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Saturday, April 22, 2017

National Poetry Month: Walt Whitman, When I Heard the Learn'd Astonomer


A decade and a half or so ago, I worked at a DVD Compression / Encoding / Authoring facility. We would get the various bits and pieces that would go onto a DVD as raw video and audio assets, subtitle files, image files to be transformed into menus, and so forth. We would process them - compressing video, encoding audio - and then "author" them into a finished, assembled DVD project to be sent on to the next stage of production . (I was the guy who calculated how the video would be compressed, and then figured out how all the pieces would have to fit together onto the finite space of a DVD.) One Fall day in 1999 or 2000, I was getting ready to head home. We had some large windows that looked west, over the rooftops of our neighbors in Olyphant, and gave a great view of the setting sun. The sunset that day was spectacular, magnificent, a symphony of colors and textures, layer after layer of clouds in gold, red, orange, and yellow. (My synesthesia kicked in and I was also hearing the sunset, a Wagnerian orchestra playing sweeping crescendos and booming fanfares.)

I stopped dead in my tracks. Two of my co-workers saw me looking out the window and stopped to see what was going on. I pulled out my cell phone and called my mom, thirty-five miles away, to tell her to look out her window and see if she was seeing the same thing.

I have a degree in Physics, with a second major in Philosophy. I have studied the physics of rainbows and sunsets. One of my favorite books is Light and Color in the Outdoors by Marcel Minnaert, in which amazing optical phenomena of the natural world are discussed and analyzed in loving detail. As I looked at the sunset I was awash in the physics of it all: photons generated by the sun through thermonuclear fusion, traveling tens of millions of miles to Earth's atmosphere, being refracted just so, the red and yellow and orange and yellow being bent down, down into the layers of clouds, great masses of water vapor floating in the air, drifting gently in the currents, buoyed up by temperature and pressure differences, and...

"How can anyone look at this and doubt the hand of God?", one of my co-workers said.

I was knocked out of my reverie. Yes, of course. God. Why is the sunset so beautiful? God wants it that way. Why does it rain? God. Why does the wind blow? God. Why do the birds sing? God. God. God is the answer to everything. Forget science, that's for the nonbelievers. God. End of discussion.

I've never been a big fan of Whitman. I hear he's good. Bram Stoker was impressed enough by him to model Dracula on him. I haven't read much by him, but one thing that stuck with me was a poem I read in high school. It left a bad taste in my mouth.

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer, 
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, 
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them, 
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, 
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, 
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, 
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, 
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.


Was Whitman expressing his contempt for science? Was he just saying "Math is hard"? It seems to me that he got it exactly wrong. Or maybe Whitman was in desperate need of an interlocutor, someone who could bridge the gap between the learn'd astronomer and the not-so-learn'd layman audience member. Maybe he needed a Carl Sagan or a Stephen Hawking, a Bill Nye, a Richard Feynman, a Neil DeGrasse Tyson, a Marcel Minnaert, someone to let him know how amazing and wonderful and beautiful science is, and how much more deeply an understanding of science would have allowed him to appreciate the wonders of the world, and the universe.

Check out "A Glorious Dawn," the first video from "Symphony of Science" - a project that turns the words of scientists into music, and scientists into rock stars.



Epilogue: I had a bit of a crisis at the March 29, 2017 Be Daring Open Mic at Adezzo in Scranton. The International Space Station was scheduled to pass over the area that night, and I wanted to see it, but I didn't want to miss the open mic. My set ended just a little before the flyover time, so I stepped outside as the next act set up. Adezzo is located in the middle of a block, at the intersection of two alleys, and the buildings surrounding it are surprisingly tall. But thanks to the predicted timings and location from Heavens Above, I was able to watch the ISS pass over, almost as bright as it could get, its solar panels reflecting the Sun which was now well beneath the local horizon. Thanks to a bunch of learn'd and dedicated astronomers, I was able to see this glorious phenomenon - and then step back into the open mic to enjoy the rest of the evening.

Not much opportunity to observe the ISS as it passes over - unless you know just where to look.

1 comment:

Betz said...

I love this blog. I believe we watched that sunset together Harold!