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

Science was one of Maria Mitchell’s two great passions. The other was poetry.


by Pattiann Rogers
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.

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

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 Benedictus and land a mechanical prosthesis of our curiosity on Mars. 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, too easily blurred by the hopes and fears of our human lives.
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.
Two centuries ago, Maria Mitchell — a key figure in Figuring — understood this with uncommon poetry of perspective.

Maria Mitchell, standing at telescope, with her students at Vassar

And even in the gold and purple pretense
Of evening, I make myself remember
That it would take 40,000 years full of gathering
Into leaf and dropping, full of pulp splitting
And the hard wrinkling of seed, of the rising up
Of wood fibers and the disintegration of forests,
Of this lake disappearing completely in the bodies
Of toad slush and duckweed rock,
40,000 years and the fastest thing we own,
To reach the one star nearest to us.
Published in her collection Firekeeper (public library), it is read for us here by the ever-optimistic David Byrne, with original art by his ever-perspectival longtime collaborator Maira Kalman and original music by the symphonic-spirited Jherek Bischoff.
Maria Mitchell’s students went on to become the world’s first class with academic training in what we now call astrophysics. They happened to all be women.

Art from What Miss Mitchell Saw

And when you speak to me like this,
I try to remember that the wood and cement walls
Of this room are being swept away now,
Molecule by molecule, in a slow and steady wind,
And nothing at all separates our bodies
From the vast emptiness expanding, and I know
We are sitting in our chairs
Discoursing in the middle of the blackness of space.
And when you look at me
I try to recall that at this moment
Somewhere millions of miles beyond the dimness
Of the sun, the comet Biela, speeding
In its rocks and ices, is just beginning to enter
The widest arc of its elliptical turn.
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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.
A century after Maria Mitchell returned her borrowed stardust to the universe that made it, the poet Pattiann Rogers extended a kindred invitation to perspective, untrifling the tender moments that make a life worth living.
“Mingle the starlight with your lives,” she often told her students, “and you won’t be fretted by trifles.”
Mitchell taught astronomy until the very end of her long life, when she confided in one of her students that she would rather have written a great poem than discovered a great comet. But scientific discovery is what gave her the visibility to blaze the way for women in science and enchant generations of lay people the poetry of the cosmic perspective.

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.
Previously on The Universe in Verse: Chapter 1 (the evolution of flowers and the birth of ecology, with Emily Dickinson); Chapter 2 (Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and the age of space telescopes, with Tracy K. Smith).
And yet here we are, our transient lives constantly fretted by trifles as we live them out in the sliver of spacetime allotted us by chance.
This is the third of nine installments in the 2021/2022 animated season of The Universe in Verse in collaboration with On Being, celebrating the wonder of reality through stories of science winged with poetry. Here are Chapter 1 (the evolution of flowers and the birth of ecology, with Emily Dickinson) and Chapter 2 (Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and the human hunger to know the cosmos, with Tracy K. Smith).

Straight up away from this road,
Away from the fitted particles of frost
Coating the hull of each chick pea,
And the stiff archer bug making its way
In the morning dark, toe hair by toe hair,
Up the stem of the trillium,
Straight up through the sky above this road right now,
The galaxies of the Cygnus A cluster
Are colliding with each other in a massive swarm
Of interpenetrating and exploding catastrophes.
I try to remember that.