Jan 6, 2023

Universe In Verse

For a special New Year’s treat, we take a tour through the history of the universe with the help of… poets. Our guide is Maria Popova, who writes the popular blog The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings), and the poetry is from her project, “The Universe in Verse” — an annual event where poets read poems about science, space, and the natural world.

Special thanks to all of our poets, musicians, and performers: Marie Howe, Tracy K. Smith, Rebecca Elson, Joan As Police Woman, Patti Smith, Gautam Srikishan, Zoe Keating, and Emily Dickinson.

EPISODE CREDITS:

Reported by - Lulu Miller
with help from - Maria Popova
Produced by - Sindhu Gnanasambandan
with mixing help from - Jeremy Bloom
Fact-checking by - Natalie A. Middleton
and Edited by  - Pat Walters

FURTHER READING AND RESEARCH:
To dig deeper on this one, we recommend

Books:
- Tracy K Smith’s “Life On Mars” (https://zpr.io/weTzGTbZyVDT)
- Marie Howe’s “The Kingdom Of Ordinary Times” (https://zpr.io/Tj9cWTsQxHG3)
- Rebecca Elson’s “A Responsiblity To Awe” (https://zpr.io/PLR3KL8SfuPR)
- Patti Smith’s “Just Kids” (https://zpr.io/zM47P5KqqKZx)

Music:
- Joan As Policewoman (https://joanaspolicewoman.com/)
- Gautam Srikishan (https://www.floatingfast.com/)
- Zoe Keating (https://www.zoekeating.com/)

Internet:
- The Marginalian blog post (https://zpr.io/abTuDFH9pfwu) about Vera Rubin
- Check out photos of Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium (https://zpr.io/XkgTscKBfem6), a book of 424 flowers she picked and pressed and identified while studying the wild botany of Massachusetts.


Tracy K. Smith, “My God, It’s Full of Stars” from Such Color: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 2011 by Tracy K. Smith. Read by the author and used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.

Fun fact: This episode was inspired by the fact that many Navy ships record the first log entry of the New Year in verse! To see some of this year's poems and learn about the history of the tradition, check out this post by the Naval History and Heritage Command. And, if you want to read a bit from Lulu's interview with sailor poet Lt. Ian McConnaughey, subscribe to our newsletter.

Our newsletter comes out every Wednesday. It includes short essays, recommendations, and details about other ways to interact with the show. Sign up (https://radiolab.org/newsletter)!

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Leadership support for Radiolab’s science programming is provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation Initiative, and the John Templeton Foundation. Foundational support for Radiolab was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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[RADIOLAB INTRO]

LULU MILLER: Okay. So Latif ...

LATIF NASSER: Yes. Hello.

LULU: Happy new year!

LATIF: Happy new year to you.

LULU: We are now just a few days into a brand new year. And think about what that means: we have all completed a 500-million-mile-plus lap around the sun.

LATIF: Hmm.

LULU: And—and so in honor of completing that journey, I wanted to try something a little different today and take us all on a journey.

LATIF: Okay.

LULU: We're gonna travel all the way back to the very beginning of all of it, and then we're gonna zip forward and make pit stops at certain moments in the development of the universe and planet. And to do that, to really understand what's going on scientifically, we are going to turn to poets.

LATIF: Hmm.

LULU: Do you even like poetry? What are your feelings about poetry?

LATIF: No I hate—I generally dislike poetry.

LULU: And why? Why?

LATIF: I—I think that—like, okay, like, I—I just, for circumstances that are too complicated to even go into, I recently just had to read a book of poems and, like, write about it a little bit.

LULU: Yeah.

LATIF: And I was like, for all I can tell this is like an AI random word generator.

LULU: [laughs]

LATIF: It does not make me feel anything except stupid. And it's just like—I'm like, what is the point of what we're doing here?

MARIA POPOVA: Well, can I offer some assurance and consolation for that?

LATIF: Please.

