04/26/2019

Poetry And Science, Under The Same Roof

28:24 minutes

a woman on stage with a mic in a large industrial auditorium space with scores of people watching her
Janna Levin reading poetry at Universe in Verse at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn in 2018. Credit: Annie Minoff

Every year, hundreds pack Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, New York for “The Universe In Verse,” a live celebration of writing that has found inspiration from science and scientists. Past events reflected on the power of poetry as protest, as well as science poetry’s unique intersection of truth and beauty.

This year’s event, which featured readings from guests including Amanda Palmer, David Byrne, and Josh Groban, celebrated the 100th anniversary of Sir Arthur Eddington’s groundbreaking experiment to prove general relativity. The poems also honored Albert Einstein’s legacy in describing the universe as we understand it today.

Maria Popova, founder and editor of Brain Pickings, and astrophysicist Janna Levin, both writers as well, join Ira for a conversation about the enduring link between art and science, and share readings of their favorite works.

Below is Amanda Palmer’s reading of Adrienne Rich’s poem Hubble Photographs: After Sapho, accompanied by an animation from Kelli Anderson.


Further Reading


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Segment Guests

Maria Popova

Maria Popova is the editor and founder of BrainPickings.org and a MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow. She is based in Brooklyn, New York.

Janna Levin

Janna Levin is author of Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space (Knopf, 2016) and a physics and astronomy professor at Barnard College in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. April is National Poetry Month, when the literary world celebrates with readings and extra effort to bring new readers to the joys of a well-written poem. And here at Sci Fri, we want you to think about science and poetry, poets like Diane Ackerman, whose work about the beauty of the cosmos enchanted Carl Sagan, and Adrienne Rich, who wrote about the Hubble telescope, hidden poetry figures in astronomy and more. 

In fact, once you start looking, it is easy to see poetry about science all over the place, not to mention a certain poetry inherent in the work of scientists. We celebrated this confluence at the beginning of the month with US– excuse me– US poet laureate Tracy K Smith and physician poet Rafael Campo. And now, we’re circling back to put Poetry Month to bed with two of our favorite sci arts enthusiasts. 

Let me introduce them, Dr. Janna Levin, Barnard College astrophysicist and author of Black Hole Blues. Welcome back. Always good to see you. 

JANNA LEVIN: Always great to see you. 

IRA FLATOW: Maria Popova, Editor and Founder of the site Brain Pickings and author of a new book, Figuring. 

MARIA POPOVA: Wonderful to be here. 

IRA FLATOW: Good to have you back. It’s wonderful to have you in the studio with us. 

MARIA POPOVA: I know. I love this. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. 

JANNA LEVIN: So much more fun to be present in the studio. 

IRA FLATOW: And you folks are the brains behind an annual science poetry party in Brooklyn, the Universe in Verse. Tell us about them, whichever of you would like to talk about it. 

JANNA LEVIN: Well, Maria’s really the brains. Maria curates this masterfully. I just open our doors for it. 

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about it. 

MARIA POPOVA: The Universe in Verse began in 2017. And actually, at the inaugural show, we had Tracy K Smith well before she was poet laureate. She wrote– 

IRA FLATOW: You knew her back when. 

MARIA POPOVA: Way back when. And I’m not implying causation, only correlation. We have some great people, and they go on to do great things. 

It started out of a sort of confluence of factors. I was a latecomer to poetry. I kind of dismissed it very hubristically in my 20s. And a friend of mine introduced me to it and began educating me, really. She’s a philosopher of science, a comedian named Emily Levine. 

And over the years, she would send me poems and poems and poems that she loved, from the classics to today. And eventually, by 2016, Janna and I met through her book, Black Hole Blues, which is an incredibly beautiful poetic book about science. 

I ended up spending quite a bit of time at Pioneer Works. It was unlike anything I’d seen, and I fell in love with it. And then at the same time, I was deep in research into the lives of people from the last 400 years who have changed the way we understand the universe and ourselves, artists, writers, scientists. 

And one thing that kept coming up in their diaries and letters and papers was this intimate dialogue between poetry and science. So Kepler’s personal motto was a line from a poem, actually quite a depressing line from a Perseus poem. 

Maria Mitchell, the great astronomer who paved the way for women in science, to whom we dedicated the first Universe in Verse, she would hold these dome parties at the Vassar College Observatory, where she taught the first class of women astronomers. And they would come over for star study and conversation and would write poems about whatever they were working on astronomically. 

And conversely, a lot of the great poets of the era, Dickinson and Whitman and Shelley, had a deep interest in science and the natural world and the discoveries of their time. So in between all those things, I’m swimming with these ideas. And I’m spending time in this unusual space. 

