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When I heard the lern’d astronomer March 18, 2009

Posted by aquillam in Astronomy, poetry.
Tags: , ,

In my first semester at UofM I took astro 111, the introductory class on the solar system for non-majors (I hadn’t had calculus yet, so my college counselor suggested I take it rather than the first course for majors, giving me my first hard-life lesson in college: always talk to the program counselor before making decisions about which classes to take in your program.)
Like most intro-astro classes, the first quarter of the class was spent learning the physics and chemistry needed to understand everything else. Like most of my fellow students, I was having some trouble with this: I signed up to learn about the planets and instead I’m learning about velocity vectors and Newton’s laws.
My professor obviously knew what we were feeling. As we finished the lessons on spectra and Kirchoff’s laws, he read us a poem:Walt Whitman’sWhen I heard the Learn’d Astronomer“.

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 the 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.

I still think of this as a warning not to get so bogged down in the details that you loose sight of the Big Picture. However, at the time I remember thinking how true it was that scientists could ruin a good thing with equations. It took a few years before I found the counter argument, but that’s tomorrow’s poem



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