LULU: This, by the way, is going to be our lovely guide on this poetry journey. Her name is Maria Popova. She's a writer. You've probably heard of her website—used to be called Brain Pickings, now The Marginalian. And she curated this journey of poems that we're about to hear, but it turns out she herself has incredibly mixed feelings about poetry.

MARIA POPOVA: So first I'll say I personally like maybe one percent of the poetry I read.

LULU: Hmm.

LATIF: Okay.

MARIA POPOVA: Poetry was not a part of my life for most of my adult life, and I really discounted it.

LULU: But then she read this T.S. Eliot poem, and she said it disturbed her universe.

MARIA POPOVA: I saw the sway it has of slipping in through the back door of consciousness, past our intellectual judgments and open up this other portal of receptivity.

LULU: So she started doing this event where she would have poets read poems about science, The Universe in Verse. I've never been to the event myself, but I've listened to the poems over the years, and some of them have really moved me. So today for this special treat for the new year, I asked Maria to curate a little journey for us from the very beginning of the universe to a kind of future, a glimpse of the beyond.

MARIA POPOVA: Mm-hmm.

LATIF: All right!

LULU: So okay, let's turn the key in our time travel machine, and we're gonna go back to our first stop. And this is a moment before the big bang, the explosion that supposedly many argue made our universe. Theoretical physicists continue to debate what was happening and if the big bang happened and what was really there before and blah blah blah blah blah, but at the time of the poem, there was a belief that what existed before the big bang was something called the singularity. Okay? So that's what this poem is gonna be about. Before we hear it, Maria can you just explain as best as you can, like, what the singularity is?

MARIA POPOVA: Everything that ever existed could have once been compressed into this single point. Single point! You know, this kind of this totality shrunken into nothingness that contains everything.

LULU: A compact little everything. Okay, so the poem that we're going to hear is called "The Singularity," and it is written and performed by Marie Howe. Should we just play it?

MARIA POPOVA: Let's do it.

LATIF: Let's do it.

LULU: She walks up to the stage and here's what we hear.

MARIE HOWE: Let me think. When I was talking with Maria about doing something this evening, I just jotted something in my journal, really. And I told her I wanted to read Walt Whitman, and—but I just sort of sent this—really, this thing too, and she said, "Oh read that, read that." I said, "I don't know. Usually I wait about 10 years before I read anything out loud. This has been about a week." Anyway, I don't know anything about science. I've tried to read these books. My daughter, however, loves physics. I don't understand that. But I was trying to get her to explain to me what the singularity is. And I was reading Hawking of course, and then I was trying to read "Astrophysics For People in a Hurry" by Neil deGrasse Tyson. I said to her a few weeks ago, "I don't believe in the big bang." And she said, "You don't?" And I said, "No. It's impossible." Who here really believes that we were all—everything that ever is, was once a singularity so dense it was one thing before it blew up. Raise your hands. Okay. See? Just like not that many over there. So here it is, "The Singularity."

MARIE HOWE: 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

when earth was sky, 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 remember it?

what once was? before anything happened?

Can our molecules remember?

No I, no We, no one. No was

No verb no noun yet

only a tiny tiny tiny tiny dot brimming with

is is is is is

All everything home

MARIE HOWE: Thank you.

[audience cheers]

LULU: That line, "Can our molecules remember it?" is the line that gets me in that one where I'm just like, "Well, crap. If the singularity is right they were in there, right?"

MARIA POPOVA: Or the hint of them, right? I also love how that line echoes that quote from Whitman which is in the beginning of the poem, that iconic, "Every atom belonging to me is good belongs to you." And she says, "Remember?"

LULU: Hmm.

LATIF: This—this idea of the singularity that Everything Everywhere—both of those Es being capitalized—all was in one dot, like it's so absurd when you think about it. It's like the most absurd possible thing. It's just like one of things, it's like, oh, yeah, like, anything could have ever happened. [laughs]

MARIA POPOVA: Yeah. Well, I think that's the gift of the poem, though, that it names so plainly what we experience as common sense, it's no Litmus test for reality, that reality is so much larger than our creaturely perceptions and intuitions.

