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Choose something like a star March 20, 2009

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

I mentioned the other day that when I first heard Walt Whitman’s “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer”, I interpreted it as meaning that scientists could ruin a good thing with equations. I still think that you can get so focused on the details that you can loose sight of what you’re doing, and more importantly why you’re doing it. However, a few years perspective (and education) actually gave me another view: if you don’t know enough, you can miss so much that it looks like the other person has lost perspective. I don’t think that was really what Whitman had in mind…

This came to me one evening in choir practice, when the director handed out a new set of music called “Frostiana”. It was a series of Robert Frost poems set to music, and one of the movements she had chosen for us was “Choose Something Like a Star.” The insight came to me because one of the people in the group asked why anyone would demand that a star “talk Fahrenheit”, and I got to explain that the color of a star is related to its temperature.

As we left the auditorium that night, a small group of us stopped to look at Orion, and one of the other students, noticing Betelgeuse looked reddish, asked if it was the coolest star. I told her that not only was it cooler, it must also be huge, because it was so bright.
Suddenly the stars were more than just pretty, or even inspiring. They were distant, unreachable, and yet within the ken of human intellect. That was when I felt sorry for Whitman, because he was bored by the details, and so missed the true glory of the heavens, and of humanity.

Of course, that may just me my bias as an astronomer showing.

Choose Something Like a Stae – Robert Frost – 1947

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud —
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.

Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says “I burn.”
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.

It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.



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