This is the weekly email digest of the daily online journal Brain Pickings by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s edition — Keith Haring and his irrepressible art of hope; unforgetting the pioneer who became America’s first internationally celebrated black artist; and more — you can catch up right here. And if you find any value and joy in my labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation – I spend innumerable hours and tremendous resources on it each week, as I have been for fourteen years, and every little bit of support helps enormously. If you already donate: THANK YOU.
The Stuff of Stars: A Stunning Marbled Serenade to the Native Poetry of Science and the Cosmic Interleaving of Life
“Before I was born out of my mother,” Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass, “my embryo has never been torpid… For it the nebula cohered to an orb.” Only by connecting our own birth, our own existence, to that of everything and everyone we know, to the birth of the universe itself, can we confidently and genuinely say with Whitman, who called himself a “Kosmos,” that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”; only then can we not only think but feel the elemental truth in his contemporary John Muir’s insistence that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” A century and a half after Whitman and Muir, a century and a half after staggering leaps in our scientific understanding of the life of the universe and the universe of life, the great evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis moored this poetic truth in the reality of science by observing that “the fact that we are connected through space and time shows that life is a unitary phenomenon, no matter how we express that fact.”
That atomic interleaving of existence across the sweep of space and time and individual selves is what author Marion Dane Bauer and artist Ekua Holmes celebrate in The Stuff of Stars (public library) — a serenade to the native poetry inside the science of life, inspired by the iconic Carl Saganism that “we’re made of star-stuff” (itself inspired by the legacy of the trailblazing astronomer Cecilia Payne, who discovered the chemical composition of the universe against the odds of her time and place).
Opening with a narrative verse evocative of Marie Howe’s stunning poem “Singularity,” the lyrical story begins before the beginning of time and unspools into the everythingness of everything. Bauer writes:
In the dark,
in the dark,
in the deep, deep dark,
a speck floated,
invisible as thought,
weighty as God.
There was yet no time,
there was yet no space.
No Earth with soaring hawks,
trees reaching for the sky.
There was no sky.
Only the speck,
Holmes’s illustrations, nebular and alive and animated by marbling — a technique of rich symbolism and cross-cultural history — furnish the perfect visual metaphor for the book’s elemental reminder that we live in a universe of constant flow, flux, and metamorphosis, and that we ourselves are but a speck of color floating into shape for a brief moment before being washed into the perpetually repatterned marbling of existence; that any one life, including our own, is as precious as it is improbable and transient, and all the more precious for its improbability and transience.
With a poet’s concision and precision of thought-in-image, Bauer chronicles the formation of our Solar System and the chance miracle of our own Pale Blue Dot, so improbably hospitable to life against the odds of an austere cosmos — a planet that orbits its star “from just the right distance and with just the right tilt to be sometimes warm, sometimes cool”; a planet ideally poised to foment the astonishing diversity and splendor of the marbling of matter we call life, “perfect for turning that starry stuff into mitochondria, jellyfish, spiders, into ferns and sharks, into daisies and galloping horses.”
Again and against
Bauer goes on to trace the unstoppable rush of species and generations, fading in and out of the scene, restaging the next act with their own existence — the dinosaurs making room for the humans, our ancestors making room for us.
Leafing through the consummately illustrated story as it moves from the Big Bang with its near-instantaneous generation of all the matter that made everything we know to the slow, steady birth of stars and planets, of oceans and mountains, of all the creatures that tread and bloom and burrow and soar over and on and in them, I am reminded of Rachel Carson’s immortally poetic observation that “against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change”; I am reminded of James Baldwin’s impassioned insistence that “nothing is fixed… the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock… the sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us.”
Bauer ends this vignette of the panorama with the birth of the reader, addressing the child directly as a child of the universe, with the Whitmanesque recognition of how “the nebula cohered” to manifest this singular existence:
Then one day…
in the dark,
in the dark,
in the deep, deep dark,
another speck floated,
invisible as dreams,
special as Love.
