enter not only superficially but with their inner meaning into the consciousness of the people.

I am reminded — by Einstein’s words, by Druyan’s endeavor — of John F. Kennedy’s miraculous defense of poetry: “We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” The man whose unassailable vision had landed the first human foot on another celestial body understood that in the poetry of reality, every portal of wonder, be it art or science, is a portal to truth. Sometimes — if our passion and persistence are great enough, if chance rolls its impartial dice suitably enough — it is a portal to “a brave and starling truth.”

What emerges from Druyan’s Cosmos: Possible Worlds is a rosary of such shimmering sometimeses. Complement it with poet Marie Howe’s stunning ode to the singularity of our cosmic belonging, then revisit physicist Brian Greene on wresting the poetry of existence from an aloof universe and Carl Sagan on how to live with the unknown.

BP

Conscience in Revolt: Sophie Scholl on Suffering, Strength, and the Deepest Wellspring of Courage

“Sympathy is often difficult and soon becomes hollow if one feels no pain oneself.”

Conscience in Revolt: Sophie Scholl on Suffering, Strength, and the Deepest Wellspring of Courage

“To be a human being among people and to remain one forever, no matter in what circumstances, not to grow despondent and not to lose heart — that’s what life is all about, that’s its task,” the young Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote in an existential exhale of a letter to his brother hours after his death sentence was repealed; in 1849, still in his twenties, Dostoyevsky had been arrested and sentenced to death for belonging to a literary society that circulated books the tsarist regime deemed dangerous.

Dostoyevsky lived to give us some of the most beautiful and humanistic literature our species has produced — literature laced with admonitions against indulging those murderous impulses of human nature, with invitations to choose again and again not to lose heart, not to lose faith in the human capacity for goodness.

A century later, amid a world that had failed to take Dostoyevsky’s heed, a person even younger took upon her slight shoulders that eternal task in one of the most powerful acts of resistance in the history of our civilization — powerful both for its courage and for its tragedy, outlining both what we are capable of as a human beings and how far we have yet to go to reach our highest potential as a humane society.

Born in a small German town as one of the local mayor’s five children, Sophie Scholl (May 9, 1921–February 22, 1943) was barely out of her teens when her conscience burst awake to the unconscionable inhumanity that had wormed her country’s soul. A month after she began her university studies in biology and philosophy in the nation’s capital, she co-founded the White Rose — a non-violent resistance group of students, artists, and scientists devoted to inspiring their compatriots to take a clear stance against Hitler, “to strive for the renewal of the mortally wounded German spirit,” as they impelled in one of their pamphlets.

Sophie Scholl. Painting by Allison Adams from her lovely grief-healing portrait series of heroic women.

On February 18, 1943 — eight months after the group’s founding — Scholl, her brother, and four other members of the White Rose were arrested, convicted of high treason for distributing anti-war pamphlets, and sentenced to death by the so-called People’s Court.

She was executed four days later.

Scholl is one of sixty-four heroes of resistance to Nazism profiled in Conscience in Revolt (public library) through brief biographies and a selection of their surviving writings that radiate the uncommon courage of living one’s values to the hilt — a 1957 out-of-print treasure that came into my life via one of those rare, improbable wonders that every once in a while reward those of us who mine the forgotten for the timeless: Tucked into my antiquarian copy of another our-of-print book on nonviolence, I discovered a newspaper clipping of a review by an English archbishop and anti-apartheid activist, lauding Conscience in Revolt as “a most moving and challenging pesentation of resistance to tyranny as a personal, individual, intensely human thing.” (Lest we forget, all of our pursuit and defense of truth springs from such a place, as astrophysicist Janna Levin reminds us in her beautiful reflection on science as a personal, “truly human endeavor.”) “It is precisely this we need to be reminded of now and always,” Father Huddleston writes in his review, “for there is no form of escapism more subtle or more general than the use of abstractions. And… there is no more certain way of losing the fight for human dignity and peace than the refusal to believe in the infinite value of the individual.”

The deeply personal nature of Scholl’s resistance and its seedbed in her singular individuality radiate from the previously unpublished private writings quoted in this book I was impelled to track down.

In a letter from February 10 — a fortnight before her execution, and a decade after her French kindred spirit Simone Weil modeled in her own triumph of resistance how to use our suffering as a portal to empathy — Scholl echoes the young Sylvia Plath’s longing “to be affected by life deeply” as she considers the possibility of being drafted for labor service the following summer:

I am not entirely unhappy about it, because I still want to suffer, to share the suffering of these days… to be affected more directly… Sympathy is often difficult and soon becomes hollow if one feels no pain oneself.

