September 28th, 2009


To hear the stars

I disagree with this poem by Walt Whitman, "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" from Leaves of Grass (1867 edition).

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

Whitman feared science would turn the stars into a cipher, but I believe that the more I understand the universe, the more wonderful it is.

I love to look at rainbows. Knowing how they're formed helps me predict when and where I'm likely to see them; I get to see more of them that way. Knowing more about light gives me more to wonder about. There are colors humans can't see beyond violet and red, but bees and goldfish can.

We can predict rainbows, but who could have predicted bee and goldfish vision? And with science transformed into technology, we can see what they see and discover even more.

The more I know, the more I witness. I believe that unraveling an experience does not remove its mystery and wonder. Instead it leads to the next surprise. The Renaissance mathematician Johannes Kepler, who founded the science of astronomy, worked out the equations for the movement of the planets around the Sun. He heard the symphony of God and eternity in the polyphony of their orbits — in 1618 he wrote the Music of The Spheres, eerie shifting tones, and once I heard it, the night sky hasn't been the same:

"God Himself has waited 6,000 years for a witness," Kepler wrote, but the universe was reckoned to be a lot younger and smaller then.

Only eighty years ago, astronomers looked at the M31 "spiral nebula" and argued over whether it was part of the Milky Way or another, similar "island universe." Edwin Hubble's observations showed that it was indeed a galaxy, now called the Andromeda Galaxy, and it was bigger and farther away than anyone had thought. It's the most distant object Walt Whitman could have seen with the unaided eye, two million light-years away. And now we know the sky is full of galaxies. The universe is bigger than we ever imagined.

I can learn. Understanding what I can of all that is around me makes me more human. Since ancient times, science has been ranked among the humanities, and I think it belongs there. Understanding the forces that create and uphold life is one way to become open to them.

Whitman feared science would turn the stars into a dry equations. But had he stayed a little longer at that lecture, he might have gone out afterwards, looked up in perfect silence, and heard the stars sing.

— Sue Burke
Also posted at my writing website,

Photo: The Andromeda Galaxy, telescopic digital mosaic by Robert Gendler. Astronomy Picture of the Day 2005 December 22.