Achieving Perspective: Trailblazing Astronomer Maria Mitchell and the Poetry of the Cosmic Perspective, with David Byrne

“Mingle the starlight with your lives, and you won’t be fretted by trifles.”

This is the third of nine installments in the 2021/2022 animated season of The Universe in Verse — a celebration of the wonder of reality through stories of science winged with poetry, in collaboration with On Being. With Tracy K. Smith, Chapter 1 is about the evolution of flowers, the birth ecology and Edwin Hubble’s age. Chapter 2 is about Henrietta Leavitt and Edwin Hubble and the age space telescopes..


To be human is to live suspended between the scale of glow-worms and the scale of galaxies, to live with our creaturely limitations without being doomed by them — we have, after all, transcended them to unravel the molecular mystery of the double helix and compose the BenedictusWe will be able to land the mechanical prosthesis that we need for our Mars curiosity. We have dreamt these things possible, then made them real — proof that we are a species of limitless imagination along the forward vector of our dreams. But we are also a species continually blinkered — sometimes touchingly, sometimes tragically — by our own delusions about the totality around us. Our greatest limitation is not that of imagination but that of perspective — our lens is too easily contracted by the fleeting urgencies of the present, top easily blurred by the hopes and fears of our human lives.

Two centuries ago, Maria Mitchell — a key figure in Figuring — understood this with uncommon poetry of perspective.

Maria Mitchell portrait, 1840s. (Maria Mitchell Museum. Photograph: Maria Popova)

America’s first professional female astronomer, she was also the first woman employed by the federal government for a “specialized non-domestic skill.” After discovering her famous comet, she was hired as “computer of Venus,” performing complex mathematical calculations to help sailors navigate the globe — a one-woman global positioning system a century and a half before Einstein’s theory of relativity made GPS possible.

When Maria Mitchell began teaching at Vassar College as the only woman on the faculty, the college handbook mandated that neither she nor her female students were allowed outside after nightfall — a somewhat problematic dictum, given she was hired to teach astronomy. She overturned the handbook and overwrote the curriculum, creating the country’s most ambitious science syllabus, soon copied by other universities — including the all-male Harvard, which had long dropped its higher mathematics requirement past the freshman year.

Maria Mitchell’s students went on to become the world’s first class with academic training in what we now call astrophysics. All of them were women.

Maria Mitchell stands at the telescope with Vassar’s students.

Science was one of Maria Mitchell’s two great passions. Poetry was the other.

At her regular “dome parties” inside the Vassar College Observatory, which was also her home, students and occasional esteemed guests — Julia Ward Howe among them — gathered to play a game of writing extemporaneous verses about astronomy on scraps of used paper: sonnets to the stars, composed on the back of class notes and calculations.

Mitchell was an astronomer until her very last days. She confided to one of her students, that she would prefer to have written great poetry than found a great comet. Her scientific achievements are what enabled her to openly advocate for women in science, and to inspire laypeople with the beauty of the cosmic perspective.

Miss Mitchell saw Art

It was this living example that became Maria Mitchell’s great poem, composed in language of being — as any life of passion and purpose ultimately becomes.

“Mingle the starlight with your lives,” she often told her students, “and you won’t be fretted by trifles.”

Yet, here we are: our fleeting lives continually fretted about trifles while we live them in the little spacetime that has been given to us by chance.

Pattiann Rods offered a similar invitation to view the past century, one hundred years after Maria Mitchell returned the stardust she borrowed to the universe.

It was published in Firekeeper, her public library collection. We are able to read it here from David Byrne. Original art is by Maria Kalman (his long-standing collaborator) and music is by Jherek Bischoff.

Pattiann Rogers

Keep going straight up from that road.
Stay away from the frost-like particles
Each chickpea’s hull should be coated
The stiff archer bug is making its way
When it is dark outside, remove your toes.
Lift the stem of trillium.
You can see straight ahead through the air above this street right now.
Galaxies in the Cygnus A Cluster
They are colliding in an enormous swarm
These are interpenetrating, exploding and other catastrophes.
That is what I do.

But even the purple and gold pretense
At night, I remember.
It would require 40,000 years of gathering.
In leaf, dropping and full of pulp splitting
The hard wrinkles of seed are the result of rising up
The disintegration and wood fibers of forest forests
This lake is now completely gone from the bodies
Toad slush, duckweed rock
The fastest thing that we have is 40,000 years old
Reach the star closest to you

When you talk to me this way,
It is important to me that I remember the cement and wood walls.
These are the contents of this room.
In a steady and slow wind, molecule by molecule
Nothing can separate our bodies.
And I see the immense expansibility of space expanding.
Our chairs are ours.
Discoursing in space’s blackness.
When you see me,
That is what I am trying to remember at the moment
It’s millions of kilometers away from the dimness
Speeding, Biela the comet, sun
Is just beginning to explore its rocks and glaciers.
This is the largest arc in its elliptical turning.

Previous on Verse: The Universe as a BookWith Tracy K. Smith, Chapter 1 is about the evolution of flowers, the birth of ecology and Henrietta Leavitt discusses Edwin Hubble and the age space telescopes. Chapter 2 includes Henrietta Leavitt and Tracy K. Smith discussing Chapter 2.

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