Let There Always Be Light: Dark Matter and the Mystery of Our Mortal Stardust (Patti Smith Reads Rebecca Elson)

“For this we go out dark nights, searching… for signs of unseen things… Let there be swarms of them, enough for immortality, always a star where we can warm ourselves.”

This fourth installment is part of the animated 2021/2022 season of The Universe in Verse in partnership with On Being. It celebrates the beauty of reality with stories of science infused with poetry. Previous chapters: Chapter 1, The Evolution of Life and the Birth of Ecology, with Joan as Police Woman, Emily Dickinson; Chapter 2, Helena Leavitt and Edwin Hubble and the Human Hunger to Know the Cosmos, with Tracy K. Smith; Chapter 3, Maria Mitchell, the trailblazing Astronomer, and the Poetry of the Cosmic Perspective, with David Byrne, Pattiann Rogers.


Months before Edwin Hubble finally published his epoch-making revelation about Andromeda, staggering the world with the fact that the universe extends beyond our Milky Way galaxy, a child was born under the star-salted skies of Washington, D.C., where the Milky Way was still visible before a century’s smog slipped between us and the cosmos — a child who would grow up to confirm the existence of dark matter, that invisible cosmic glue holding galaxies together and pinning planets to their orbits so that, on at least one of them, small awestruck creatures with vast complex consciousnesses can unravel the mysteries of the universe.

Night after night, Vera Rubin (July 23, 1928–December 25, 2016) peered out of her childhood bedroom and into the stars, wondersmitten with the beauty of it all — until she read a children’s book about the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, who had expanded the universe of possibility for half of our species a century earlier. Vera Rubin was young and suddenly struck by a profound realization. Not only could a professional stargazer exist, it was possible for a girl to do.

Vera Rubin as an undergraduate at Vassar, 1940s
Vera Rubin was a Vassar student in the 1940s

In 1965 — exactly one hundred years after Maria Mitchell was appointed the first professor of astronomy at Vassar, which Vera Rubin had chosen as her training ground in astronomy — she became the first woman permitted to use the Palomar Observatory. Peering through its colossal eye — the telescope, devised the year Rubin was born, had replaced the one through which Hubble made his discovery as the world’s most powerful astronomical instrument — she was just as wondersmitten as the little girl peering through the bedroom window, just as beguiled by the beauty of the cosmos. “I sometimes ask myself whether I would be studying galaxies if they were ugly,” she reflected in her most personal interview. “I think it may not be irrelevant that galaxies are really very attractive.”

Galaxies had taken Rubin to Palomar, and galaxies — the riddle of their rotation, which she had endeavored to solve — became the key to her epochal confirmation of dark matter. Dark matter, one of the most fascinating unsolved mysteries in astronomy has remained a mystery since Fritz Zwicky, a Swiss astrophysicist, first proposed it to Vera when she was just five years old.

A generation later, a small clan of astronomers at Cambridge analyzed the deepest image of space the Hubble Space Telescope had yet captured — that iconic glimpse of the unknown, revealing a universe “so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back” — to discern the origin of the mysterious dark matter halo enveloping the Milky Way. The extraordinary young astronomer who had just completed a rare, terminal form of cancer which normally affects elderly people was the one to spearhead the project.

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Rebecca Elson, 1987

Nursed on geology and paleontology on the shores of a prehistoric lake, Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999) was barely sixteen and already in college when she first glimpsed Andromeda through a telescope. Instantly dazzled by its “delicate wisp of milky spiral light floating in what seemed a bottomless well of empty space,” she became a scientist but never relinquished the pull of the poetic dimensions of reality. During her postdoctoral work at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, Elson found refuge from the narrow patriarchy of academic science in a gathering of poets every Tuesday evening. She became a fellow at a Radcliffe-Harvard institute for postgraduate researchers devoted to reversing “the climate of non-expectation for women,” among the alumnae of which are Anne Sexton, Alice Walker, and Anna Deavere Smith. There, in a weekly writing group, she met and befriended the poet Marie Howe, whose splendid “Singularity” became the inspiration for this animated season of Verse Unlimited:.

It was then — twenty-nine and newly elected the youngest astronomer in history to serve on the Decennial Review committee steering the course of American science toward the most compelling unsolved questions — that Elson received her terminal diagnosis.

Throughout the bodily brutality of her cancer treatment, she filled notebooks with poetic questions and experiments in verse, bridging with uncommon beauty the creaturely and the cosmic — those eternal mysteries of our mortal matter that make it impossible for a consciousness born of dead stars to fathom its own nonexistence.

Rebecca Elson continued to live with mystery for a decade more, not losing sight of the fact that matter is capable of wonder and never ceasing her love for poetry. When she returned her borrowed stardust to the universe, a spring shy of her fortieth birthday, she left behind nearly sixty scientific papers and a single, splendid book of poems titled A Responsibility to Awe (public library) — among them the staggering “Theories of Everything” (read by Regina Spektor at the 2019 Universe in Verse) and “Antidotes to Fear of Death (read by Janna Levin at the 2020 Universe in Verse).

Permeating Elson’s poetic meditations, the mystery of dark matter culminates in one particular poem exploring with uncommon loveliness what may be the most touching paradox of being human — our longing for the light of immortality as creatures of matter in a cosmos governed by the dark sublime of dissolution.

Bringing Elson’s masterpiece to life for this series is Patti Smith (who read Emily Dickinson’s pre-atomic ode to particle physics at the 2020 Universe in Verse), with animation by Ohara Hale (who animated Emily Dickinson’s pre-ecological poem about ecology in Chapter One of this experimental season of Verse: The Universe as a Book) and music by Zoë Keating (who read Rita Dove’s paleontological poem at the 2018 Universe in Verse).

by Rebecca Elson

This is why we search darkened nights.
These are the stars with the lowest light levels
Look out for signs that are not yet seen:

To weigh us down.
To end the universe
Don’t rush.
Into its own Beyond
It can’t stop running until it runs out of energy and then fall asleep cold.
Its last star going out.

They will be whatever they are.
They will be in large numbers.
There is enough for immortality
There is always a star to warm us.

It should not be difficult to get it back
Its own borders are its strengths
Inflamme! is here to help us get closer.
Bright sparks of resurrection

On the previous page Verse: The Universe as a BookWith Joan As Police Woman (Chapter 1) (The evolution of life, ecology and its birth), with Emily Dickinson (Chapter 2) (Henrietta Leavitt (Edwin Hubble) and the human desire to understand the universe, with Tracy K. Smith); Chap 3 (Marianne Mitchell as a trailblazer in astronomy and the poetics of the cosmic perspective), with David Byrne (Chapter 3); with Pattiann Rods (Chapter 3

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