looked up in perfect silence at the stars - What Whitman

“….reading about the stars, / How they afford to spend centuries / Traveling our way on a glint of light.” – from Charles Simic’s “My Noiseless Entourage” recorded here.

Here are five things that inspired wonder in me recently.

Let Me Sum Up

  1. “We are now so humble that we would not claim to occupy any special position,” from Stephen Hawking’s 1966 thesis, “Properties of the Expanding Universe (PDF),” which was published online as a PDF this week by Cambridge University. It’s very scientific but the introduction inspired wonder.
  2. Richard Feynman, another theoretical physicist, wrote a beautiful love letter to his wife Arline–488 days after her death.
  3. Bode’s Astronomical Law is the basis for Michael Harrison’s “Just Ancient Loops,” a composition for solo cello written for cellist Maya Beiser and set to video by artist Bill Morrison. Kevin Berger’s article with interviews and sound recordings explains this really beautiful re-interpretation of an idea from 18th century astronomy.
  4. This is the illustrated story of the science fiction writer who fell out of the sky (via The Oatmeal).
  5. To Do: Look up in silence at stars. Walt Whitman’s poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” on YouTube:
    1. recited in the TV show Breaking Bad (no, seriously);
    2. read by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson;
    3. interpreted as a videopoem;
    4. as an art song for voice, cello, and piano;
    5. recited and enacted by Mandy Chan (who appears to be a junior high school student somewhere warm).

Let Me Explain

1) Stephen Hawking Humbled by Our Average Sun

Cambridge University, the one in England, published Stephen Hawking’s 1966 thesis, “Properties of the Expanding Universe (PDF)” in PDF format this week! The abstract is very scientific (appropriately so), but I was inspired to wonder in his introduction:

“The early cosmologies naturally placed man at or near the centre of the universe, but, since the time of Copernicus we have been demoted to a medium sized planet going round a medium sized star somewhere near the edge of a fairly average galaxy. We are now so humble that we would not claim to occupy any special position.”

2) Love Letters to Loved Ones We’ve Lost

I was also reminded this week of Richard Feynman’s loving letter to his beloved wife, Arline–written 488 days after her death. You can read the full text (and hear Oscar Issac read it).

Aside 1: Mathematics is Only One Way of Describing the Universe

I’m going to take a moment and go on a (hopefully brief) rant here: the universe is not made of math as some scientist stated but rather many things within the universe may be expressed as mathematics. I prefer Bertrand Russell’s definition of mathematics which is that “Mathematics is Symbolic Logic.” Mathematics is a system for describing certain phenomena–it is not phenomena itself.

As violinist and theoretical physicist Albert Einstein explains, “It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.”

Aside 2: How Math Describes Our Solar System

I love Johannes Kepler’s description of the music of the spheres (and wrote an essay-poem about it called “Bodies of Sound: An Essay on Vibration“)–that the relationship among the distances of planets in our solar system correspond to the notes of a major scale which Pythagoras described when he discovered the same relationships among notes of a single string of an instrument. Or rather, it’s that the music in our solar system sounds the way it does because of the relationships among physical phenomena and space within our solar system. So fucking cool.

3) Music as the Sound of Our Solar System

As humans, we have, since (and literally) before we can remember, been peering into the universe with wonder. An 18th century German astronomer, Johann Elert Bode, described “Bode’s Law” which is basically that heavenly bodies orbit their hosts at mathematically predictable distances. This idea still works, but we’ve discovered since that it’s not consistent in all galaxies.

Composer Michael Harrison used this idea as the structure for “Just Ancient Loops.”

The work was composed for cellist Maya Beiser who has experimented with live-recorded-and-looped music for several years. Visual artist Bill Morrison set one recording of the performance to video and “Just Ancient Loops” has become a beautiful multi-media experience.

Kevin Berger’s article with interviews and sound recordings explains this really beautiful re-interpretation of an idea from 18th century astronomy.

4) Make It So

This is the illustrated story of the science fiction writer who fell out of the sky (via The Oatmeal). And, to add anything else would spoil the story, so…you can read it here.

5) To Do: Look up in Silence at the Stars

As fascinated as I become with the juxtaposition and interstice of our universe, mathematics, music, and art, it’s good to remember that, as the Biblical teacher wrote, “without love I am nothing.” Here’s Walt Whitman’s poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”:

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.

And other reimaginings of this poem on YouTube:

Thank you,

Thanks for hanging out with me today. We are so fortunate to live in such a universe. I hope you have a fantastic day.

Jeff O.