And then we had certain political events in late 2016. And I was doing work with the Academy of American Poets, and we did a couple of pop-up readings, just sort of as a source of hope for people and solace and protest and all of that. And it was astonishing to see people turn up, turn up and sit and turn to poetry for all these deeper purposes. 

And so one day, I guess I said to Janna, why don’t we do an event that’s a celebration of science through poetry? 

JANNA LEVIN: And can I say what I said? 

MARIA POPOVA: Yeah. 

JANNA LEVIN: I said, it’s a beautiful idea. Nobody’s going to come to that. 

MARIA POPOVA: Oh, yeah. But she said, let’s do it. 

JANNA LEVIN: Let’s do it, anyway. 

IRA FLATOW: And you built it, and they came. 

MARIA POPOVA: Yes, it was quite insane. 

JANNA LEVIN: It was stunning. 

MARIA POPOVA: The lines were around the block. And Pioneer Works is this really big building. It’s an old ironworks factory, which is now this community artist science space. And the lines were around the block, to all of our amazement. 

JANNA LEVIN: There were more than 1,000 people the first year, which was incredible. And the president of the Academy of American Poets was there. And she afterward said, I’ve never seen a standing ovation at a poetry event, which kind of is lovely and heartbreaking, because poetry is worthy of that. 

IRA FLATOW: And this year, Janna, you dedicated the event to a very special solar eclipse, the very famous 1919 Eddington, where Sir Arthur Eddington used it to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity. 

JANNA LEVIN: It is a wonderful story. So Eddington, he was a pacifist and an internationalist. It’s only six months after World War I and takes an expedition to off the coast of Africa, in Príncipe, to see a total solar eclipse. And the idea is that he wants to look behind the Sun. 

But of course, the Sun, you can only look behind it if Einstein is right. So he wants to verify this new theory of general relativity that Einstein had only very recently in the past few years published. If Einstein is right, the light will spray around the Sun and be redirected towards Africa. And he would be able to take a picture of a star that was literally right behind it. 

But you can’t do that unless there is a total solar eclipse, because the Sun is blindingly bright. So you have to wait for this miraculous accident of our solar system. And that was May 29, 1919. 

And in the rain and the cloud cover, they’re fearing disappointment in the seven minutes of totality. But the clouds break, and they capture an image actually of the star cluster Hades, which they knew they should not have been able to see because it was positioned directly behind the Sun. 

IRA FLATOW: Einstein’s an overnight celebrity. 

JANNA LEVIN: Yeah. 

MARIA POPOVA: Well, more than that, though, quite apart from the scientific triumph, it was this beautiful moment uniting humanity under the same truth in this divisive time and this beautiful invitation to perspective. And I actually have to add, part of our original idea was to make the whole event charitable so that all the proceeds would support some science or poetry cause. And 

This year, we’re doing it to support the first-ever public observatory in New York. And I love the idea of little kids walking in. Pioneer Works is situated around low-income housing, with young people just starting out their lives. And I love thinking, which kid is going to be the next Eddington, the next Einstein, the next Maria Mitchell looking through this telescope? 

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. You brought us a clip, Maria, from this year’s event. A musician, Amanda Palmer read a poem by Adrienne Rich dedicated to the Hubble telescope. Let’s hear that. 

AMANDA PALMER: “The Hubble Photographs– After Sappho. It should be the most desired sight of all, the person with whom you hope to live and die walking into a room, turning to look at you, sight for sight– should be. 

Yet I say there is something more desirable, the ex-stasis of galaxies so out from us, there’s no vocabulary but mathematics and optics, equations letting sight pierce through time into liberations, lacerations of light and dust exposed like a body’s cavity, violet green, livid, and venous, gorgeous, beyond good and evil as ever, stained into dream beyond remorse, disillusion, fear of death and life, rage for order, rage for destruction, beyond this love, which stirs the air every time she walks into the room. 

These impersonae, however we call them, won’t invade us as on movie screens. They are so old, so new. We are not to them. 

We look at them or don’t from within the milky gauze of our tilted gazing. But they don’t look back. And we cannot hurt them.” 

[APPLAUSE] 

IRA FLATOW: Wow. It seems that Hubble has inspired a lot of poetry, hasn’t it? That was amazing. 

JANNA LEVIN: That was stunning. Yeah, it was stunning the second time. It was stunning to be there live. And the appreciation of the audience, the audience is just rapt. It’s really something to see. 

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hm. Why do you feel it’s important to bring poetry and science together, Maria? 