LATIF: Yeah. Yeah.

LULU: Yeah. Okay, so stop two. Here we go. Bye-bye singularity, bye-bye big bang. We're zooming forward 9.2 billion years.

LATIF: It's yadda-yadda 9.2 billion years.

LULU: A planet has formed, and eventually we'll call it Earth. Earth keeps lapping the sun, happy new year! Happy new year! Happy new year! Interestingly, billions of years ago, years were longer.

MARIA POPOVA: Mm-hmm.

LULU: But the days were shorter.

MARIA POPOVA: Mm-hmm.

LATIF: Weird. So how many days were there in a year?

LULU: I don't—don't ask me any follow up questions! Okay then we go pew pew pew! More and more life is getting supported, we get plankton and mollusks and snails and sharks and dinosaurs. And then from what we can see in the fossil record, there is an explosion of sorts all over the planet. What is it? What happened?

MARIA POPOVA: Flowers appeared and carpeted the world so rapidly that Darwin called it "An abominable mystery." [laughs]

LULU: Abominable flowers!

MARIA POPOVA: Abominable mystery.

LULU: [laughs]

MARIA POPOVA: The worst! But—but it's true. It was extremely puzzling why it happened so fast in the scale of how other life forms had evolved, and it happened so fast because in some poetic sense flowers invented love.

LATIF: What?

MARIA POPOVA: Or—or—or economics. Depending on how we look at it. But what happened was that once there were flowers, there were fruit. And once there were fruit, then plants could enlist the help of animals in a kind of trade. You know, sweetness for a lift to my mate.

LULU: Hmm.

MARIA POPOVA: And it was a kind of a love relationship, two biological entities finding each other and something of beauty transpiring between them.

LATIF: Hmm.

MARIA POPOVA: And the young German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel gave that interdependence a name, he called it "Ecology," after the Greek "Oikos" or house.

LULU: House? That's the root of ecology?

MARIA POPOVA: House.

LULU: Huh!

MARIA POPOVA: Or home. Home planet. Now this was in 1866, and now we're getting to the poem, because it was written in 1865, so that's a year before Ernst Haeckel coined the term "Ecology," but it's really a poem capturing the notion, the concept of ecology through the lens of a single flower. And it was written by a poet who was a keen and passionate observer of the house of life, Emily Dickinson.

LULU: Right. And for the Universe in Verse performance, obviously Emily Dickinson wasn't available, so you had a musician perform this poem as a song. But before we hear that, can you just actually read the poem in your own voice real quick, Maria?

MARIA POPOVA: Yes, because in the song it's harder to tell the words apart.

LULU: Yeah. It's a little harder, yeah.

MARIA POPOVA: This one is known as "Bloom."

MARIA POPOVA: Bloom — is Result — to meet a Flower

And casually glance

Would cause one scarcely to suspect

The minor Circumstance

Assisting in the Bright Affair

So intricately done

Then offered as a Butterfly

To the Meridian —

To pack the Bud — oppose the Worm —

Obtain its right of Dew —

Adjust the Heat — elude the Wind —

Escape the prowling Bee

Great Nature not to disappoint

Awaiting Her that Day —

To be a Flower, is profound

Responsibility —

LULU: Hmm.

LATIF: Yeah, I'm—I don't know. Like, I liked the first one. This one, I'm not sure if I really get it, if I'm being honest. Like ...

LULU: Okay.

LATIF: I—I like the idea that it's like from the point of view of the flower, and you're like—it's actually, like, kind of dramatic. It's like a big—this is, as I'm understanding it, tell me if I'm getting wrong.

MARIA POPOVA: No, great to me.

LATIF: And maybe there's no getting poems wrong, or whatever. But whatever.