One comes to such fearless lucidity only through the awareness, accepted without resistance, of just how intimately the life of the body and the life of the spirit are entwined — an understanding Scholl inhabited with absolute creaturely integrity. In a diary entry vibrating with the invincibility of youth, penned in the last summer of her life not long after her twenty-first birthday, she captures the animalistic pleasure of aliveness that is the wellspring of our strength, our humanity, and the poetry of existence:

The wind tears open the blue sky, out comes the sun and kisses me tenderly. I’d like to kiss him back, but my wish is forgotten in a moment as the wind grasps me. I feel the wonderful firmness of my body, I laugh aloud for the sheer joy of finding I can resist the wind. I can feel all my own strength.

Nearly a century after Walt Whitman, who had served as a nurse to the dying in the Civil War, wrote so beautifully about optimism as a force of resistance and shortly after Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl penned his impassioned insistence upon believing in human goodness, Scholl located her strength — the supreme strength of the human animal — in the unflinching refusal to succumb to the cowardice of cynicism. That refusal was at the beating heart of her courage and her resistance — an ethos she articulated most directly and most exquisitely in a letter penned when she was only eighteen. Nearly half a century before Maya Angelou observed that “there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing,” this resolutely uncynical young woman writes:

After all, one should have the courage to believe in what is good. I do not mean that one should believe in illusions, but I mean that one should do only what is true and good and take it for granted that other people will do the same, in a way one can never do with the intellect alone. (That is to say — never calculate.)

Complement with Hannah Arendt, writing in the wake of the Holocaust, on our only effective antidote to the normalization of evil, Susan Sontag on moral courage and the power of principled revolt against injustice, Iris Murdoch on the power of literature to dismantle tyranny, and 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin on how books save lives.

BP

Singularity: Marie Howe’s Ode to Stephen Hawking, Our Cosmic Belonging, and the Meaning of Home, in a Stunning Animated Short Film

“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. Remember?”

“We, this people, on a small and lonely planet,” Maya Angelou begins “A Brave and Startling Truth” — her cosmic wakeup call to humanity, which flew into space aboard NASA’s Orion spacecraft and which opened the 2018 Universe in Verse, dedicated to our ecological awakening on the wings of Rachel Carson’s courageous work.

That year, Marie Howe — one of our great living poets, who awakens the creaturely conscience of the next generation in her ecopoetry class at Sarah Lawrence College — premiered a kindred poem that stilled the crowd constellating at Pioneer Works before erupting into a thousand-bodied standing ovation. While inspired by Stephen Hawking (who had just returned his stardust to the universe several weeks earlier) and titled after his trailblazing work on black holes and singularities — work that shines a sidewise gleam on the origin of everything — the poem is at bottom a stunning meditation on the interconnectedness of belonging across space and time, across selves and species, across the myriad artificial unbelongings we have manufactured as we have drifted further and further from our elemental nature. Its closing line is an invocation, an incantation, ending with a timeless word of staggering resonance today: home.

As we now stand on a profound precipice two years later — facing our deeply interconnected ecology of being on this shared cosmic home as we look back on fifty years of Earth Day built on Carson’s legacy, facing the most intimate meaning of home in our isolated shelters scattered across this “small and lonely planet” — the poem pulsates with a whole new meaning, as all great poems do in the veins of time.

And so, as a special treat for the 2020 Universe in Verse, streaming on April 25 into millions of homes around this sole shared home, I teamed up with SALT Project — a kindred clan of visual storytellers, who have won some hearts and won some Emmys with their soulful shorts ranging from book trailers to bird migration documentaries — to bring Howe’s “Singularity” to life in a transcendent short film, illustrated by paper collage artist Elena Skoreyko Wagner and featuring original music by the heroic cellist Zoë Keating, who was present in atoms at the 2018 show when “Singularity” premiered and who also composed the score for “Antidotes to Fear of Death” — the headlining miracle of a poem for the 2020 show.

It is with exuberant joy and gratitude that I share, as a special taste of the 2020 Universe in Verse, this symphony of beauty and perspective, over which so many talented women have labored with so much heart and generosity of spirit .

SINGULARITY
by Marie Howe

          (after Stephen Hawking)

Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity
we once were?

so compact nobody
needed a bed, or food or money —

nobody hiding in the school bathroom
or home alone

pulling open the drawer
where the pills are kept.

For every atom belonging to me as good
Belongs to you.
   Remember?

There was no   Nature.    No
 them.   No tests

to determine if the elephant
grieves her calf    or if

the coral reef feels pain.    Trashed
oceans don’t speak English or Farsi or French;

would that we could wake up   to what we were
— when we were ocean    and before that

to when sky was earth, and animal was energy, and rock was
liquid and stars were space and space was not

at all — nothing

before we came to believe humans were so important
before this awful loneliness.

Can molecules recall it?
what once was?    before anything happened?