MARIA POPOVA: Well, I think they are not inherently separate. I think the indivisibility of culture is something we need to get back to and really defend today, when everything is so fragmented, artificially so. I’m reminded of Rachel Carson, to whom we dedicated the second Universe in Verse. 

And when she won the National Book Award for her book, The Sea Around Us, which was this really new aesthetic of writing about science in a poetic way, she said, “If there’s any poetry in my writing about the sea, I didn’t deliberately put it there. It’s just that you cannot regard the truths of the science of the sea without attending to the poetry of it.” 

IRA FLATOW: Janna, I know that you also performed at this event. And you brought something to read today by Maya Angelou. 

JANNA LEVIN: Yeah. So I read this. When did I read this, Maria, the second year? 

MARIA POPOVA: Last year. 

JANNA LEVIN: Last year. 

MARIA POPOVA: It opened the show in 2018. 

IRA FLATOW: All right. Go ahead. 

JANNA LEVIN: It is an absolute stunning poem. And one of the things I’ve really come to appreciate is hearing poetry over reading it. So this is “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou. 

“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. 

And when we come to it, to the day of peacemaking, when we release our fingers from fists of hostility and allow the pure air to cool our palms, when we come to it, when the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate and faces sooted with scorn or scrubbed clean, when battlefields and colosseum no longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters up with the bruised and bloody grass to lie on identical plots in foreign soil, when the rapacious storming of the churches, the screaming racket in the temples have ceased, when the pennants are waving gaily, when the banners of the world tremble stoutly in the good clean breeze, when we come to it, when we let the rifles fall from our shoulders and children dress their dolls in flags of truce, when landmines of death have been removed and the aged can walk into evenings of peace, when religious ritual is not perfumed by the incense of burning flesh and childhood dreams are not kicked awake by nightmares of abuse, when we come to it, then we will confess that not the pyramids, with their stones set in mysterious perfection, nor the gardens of Babylon, hanging as eternal beauty in our collective memory, not the Grand Canyon, kindled into delicious color by Western sunsets, nor the Danube, flowing into blue soul into Europe, not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji, stretching to the rising sun, neither father Amazon nor mother Mississippi who, without favor, nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores, these are not the only wonders of the world. 

When we come to it, we, this people on this minuscule and kithless globe, who reach daily for the bomb, the blade, and the dagger, yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace, we, this people on this mote of matter and whose mouths abide cankerous words which challenge our very existence– yet out of those same mouths come songs of such exquisite sweetness that the heart falters in its labor, and the body is quieted into awe. 

We, this people on this small and drifting planet, whose hands can strike with such abandon that in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living, yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness that the haughty neck is happy to bow and the proud back is glad to bend. 

Out of such chaos, of such contradiction, we learn that we are neither devils nor divines. When we come to it, we, this people on this wayward floating body, created on this Earth, of this Earth, have the power to fashion for this Earth a climate where every man and every woman can live freely without sanctimonious piety, without crippling fear. 

When we come to it, we must confess that we are the possible. We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world. That is when and only when we come to it.” 

IRA FLATOW: That is beautiful– Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou on Science Friday from WNYC Studios. 

Why did you choose that one? You can hear her, right? Maya? That’s her voice. Why did she write that? Why did you choose to read it? 

JANNA LEVIN: Well, when we walked in, I said, all I can hear is Maya. Nobody can read like Maya Angelou. Actually, Maria chose– 

IRA FLATOW: You did very well. 

JANNA LEVIN: Well, thank you. Maria chose the poem for me. And I think it encapsulates so much of what the entire Universe in Verse is about. It is about the science and the poetry and the mixture. And just we are the people looking at the world that we are then reflecting back on ourselves in that world. 

MARIA POPOVA: And also creatively, a little-known story is that she composed this poem shortly after Carl Sagan delivered his famous “Pale Blue Dot” monologue. And if you notice that there’s a line in there, “the mote of matter,” which is directly referencing his language. So by all probability, the poem was inspired by the “Pale Blue Dot,” which became so popular within months of him delivering it at Cornell. 

And the poem actually traveled to space. Which spacecraft was that? Pioneer or something? Mariner? 

JANNA LEVIN: I don’t remember. Sorry. 

IRA FLATOW: It went up in the Orion, I think. 

JANNA LEVIN: Oh, OK. Yes. 

MARIA POPOVA: Yeah. 

JANNA LEVIN: So also, even the fact that Carl Sagan convinced the NASA team to turn Voyager around when it’s some billions of kilometers away to look at the Earth with zero scientific merit in the picture, but just this kind of reflection– and it’s one of the most beautiful passages you’ll ever read when he writes about it. 