Until at last,
YOU burst into the world.
Reminding the young reader that each breath they inhale is air once breathed by the woolly mammoths and each tear they cry is water that once lapped in the primordial seas, Bauer ends the story by inviting the voice of the parent to place the child into this glorious singularity of being — a splendid message that not only enlarges once’s own sense of being but, in celebrating this interbelonging with the rest of the living world, is the only viable seed for any real sense of the ecological responsibility that must bloom in the coming generations if this precious, precarious, shimmering world is to go on cohering into beauty and being.
and the velvet moss,
and the singing whales,
All of us
the stuff of stars.
Couple The Stuff of Stars (not to be confused with the similarly titled grownup biography of trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, about whom there also happens to be a wonderful picture-book biography) with a gorgeous animated short film of Marie Howe’s kindred-spirited poem “Singularity,” then revisit Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, also inspired by Carl Sagan.
Reproductions courtesy of Candlewick Press. Photographs by Maria Popova.
In 1977, the poet Adrienne Rich exhorted a graduating class of young women to think of education not as something one receives but as something one claims. But what does an education mean, and what does claiming it look like, for lives and minds animating bodies born into dramatically different points along the vast spectrum of privilege and possibility which human society spans?
This question comes alive in a wonderfully unexpected and necessary way in one of the highlights of the the third annual Universe in Verse by another great poet, essayist, and almost unbearably moving memoirist: Elizabeth Alexander — the fourth poet in history read at an American presidential inauguration (she welcomed Barack Obama to the presidency with her shimmering poem “Praise Song for the Day”) and the first woman of color to preside over one of the world’s largest philanthropic foundations.
Two years after Alexander illuminated a disquieting shadow-patch excised from the hegemonic history of science with the stunning poem she read at the inaugural Universe in Verse, she returned to the stage to shine a beam of radiance on the beauty hidden in an umbral corner of the selective collective memory we call history. Following astrophysicist Janna Levin’s opening reading of a pair of short poems by two titanic contemporaries who never knew of each other’s existence — a short untitled exultation at the surreality of a solar eclipse by Emily Dickinson and “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman — Alexander read a poetic antidote to history’s erasures, celebrating the invisible visionaries who also lived and marveled at the cosmos when Dickinson and Whitman lived and marveled at the cosmos, originally published in her collection American Sublime (public library) and prefaced in the show with some contextual connective tissue by yours truly:
by Elizabeth Alexander
In 1839, to enter University,
the Yale men already knew Cicero,
Dalzel’s Graeca Minora, then learned more Latin prosody,
Stiles on astronomy, Dana’s mineralogy.
Each year they named a Class Bully
who would butt heads with sailors in town.
“The first foreign heathen ever seen,”
Obookiah, arrived from Hawaii in ’09.
The most powerful telescope in America
was a recent gift to the school
and through it, they were first to see
the blazing return of Halley’s comet.
Ebeneezer Peter Mason
and Hamilton Lanphere Smith
spent all their free time at the instrument
observing the stars, their systems,
their movement and science and magic,
pondering the logic of mysteries that twinkle.
Some forty years before, Banneker’s
eclipse-predicting charts and almanacs
had gone to Thomas Jefferson
to prove “that nature has given our brethren
talents equal to other colors of men.”
Benjamin Banneker, born free,
whose people came from Guinea,
who taught himself at twenty-two (the same age
as the graduates) to carve entirely from wood
a watch which kept exquisite time,
accurate to the blade-sharp second.
Living in the same era as these astronomically enchanted men, whom Alexander so beautifully declipses from history’s shadow, was a young woman who blazed parallel trails for another section of humanity barred from higher education and discounted by the scientific establishment, and who would go on to stake her life on the conviction that equal opportunity for the life of the mind is at the center of social change.
Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) — to whom the inaugural Universe in Verse was dedicated and whose life furnished the initial inspiration for Figuring (from which this portion of the essay is adapted) — was twelve when she observed her first solar eclipse through a brass telescope set up in the front parlor of her modest Quaker home on the island of Nantucket. The cosmos, with its mystery governed by immutable laws of poetic precision, staggered her imagination. By fifteen, she had mastered higher mathematics, which she supplemented with an ardent love of poetry. No institution — not on the island, not on the globe — had anything further to offer her in the way of higher education for a woman. And so, at seventeen, she founded a small school of her own.
The first children who approached the teenage teacher for enrollment were three “Portuguese” girls — the era’s slang for immigrants of color, whatever their actual nationality or race. Having just witnessed a vehement outcry when the Nantucket’s public school had attempted integration the previous year, Mitchell knew that admitting students of color would cost her the support of many parents, particularly the wealthy. But when the little girl representing the trio implored for a chance to learn, Mitchell made a decision with a clarity of conviction that would come to mark her life. The three “Portuguese” children became her first scholars, soon joined by others ranging in age from six to fourteen.
In a single large classroom, Mitchell stretched her students’ minds from Shakespeare to spherical geometry. But before she could savor the success of her school, she was offered the head librarianship of the Nantucket Atheneum — a new kind of cultural institution, named after the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom, learning, and the arts, designed as a secular gathering place to discover and discuss ideas. She was eighteen. She would not relinquish her librarianship for two decades, despite the international celebrity into which her historic comet discovery catapulted her at the end of her twenties; despite her landmark admission into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as the venerable institution’s first female member; despite becoming the first woman employed by the federal government for a “specialized non-domestic skill” as a “computer of Venus” — a one-person GPS performing complex celestial calculations to help sailors navigate the globe.
During her tenure at the Atheneum, Mitchell hosted the institution’s regular public lectures by itinerant speakers. Among them was a young man who had escaped slavery three years earlier.
One August day in 1841, a nervous twenty-three-year-old Frederick Douglass — the same age as Mitchell — took the podium at the Atheneum to deliver his very first public address before the mixed-race audience of five hundred gathered at the island’s temple of learning for the first Nantucket Anti-Slavery Convention. “It was with the utmost difficulty,” Douglass would later recount, “that I could stand erect, or that I could command and articulate two words without hesitation and stammering. I trembled in every limb.” He proceeded to deliver a speech so electrifying that at its conclusion, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who was waiting to take the platform next, leapt to his feet, turned to the audience, and exclaimed: “Have we been listening to a thing, a piece of property, or a man?” The chamber of the Great Hall bellowed with a resounding “A man! A man!” The man was hired on the spot as full-time lecturer for Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society.
Four years later, by then one of the country’s most prominent public speakers, Douglass would write in his autobiography:
I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence. From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace.
Maria Mitchell echoed this sentiment in her own diary as she was doing for women what Douglass was doing for African Americans:
The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not.
Mitchell and Douglass cherished their friendship for the remainder of their parallel pioneering lives — both world-famous before they were thirty, both liberators of possibility in their present, both role models of courage and tenacity for generations to come. The year Mitchell made her historic discovery of the world’s first telescopic comet, Douglass — who in that trembling dawn of his career had calmed his nerves by taking in the cosmic perspective through her telescope — began publishing his abolitionist newspaper; he titled it The North Star in homage to the key role astronomy played in the Underground Railroad — traveling at night, slaves were told to keep the river on one side and follow the Drinking Gourd, an African name for the Big Dipper, for if they kept after the pole star, they would keep themselves moving north. In the final year of hers, the ailing Mitchell — whose childhood home had been a stop on the Underground Railroad — exerted herself to travel many miles via ferry, coach, and train for a reception given in her cherished friend’s honor.
Full recordings of the first three seasons of The Universe in Verse — a celebration of the meeting ground between science and the human spirit through the lens of poetry — are freely available to be enjoyed here.