MARIA POPOVA: Well, also if you're not confused by Emily Dickinson you're, like, not doing it right.

LULU: [laughs]

LATIF: Okay, good. Great, great. Excellent, excellent. Okay so—okay, so I get that part. It's like a little action movie about a flower, like, having to debut and it's like—you know, it's like not easy. And then the part at the end, why is being a flower a profound responsibility?

MARIA POPOVA: So I mean, think about the time she lived in, this—these were Victorian times, and in Victorian times, flowers of course, appeared very much in poetry and art, but they were always these pretty objects, they were objects for admiration. They were not really living things, much less interconnected living things. And here comes Emily Dickinson and composes this poem that looks at a single flower, and everything that goes into making its bloom possible: all the pollinators in the air, and the worms in the soil, the animals competing for resources, aiding each other, the natural world around it, and the flower suddenly emerges not as an object but as a system.

LATIF: Huh.

LULU: But I mean, I also think yeah, I agree. If I'd encountered this on my own in a book, I would have been like "Huh?" But, like, your preamble and the context of Emily Dickinson's close looking and kind of fathoming an ecology before the word ecology was even around, the interdependence, the interconnection, like, it—it makes me now walk around and see flowers as, like, not soft and feathery, but these, like, keystones, these rock hard, strong things.

MARIA POPOVA: Mmm, I love that.

LULU: Like, I feel kind of grateful and bad for them. All right, well with that new understanding of flowers with us thanks to poetry, we are gonna take a short break. And when we come back, we are going to get a new understanding of invisible matter all around us. And wilder still, we might even get Latif to actually like a poem.

LATIF: [laughs] Good luck.

LULU: This, by the way, is the performance of Emily Dickison's "Bloom" by musician Joan

As Police Woman.

[music]

LULU: Lulu.

LATIF: Latif.

LULU: Radiolab. Okay, should we zoom?

MARIA POPOVA: All right.

LULU: All right, all right, all right. So we started before time itself existed, and then we zoomed forward through the formation of the Earth, animals, flowers.

MARIA POPOVA: Next up ...

LULU: Stop three. We're zooming ahead a bunch more million years. Humans show up. They start stomping around and, like, making fires and inventing things and trying to perceive things, and we're gonna hear a poem about a discovery that was made in the somewhat recent times of 1978, but to get ourselves all warmed up to understand it, we're gonna head back to the 1800s, because you unearthed this hidden chain of scientists influencing each other over time that resulted in this discovery of hidden matter, and then in the—in the writing of the poem itself. So the first person in this chain is ...

MARIA POPOVA: Maria Mitchell.

LULU: Right.

MARIA POPOVA: She was this amazing Quaker woman, young girl in—on the island of Nantucket.

LULU: Huh!

MARIA POPOVA: And she fell in love with astronomy in watching an annular eclipse. And every night she would climb up the narrow wooden steps to the roof of their house in her long Quaker gown, hauling the brass telescope. And rain or shine or snow or freeze she would, as they say, sweep the heavens, so, you know ...

LULU: Sweep?

MARIA POPOVA: Going—sweep, go side by side with the telescope. That's what the term is, go side by side across the night sky to cover basically the whole region of the visible sky just to see what's up. And one evening, October, 1847 she slipped out of the family dinner, went up on the roof and there it was, the comet. The king of Denmark had given this gold medal for whoever finds it. And she's only 29 years old.

LATIF: Wait, how did they know it was there if they hadn't seen it?

LULU: Yeah. Yes.

MARIA POPOVA: I mean, it was for whoever finds a telescopic comet. And that established her first of all as America's great scientific celebrity—she would go on to sort of tour the world. And ended up teaching what essentially became the first class of astrophysicists in the world, because she introduced the mathematically-rigorous curriculum that even the men at Harvard didn't have. And now we call this astrophysics. And those were the first astrophysicists in the world. It happened they were all women.