MARIA POPOVA: And it’s a poetic act, that decision. It’s not a scientific act. It’s a political act. 

JANNA LEVIN: Yeah. And we’ve also said, it’s only in science that you can with a straight face talk about beauty anymore. It’s like the one cultural discipline in which we use beauty and elegance to actually formulate our proofs. 

IRA FLATOW: When we did the poetry the first time, the next person I interviewed was Steven Strogatz, the mathematician. And he said, spontaneously– 

JANNA LEVIN: I heard that. I heard that on the show. Yeah. 

MARIA POPOVA: Wait. What did he say? 

IRA FLATOW: He said that we do, as mathematicians, see the beauty, the poetry, in math, also. 

JANNA LEVIN: And he’s a wonderful writer and mathematician. 

IRA FLATOW: We’re going to take a quick break and come back and talk lots more with Janna Levin and Maria Popova, more about why science continues to inspire arts. 

Our number– 844-724-8255 if you’d like to join the conversation. You can also tweet us @scifri, S-C-I-F-R-I. Stay with us. We’ll be right back with Janna and Maria after this break. 

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We are talking about the poetry that science has inspired and why scientists need poetry. We’re talking with astrophysicist Dr. Janna Levin, Brain Pickings founder, Maria Popova, both of them authors dwelling at the intersection of art and science themselves. 

I want to get to the next poem. But before I do, Maria, I know you wanted to say something more about science and poetry. 

MARIA POPOVA: What Janna said about beauty reminded me of I think there’s actually something deeper going on with these historical figures, the scientists who love poetry and the poets who love science. I think they intuited that these are two complementary languages of apprehending and making sense of the world and one, mathematics, being the language of truth that we use to discover and discern these fundamental laws that are unfeeling, that are devoid of meaning. 

But then within them, we use the language of poetry to make meaning, to make beauty, discover beauty. And to me, that is something that modern culture is a little bit impoverished of. 

IRA FLATOW: That’s a good way of looking at it. Rachel Carson was inspired by poetry to begin her work of protest and talking about that. We also have another recording from the first Universe in Verse of another example of protest in poetry. And this is Jane Hirshfield’s “On the Fifth Day.” Tell us about that poem. 

MARIA POPOVA: So this poem– Jane was one of the great contemporary poets and also an ordained Buddhist. She composed that for the March for Science, the first March for Science when the new administration came in. And we had it at the first Universe in Verse. 

And it was read by my friend, Emily, who introduced me to poetry, who actually just died a couple months ago. So this year’s show was in part a tribute to her. So this recording of her voice is this bittersweet part of her legacy. The Universe in Verse would not exist without her. 

IRA FLATOW: OK. Here is Jane Hirshfield, “On the Fifth Day,” read by Emily Levine. 

EMILY LEVINE: “On the Fifth Day,” by Jane Hirshfield. “On the fifth day, the scientists who studied the rivers were forbidden to speak or to study the rivers. The scientists who studied the air were told not to speak of the air. And the ones who worked for the farmers were silenced and the ones who worked for the bees. 

Someone, from deep in the Badlands, began posting facts. The facts were told not to speak and were taken away. The facts, surprised to be taken, were silent. 

Now, it was only the rivers that spoke of the rivers and only the wind that spoke of its bees, while the unpausing factual buds of the fruit trees continued to move toward their fruit. The silence spoke loudly of silence. And the rivers kept speaking, of rivers, of boulders, and air. 

In gravity, earless and tongueless, the untested rivers kept speaking. Bus drivers, shelf stockers, code writiers, machinists, accountants, lab techs, cellists kept speaking. They spoke, the fifth day, of silence.” 

IRA FLATOW: Wow. You can see where Rachel Carson got that inspiration from, right? 

MARIA POPOVA: Well, no, Jane Hirshfield is contemporary. This poem was written– she’s around. She lives in California. She actually was present when– this recording that we just played you could hear was not a very high-quality recording. You could hear birds and ocean. 

This was actually recorded because after Emily’s terminal diagnosis, I started taking her in these little self-organized– we’d call them “poetry retreats,” where we’d rent a cabin for a weekend and just read poetry together. And Jane Hirshfield came down to that. 

And we just recorded it on our iPhones and then, after the fact, heard the birds and all the sounds that this poem speaks to and decided to play it imperfect as it is, but, in a way, even more perfect. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. No, it’s a beautiful poem, beautifully read. I’m glad you did that. And our condolences to the loss of your friend. 

MARIA POPOVA: Thank you. 

IRA FLATOW: And Janna, you’ve written about black holes. You run an event that frequently brings together science and culture. You obviously must see how to get people involved, using the art, poetry. 