Snakes, Dragons, and the Power of Music: Strange and Wondrous 18th-Century Illustrations of Real and Mythic Serpents
Depicted as equally real alongside the common vipers familiar to every English child are the “poetick Griffins,” a “monstrous Serpent of four or five Yards long… very large and furious,” and the Ethiopian dragons, inherited from ancient Greek mythology and believed to kill elephants “by winding themselves about the Elephant’s Legs, and then thrusting their Heads up their Nostrils, fling them, and suck their Blood till they are dead.”
What emerges is a kind of natural history tinted by supernatural inheritance — while Owen was inspired by the symbology of reptiles in a great many of the world’s religious traditions, he brought the mindset of a naturalist or “natural philosopher” (the word scientist was yet to be coined) to the endeavor. While his prefatory note to the reader is trapped in the mind and language of its time, speaking of the “Almighty Creator,” the “Divine Wisdom in the works of Nature,” and the immutability of species in their “Eternal Design,” he also advocates passionately for acknowledging the limits of our knowledge and savoring the rewards of observation, especially of looking more closely at what is commonly overlooked. Although his motive is theological, its end and effect are almost scientific:
That there is not a wise Purpose in every thing that is made because we do not understand it, is as absurd as for a Man to say, there is no such thing as Light, because he is blind and has no Eyes to see it.
For the Illustration of this, we may take a short View of Creatures, in vulgar account too diminutive and despicable as a Species, to deserve a close Attention.
Even looking closely at the most “Noxious” of creatures, he suggests, brings us into more intimate contact with the consummate perfection of nature, for the more we consider them, the more we find not a particular reason why they should exist but no reason why they should not. A lovely notion to roll against the palate of the mind — a notion that sweetens a great many other contexts with its implications.
Nestled between the serpents are other poison-wielding animals — spiders, scorpions, frogs, wasps, hornets, the tarantula (“a kind of an overgrown Spider, about the Size of a common Acorn,” against the deadly bite of which “the most effectual and certain Remedy is Musick.”)
And then, in one of those glorious metaphysical meanderings lacing pre-scientific works of “natural philosophy,” Owen turns to the belief that music mitigates the effects of poisons, physical and moral, and adds a reverie to the canon of great writers extolling the power of music:
Musick appears to be one of the most antient of Arts, and of all other, vocal Musick must have been the first kind, and borrowed from the various natural Strains of Birds; as stringed Instruments were from Winds whistling in hollow Reeds, and pulsatile Instruments (as Drums and Cymbals) from the hollow Noise of concave Bodies. This is the Conjecture.
Musick has ever been in the highest Esteem in all Ages, and among all People. Nor could Authors express their Opinions of it strongly enough, but by inculcating, that it was in Heaven, and was one of the principal Entertainments of the Blessed.
The Effects ascribed to Musick by the Antients, almost amount to Miracles; by means thereof Diseases are said to have been cured, Unchastity corrected, Seditions quelled, Passions raised and calmed, and even Madness occasioned.
Musick has been used as a Sermon of Morality… The Pythagoreans made use of Musick to cultivate the Mind, and settle in it a passionate Love of Virtue… made use of it, not only against Diseases of the Mind, but those of the Body. It was the common Custom of the Pythagoreans to soften their Minds with Musick before they went to sleep; and also in the Morning, to excite themselves to the Business of the Day.
This Cure of Distempers by Musick sounds odd, but was a celebrated Medicine among the Antients. We have already considered, how those wounded by the Tarantula were healed by Musick; the Evidence of which is too strong to be overturned.
Couple with biologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer, writing a quarter millennium after Owen, on how the overlooked splendor of moss refines the art of attentiveness to all scales of existence, then savor other stunning scientific and natural history illustrations from Owen’s era: the consummate illustrations for the world’s first encyclopedia of medicinal plants, which the young self-taught artist and botanist Elizabeth Blackwell painted to bail her husband out of debtor’s prison; the self-taught German artist and astronomer Maria Clara Eimmart’s haunting blue-and-gold renditions of the Solar System as it was then known; Sarah Stone’s paintings of exotic, endangered, and now-extinct species; and some wondrous illustrations of owls from Darwin’s century.