LULU: Wow. I didn't know that part. Okay, so then basically about 110 years after she is born, another woman is born.

MARIA POPOVA: A little girl. A little girl in DC is reading a children's book about Maria Mitchell.

LULU: Mm-hmm.

MARIA POPOVA: And this little girl is looking out her window into the night sky, and suddenly thinks, "Oh my God, there are people who do this for a living, and I could do this for a living as a girl!" And that little girl grew up to be the great Vera Rubin, the astronomer who confirmed the existence of dark matter.

LULU: That's what our poem is gonna be about, dark matter.

MARIA POPOVA: That is. That is what our poem is about.

LULU: Dark matter, trying to perceive it, or it being there. But there's one more person in this string, the person who actually wrote the poem, who in her day job was a scientist. She was born in 1960. Who is that?

MARIA POPOVA: Her name was Rebecca Elson, and she was one of the first astronomers tasked with studying Hubble images, particularly an image of the Milky Way, in order to study the dark matter halo surrounding it. And she was this incredible person who was only 29 when she received a terminal diagnosis with a very rare kind of blood cancer. And when she died, she left behind 56 scientific papers, which is an extraordinary number for a lifetime. And this slender, splendid book of poems that has a title that to me is the meaning of life. I mean, that's what we're here for. It's titled, A Responsibility to Awe.

LULU: A Responsibility to All? Or to Awe?

MARIA POPOVA: Awe. Awe.

LULU: Awe. Huh. Awe!

MARIA POPOVA: Awe, yeah.

LULU: All right, so we are going to hear one of the poems from this collection. It's called "Let There Always Be Light Searching For Dark Matter." And I guess before we do, can you explain dark matter real quick?

MARIA POPOVA: It is matter comprising the vast majority of the universe that interacts with gravity but doesn't interact with light.

LULU: So it's stuff.

MARIA POPOVA: It's stuff, but we can't see it.

LULU: Now we have this poem by Rebecca Elson. And who is going to read it for us?

MARIA POPOVA: We are going to hear the wonderful Patti Smith.

LATIF: Wait, the Patti Smith? Or just a Patti Smith?

LULU: The Patti Smith!

LATIF: Wow!

MARIA POPOVA: Okay, here we go.

PATTI SMITH: Let there always be light searching for dark matter.

For this we go out dark nights, searching

For the dimmest stars,

For signs of unseen things:

To weigh us down.

To stop the universe

From rushing on and on

Into its own beyond

Till it exhausts itself and lies down cold,

Its last star going out.

Whatever they turn out to be,

Let there be swarms of them,

Enough for immortality,

Always a star where we can warm ourselves.

Let there be enough to bring it back

From its own edges,

To bring us all so close that we ignite

The bright spark of resurrection.

LULU: What do you guys hear in it? What does it make you think about?

LATIF: There was that great book recently by Katie Mack, I think her name is? About the end of the universe. And she writes that two of the possible ways the universe will end is either, like, everything will keep expanding and expanding 'til everything, like, chills itself to death. Or the idea is it's like is it gonna expand at some point and then at some point it's gonna contract and then it's gonna all go into this, like, big bang.

LULU: Back into a singularity, kind of?

LATIF: Back into a singularity.

MARIA POPOVA: Well, that's what I was gonna say. This is so great, it takes us back to this mystery of the big bang and its mirror image. Like, what's on the other side of everything-ness, the other nothingness? Is there another something-ness?

LATIF: Right. That's right.

MARIA POPOVA: But also, think about it, this is a dying woman writing this poem. I mean, even a hard materialist like me, like, you know, a lot of scientists who think, you know, we die and that's it. The atoms go back into the swirl of atoms and that's that, but somehow we live with this open question, but what's—what's there, you know? Like, what happens? What actually happens?

LATIF: Yeah.

LULU: And it's like this wish, like it—I find it sad, but maybe this is my misread, but I find it, like, almost like a foolish wish. Like, how would there be warmth out of the darkness and the lack of energy? Based on her training, isn't that exactly not how it works?

