“…so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.”
This is the second 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. This is Chapter 1..
THE ANIMATED UNIVERSE IN VERSE – CHAPTER TWO
In 1908, Henrietta Swan Leavitt — one of the women known as the Harvard Computers, who changed our understanding of the universe long before they could vote — was analyzing photographic plates at the Harvard Observatory, singlehandedly measuring and cataloguing more than 2,000 variable stars — stars that pulsate like lighthouse beacons — when she began noticing a consistent correlation between their brightness and their blinking pattern. The first measurement of their distance would be possible by astronomers, thereby providing a yardstick for the cosmos.
Meanwhile, a teenage boy in the Midwest was repressing his childhood love of astronomy and beginning his legal studies to fulfill his dying father’s demand for an ordinary, reputable life. Upon his father’s death, Edwin Hubble would unleash his passion for the stars into formal study and lean on Leavitt’s data to upend millennia of cosmic parochialism, demonstrating two revolutionary facts about the universe: that it is vastly bigger than we thought, and that it is growing bigger by the blink.
One October evening in 1923, perched at the foot of the world’s most powerful telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory in California, Hubble took a 45-minute exposure of Andromeda, which was then thought to be one of many spiral nebulae in the Milky Way. The notion of a galaxy — a gravitationally bound swirl of stars and interstellar gas, dust and dark matter — did not exist as such. The Milky Way — a name coined by Chaucer — was commonly considered an “island universe” of stars, beyond the edge of which lay cold dark nothingness.
Hubble looked at his photograph again the next day and, as I like to imagine, furrows his eyebrows. Then, with an exclamation mark, he crossed out N from the plate and wrote the letters VA R underneath it.
Hubble realized that the tiny fleck of Andromeda mistakenly thought to be a Nova, was not possible, since it flashed in different photos. It was a variable star — which, given Henrietta Leavitt’s discovery, could only be so if the tiny fleck was very far away, farther than the edge of the Milky Way.
Andromeda wasn’t a galaxy in our galaxy, but was a galaxy out there in cold darkness nothingness.
The universe suddenly looked like a lush garden, full of galaxies. Ours was just one bloom.
That same year, in another country suspended between two World Wars, another young scientist named Hermann Oberth was polishing the final physics on a daring idea: to subvert a deadly military technology with roots in medieval China and rocket-launch an enormous telescope into Earth orbit — closer to the stars, bypassing the atmosphere that occludes our terrestrial instruments.
It would take two generations of scientists to make that telescope a reality — a shimmering poem of metal, physics, and perseverance, bearing Hubble’s name.
But when the Hubble Space Telescope finally launched 1990, hungry to capture the most intimate images of the cosmos humanity had yet seen, humanity had crept into the instrument’s exquisite precision — its main mirror had been ground into the wrong spherical shape, warping its colossal eye.
Up the coast from Mount Wilson Observatory, a teenage girl watched her father — who had worked on the Hubble as one of NASA’s first black engineers — come home brokenhearted. He didn’t know that his observant daughter would become Poet Laureate of his country and would come to commemorate him in the tenderest tribute an artist-daughter has ever made for a scientist-father. That tribute — the splendid poetry collection Life on Mars (public library) — earned Tracy K. Smith the Pulitzer Prize the year the Hubble’s corrected optics captured the revolutionary Ultra Deep Field image of the observable universe, revealing what neither Henrietta Leavitt nor Edwin Hubble could have imagined — that there isn’t just one other galaxy besides our own, or just a handful more, but at least 100 billion, each containing at least 100 billion stars.
MY GOD, IT’S FULL OF STARS (PART 5)
Tracy K. Smith
My father was a Hubble Telescope engineer. He said that he knew the answer.
The surgeons were the ones they used: They scrubbed, sheathed and operated.
A bright, white room in papery green.
He’d read Larry Niven at home, and drink scotch on the rocks,
He was tired and his eyes were pink. This was the Raegan years.
The Button was our lifeline. We struggled to live with it.
Our enemies should be treated as children. My father was gone for whole seasons.
I bow before the oracle eye, hungry to see what it might find.
When anyone asked his face, he would light up and raise both of his arms.
He seemed as if he was weightless and perfectly at home in this never-ending world.
Night of space. We tied balloons with postcards from the ground
Peace. Prince Charles married Lady Di. Rock Hudson died.
New words were learned for different things. We saw a shift in the decade.
My first couple of pictures were blurred and it made me feel ashamed.
My father and his tribe are the brightest engineers. This is the second.
The optics were jibed. We saw to the edge of all there is —
It seemed so alive and brutal that it could understand us.
A poet is an artist who builds cathedrals of beauty with the smallest bits of language. It is with a poet’s mindset that Brazilian graphic artist and animation director Daniel Bruson approached his contribution to Verse: The Universe of Things. (Special Thanks to) On BeingErin Colasacco, creative director for the project, was instrumental in bringing Daniel to it and worked with Gautam Srikishan and composer Gautam Srikishan to make this symphonic cinepoem a reality.
After I relayed to Daniel why I had chosen this particular poem (which Tracy read at the inaugural Universe in Verse in 2017) to illustrate the larger story of our search for cosmic truth — a search both made possible and made imperfect by our humanity — he grasped the nested layers of meaning with uncommon sensitivity, mirroring back his interpretation:
The Hubble attempts to view or understand the Universe. The father and daughter try to comprehend the Hubble. Meanwhile, the poet tries his best to place this all in perspective. These efforts must all face scale and distortion problems: Something too large or small, too near or far away, too dark, or too familiar. This is not to mention the problem that the Hubble mirror created.
This cascade of distortion sparked the idea “to use optics as a metaphor, to seek for these imperfect, unresolved and elusive, but also suggestive and alive images.”
Daniel began creating blurry, cosmic animations frame-by-frame. He used nail polish, oil paint and glitter to create each detail on a plate.
By filming the vignettes upside down in glasses of various thicknesses and shapes, he magnified the optical magic.
In a crowning feat of ingenuity — itself a miniature masterpiece of engineering and composition — he built a tiny model of the Hubble out of cardboard, paper, and aluminum foil, dismantled it frame by frame, filmed the destruction, then reversed the footage to create the building effect. (I am reminded here of Bertrand Russell’s astute observation, made shortly after Edwin Hubble took his historic glass plate of Andromeda, that “construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it” — a truth as true of the universe itself, with its elemental triumph of something over nothing, as it is of the human endeavor to know it by building optical prosthesis of our curiosity.)
Something about Daniel’s process — the exquisite craftsmanship, the passionate patience, the tiny scale on which he made such beauty and grandeur of feeling — calls to mind Emily Dickinson and her miniature cherrywood writing desk, on the seventeen square inches of which she conjured up such cosmoses of truth, among them the poem illustrating Chapter One of this series.
Donating = Loving
Since a decade and a half I’ve been writing for hundreds of hours each month, spending thousands of dollars every month. MarginalianIt was known for the infuriating name Brain Pickings its first 15 years. Thanks to the support of readers, it has been free from ads and still exists. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Consider donating if you feel this work makes your life easier. It makes a huge difference to support this cause.
Subscribe to our newsletter
MarginalianReceive a weekly free newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.