Astronomy as Existential Calibration: A Poetic Manifesto for Science from Two Centuries Before the Golden Age of Space Telescopes

“Astronomy has enlarged the sphere of our conceptions, and opened to us a universe without bounds, where the human Imagination is lost.”

On March 13, 1781, the Solar System bloomed a new planet: The polymathic astronomer John Herschel, who would later coin the word photography, discovered Uranus, the seventh planet from the Sun — an icy blue gas giant spinning on its side twofold farther than Saturn.

The Voyager‘s farewell photograph of Uranus. Photo courtesy NASA.

Herschel built an unexampled telescope, with the assistance of Caroline, his sister who ground the lenses. It had a magnifying power exceeding 6,000 and dwarfed all other royal instruments. With it, and with his superhuman patience for observing the heavens long into the English winter nights, he didn’t so much discover the fact of Uranus as deduce its nature — it had been visible to astronomers for a long time and was even included in the preeminent star catalogue of the time, but it had always been classified as a faint fixed star.

Like Edwin Hubble, who gasped at the realization in his Telescopic that what was thought of as a nebula within the Milky Way was actually a whole new galaxy, immediately changing the scale and scope of the universe. Herschel looked through his powerful instrument, realizing that what had been considered to be the fixed star in an faraway solar system, was actually a different planet orbiting around our own star. It instantly reconfigured our part of the cosmos.

Ellen Harding Baker, 19th century Solar System quilt. This was a seven-year project to teach women astronomy in a time when science education was not available. Available as a printed version.

In an age when the filter bubble was as thick for lack of access to information as it is today for excessive access to information, it took considerable time for Herschel’s discovery to travel from the ecstatic circle of the scientific community into the popular imagination. It was an unconventional book, An Introduction to Astronomy. A Series of Letters from His Preceptor to His Puppil (1786), that drove it. John Bonnycastle (1750/1–1821), who dedicated an entire chapter to Uranus. Nested into it is a lovely manifesto for the broader value of astronomy — and, by extension, of all science — as a tool of existential reckoning and a fulcrum for living up to our highest nature.

Bonnycastle views the discovery of Uranus, which was made in an era before Primo Levi (a Holocaust survivor who became a chemist) considered space exploration’s humanistic benefits.

While this may appear more curiosity than utility, it might still prove to be a great help to astronomy. Astronomers were naturally inspired by the fact that the primary planet was not observed for many years to look at smaller stars, which have been overlooked or not used in order to determine the positions of the planets. They have also made many new observations in the celestial region, which will help us understand the stars and immutable laws of the universe better. That is what science is all about, the main object, the place from which we might expect to gain practical and beneficial results.

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John Herschel (artist unknown)

Bonnycastle observes that the purpose of these discoveries was to free us from the narrow perspective of our own self-significance which has led to the decline of the human species. The telescopic perspective allows for self-transcendence, which he describes:

Astronomy has expanded the scope of our concepts and provided a new universe where we can lose the human imagination. Man seems like a tiny drop of water mixed with the mass, surrounded by endless space. He is unable to understand the situation and tries to escape it. Looking out into Nature, he uses her powers to investigate her work.

Bonnycastle also made a daring creative decision against the grain of convention — he punctuated the science with astronomically themed verses by beloved poets, explaining the rationale behind his choice in a passage that reads like a manifesto for the spirit of The Universe in Verse:

Allusions to Poets and various quotes interspersed through the book are meant to provide a pleasant relief for minds not used to regular mathematical deductions of facts and to liven up those areas where simple details of particulars must be reduced to their necessary length. Although they might not conform to all the scientific principles they are supposed to explain, poetical descriptions leave an impression that is stronger than plain unadorned language.

Complement with an animated poem celebrating the cosmic perspective and a poetic tribute to our search for dark matter, then revisit composer Caroline Shaw’s stunning music for the poetry of the cosmos and poet Diane Ackerman’s stunning poems for the Solar System.

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