JANNA LEVIN: It’s really interesting. I very much believe that science is part of culture. It’s literally my motto when I’m thinking about events or writing or topics. And yes, people are really responding to these extraordinary events, like Universe in Verse. But also, they come just for the science. 

So I’m bookending this whole program on May 29, which is the centenary of the Eddington eclipse expedition. We’re having an event on black holes, which uses the same technology– essentially, the same natural phenomenon, which is the bending of light in a curved spacetime– that recently was used to return the first image ever of a black hole. 

And I know you had the event horizon telescope people on your show very recently to talk about it. So it’s really bookending– these two events are complementary. 

MARIA POPOVA: I also must add that it’s completely astonishing to me and what drew me to Pioneer Works, that Janna has these scientific controversies events that are hardcore scientists in conversation about unanswered questions. And it’s not a kind of fluff, pop sci kind of thing. This is serious scientists in conversation about what most puzzles them. 

And you see 1,000 people, 1,200 people, come in to hear about string theory and dark matter and consciousness. And it’s just like the 18th century, when Tesla and Faraday would fill theaters with laypeople. 

IRA FLATOW: When you don’t know what 96% of the universe is made out of– 

MARIA POPOVA: We do not– 

IRA FLATOW: That’s a great playground for poetry. 

JANNA LEVIN: Well, and it’s a great playground for ideas and to wonder, who are we in this context? And the scientific questions we ask are ones that are meaningful to us. So even what we choose to set out to do, like take a picture of a black hole, is motivated by something about us and a reflection on ourselves in the scheme of things. 

IRA FLATOW: I think we have time for another poem, another space poem, one that actually was written for your event. We’ve featured at Science Friday before, and it’s a tribute to Stephen Hawking by poet Marie Howe. 

Janna, you read this at an event that we held last summer. What makes this poem so powerful for you? 

JANNA LEVIN: It’s difficult. In a way, it’s so intimate, the subject. Hawking was somebody I knew, obviously incredibly influential. I think she captures something of his playful spirit in the actual writing. 

And some of the things Hawking did that made him famous, like realizing black holes can evaporate, it was almost like a trick he played on the rest of us. And he left us with this legacy of trying to figure it out for 30 or 40 years. And we still can’t. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s listen to the poem “Singularity” by Marie Howe. 

MARIE HOWE: “Do you, too, 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, but only a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny dot brimming with ‘is,’ ‘is,’ ‘is,’ ‘is,’ ‘is,’ ‘all,’ ‘everything,’ ‘home’?” 

Thank you. 

[APPLAUSE] 

IRA FLATOW: “Singularity” written and read by Marie Howe. Let’s talk a bit in the moment or two we have left, Maria, about the future. Any subjects that you might feature in the future that come to mind? 

MARIA POPOVA: I think we’re very spontaneous and organic. I don’t know if we’ll do another, what it’ll be about. The Eddington thing lends itself very well because of the 100th anniversary. But there are a million– 

IRA FLATOW: Anniversaries are always a good catalyst for ideas, right? 

JANNA LEVIN: Yeah. And well, I think also, there are astronomical events that inspire us. And a lot of this idea to build this first-ever public observatory in New York City was inspired, again, by people descending in excitement over things like the eclipse, that we totally underestimated the enthusiasm. 

IRA FLATOW: I was going to say, somewhere, there must be poetry written about that eclipse that hasn’t been voiced, we haven’t heard yet. 

JANNA LEVIN: The Great American Eclipse– there probably is. We should start– 

MARIA POPOVA: Well, actually, Amanda Palmer, who we heard from earlier who read, she later in the show the other day on Tuesday performed a song. She has a beautiful new record. And on it, there’s a song called “Drowning in the Sound,” which is about the 2017 eclipse and Hurricane Harvey and her kind of experience of that. So she performed the eclipse song at the show. 

IRA FLATOW: All right. We’ll have to wait and hear that maybe some other time. 

I want to thank my guests, Maria and Janna, and the Universe in Verse. Maria Popova is Founder and Editor of Brain Pickings, author of the new book, Figuring. And you’ll have to come back and talk about that sooner or later. 

JANNA LEVIN: It’s a stunning book. 

IRA FLATOW: Janna Levin, professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College and author of Black Hole Blues– great book, also. 

JANNA LEVIN: Thank you. 

IRA FLATOW: And the Universe in Verse– we don’t know what’s going to come next. We’ll have to stay tuned, right, as they say in radio? 

Thank you both for taking time to be here. 

JANNA LEVIN: Always fun to be here. 

MARIA POPOVA: Thanks for having us.

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