MARIA POPOVA: I hear that, but I think she's doing something else, which is I think this is her playful way of saying, "This light we live in, live with, it's great, it's enough. Appreciate it while you're not dying, because we are dying all the time." We are little universes running out of fuel, each of us. And actually, the bright star of resurrection is this, right here, right now, the only one we have.

LULU: We're in it.

MARIA POPOVA: We're in it. We are it.

LULU: All right. I know we're almost out of time, but we're gonna sneak in one last stop. So zooming ahead another—pew pew pew—10 years and a little bit, after the discovery of dark matter, there is a shiny, brand new instrument poised to let us look deeper into space than we have ever seen. For our last poem, you chose one by the brilliant poet laureate Tracy K. Smith that is about the Hubble telescope.

MARIA POPOVA: On which her dad worked.

LULU: Yeah, that's so cool. So he worked, like, building it, helping to make it?

MARIA POPOVA: Yeah, he was an engineer on it. He was one of NASA's first Black engineers.

LULU: That's so cool.

MARIA POPOVA: She made a beautiful book called Life on Mars that actually won her the Pulitzer Prize, and this poem we're going to hear is called, "My God, It's Full of Stars."

LULU: "My God, It's Full of Stars." Okay, here we go.

TRACY K. SMITH: When my father worked on the Hubble Telescope, he said

They operated like surgeons: scrubbed and sheathed

In papery green, the room a clean cold and bright white.

He'd read Larry Niven at home, and drink scotch on the rocks,

His eyes exhausted and pink. These were the Reagan years,

When we lived with our finger on The Button and struggled

To view our enemies as children. My father spent whole seasons

Bowing before the oracle-eye, hungry for what it would find.

His face lit up whenever anyone asked, and his arms would rise

As if he were weightless, perfectly at ease in the never-ending

Night of space. On the ground, we tied postcards to balloons

For peace. Prince Charles married Lady Di. Rock Hudson died.

We learned new words for things. The decade changed.

The first few pictures came back blurred, and I felt ashamed

For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe. The second time,

The optics jibed. We saw to the edge of all there is —

So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.

LULU: I know we should wrap up, but Latif, do you have last ...

LATIF: Yeah, my last—this is a very beautiful poem, and in a way I think out of all of them, it's weirdly like the most honest one. Because I feel like so much of this—and so much of science in a way—is like an exercise to know things that are not our scale. Like, it's like before we were born or after we're dead or too small or too big or too far away or too—like, too too too too too. Like, it's like, not in our scale. Like, a lot of these other poems were like—it's like, okay, let's, like, think about the world through a flower's perspective, but this is, like, very honestly from one human about another human who happens to be the human who helped make her. And I don't know, there's just something very beautiful about this. And human.

LULU: All right, friends. That'll do it. Happy new year! Happy completion of the giant millions of miles lap to all.

LATIF: Yeah, happy new year.

LULU: Biggest thanks to Maria Popova. If you want to go deeper on some of these poems, she recently got a bunch of them animated in such a thoughtful and stirring way. Just Google "Universe in Verse."

LATIF: This episode is produced by Sindhu Gnanasambandan.

LULU: Special thanks to all of the poets, musicians and performers: Tracy K. Smith, Marie Howe, Rebecca Elson, Joan as Policewoman, Patti Smith, Gautam Srikishan, Zoe Keating and Emily Dickinson. Hope you have a good one. Or if you don't, that you go and write a poem about it.

[LISTENER: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, Ekedi Fausther-Keeys, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Anna Rascouët-Paz, Sarah Sandbach, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Andrew Viñales. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Natalie Middleton.]

[LISTENER: Hi, my name is Teresa. I'm calling from Colchester in Essex, UK. Leadership support for Radiolab's science programming is provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative and the John Templeton Foundation. Foundational support for Radiolab was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.]

 

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