No I, no We, no one. No was
No verb      no noun
only a tiny tiny dot brimming with

is is is is is

All   everything   home

Complement with an ink-and-watercolor animation of Mojave American poet Natalie Diaz’s gorgeous poem of brokenness and belonging and an animated adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s feminist revision of the history of science, then be sure to tune into the 2020 Universe in Verse at 4:30PM EST on April 25 for more poetic gifts of cosmic perspective, read by astrophysicists, artists, astronauts, and a portable galaxy of other radiant humans, including Patti Smith, Amanda Palmer, Elizabeth Gilbert, Debbie Millman, Brian Greene, Rosanne Cash, and Neil Gaiman.

BP

Antidotes to Fear of Death: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Astronomer and Poet Rebecca Elson’s Stunning Cosmic Salve for Our Creaturely Tremblings of Heart

“We are all navigating an external world — but only through the prism of our own minds, our own subjective experience… The majesty of the universe is only ever conjured up in the mind.”

Antidotes to Fear of Death: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Astronomer and Poet Rebecca Elson’s Stunning Cosmic Salve for Our Creaturely Tremblings of Heart

It is our biological wiring to exist — and then not; it is our psychological wiring to spend our lives running from this elemental fact on the hamster wheel of busyness and the hedonic treadmill of achievement, running from the disquieting knowledge that the atoms huddling for a cosmic blink around the shadow of a self will one day disband and return to the “aloof stars” that made them. If we still ourselves for a moment, or are bestilled by circumstance, we glimpse that fact, then hasten to avert our gaze. We go on holding it as an abstraction, an unproven theorem; go on casting spells against the proof in stone and wood and promises; go on building houses and egos, signing thirty-year mortgages, trading the forged mint of forever as contractual currency in marital vows. And then one day, some certitude fissures — in the broken surface of a split lip, a split love, a split in Earth’s quaked crust; in the slow-burning wildfire of a pandemic, smoking its way across the globe until it blazes into a shared inferno; in the cold blade of a terminal diagnosis, sudden and close to the bone. We wake up to unalloyed reality with a scream, a silence, a hollow hallelujah.

The astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999) was twenty-nine when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma — a blood cancer that typically invades people in their sixties and seventies. Throughout the bodily brutality of the treatment, throughout the haunting uncertainty of life in remission, she met reality on its own terms — reality creaturely and cosmic, terms chance-dealt by impartial laws — and made of that terrifying meeting something uncommonly beautiful.

Rebecca Elson, 1987

When she returned her atoms to the universe, not yet forty, Elson bequeathed to this world 56 scientific papers and a slender, stunning book of poetry titled A Responsibility to Awe (public library) — verses spare and sublime, drawn from a consciousness pulling the balloon string of the infinite through the loop of its own finitude, life-affirming the way only the most intimate contact with death — which means with nature — can be.

Elson’s crowning achievement in verse is the poem “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” beautifully brought to life here as a trailer of sorts for the 2020 Universe in Verse — our annual charitable celebration of the science and splendor of nature through poetry — by astrophysicist, novelist, Pioneer Works Director of Sciences, and devoted enchantress of poetry Janna Levin, with music by cellist, composer, and music revolutionary Zoë Keating based on her original soundtrack for The Edge of All We Know — the forthcoming documentary about the Event Horizon Telescope, which in 2019 captured humanity’s historic first glimpse of a black hole. (Janna works on black holes; Elson was among the select scientists tasked with studying the first images returned by the Hubble Space Telescope, that pioneering emblem of our most ambitious tool-making and our longing for intimate contact with the nature of reality.)

Janna prefaces her reading with a Bohrsian reflection on the relationship between science and poetry, between the objective and the subjective, concluding with an exquisitely insightful and exquisitely phrased observation of how the tension between these seeming dipoles can dissolve upon closer inspection:

We are all navigating an external world — but only through the prism of our own minds, our own subjective experience… The majesty of the universe is only ever conjured up in the mind.

Please enjoy:

ANTIDOTES TO FEAR OF DEATH
by Rebecca Elson

Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.

Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pepper hot and sharp.

Sometimes, instead, I stir myself
Into a universe still young,
Still warm as blood:

No outer space, just space,
The light of all the not yet stars
Drifting like a bright mist,
And all of us, and everything
Already there
But unconstrained by form.

And sometime it’s enough
To lie down here on earth
Beside our long ancestral bones:

To walk across the cobble fields
Of our discarded skulls,
Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,
Thinking: whatever left these husks
Flew off on bright wings.

Couple with Regina Spektor reading Elson’s “Theories of Everything” at the 2019 Universe in Verse and Janna reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity at the 2018 Universe in Verse, then join us for the livestream of the 2020 show for more beauty and consolation by calibration of perspective, featuring Neil Gaiman premiering another original poem, Patti Smith bringing Emily Dickinson to life, astronaut Leland Melvin reading Neruda’s love letter to Earth’s forests, and thirty other magnificent constellations of atoms celebrating the majesty of the universe and the irreplicable splendor of our Pale Blue Dot.

BP

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