Months before Edwin Hubble finally published his epoch-making revelation about Andromeda, staggering the world with the fact that the universe extends beyond our Milky Way galaxy, a child was born under the star-salted skies of Washington, D.C., where the Milky Way was still visible before a century’s smog slipped between us and the cosmos— a child who would grow up to confirm the existence of dark matter, that invisible cosmic glue holding galaxies together and pinning planets to their orbits so that, on at least one of them, small awestruck creatures with vast complex consciousnesses can unravel the mysteries of the universe. Night after night, Vera Rubin (July 23, 1928–December 25, 2016) peered out of her childhood bedroom and into the stars, wondersmitten with the beauty of it all — until she read a children’s book about the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, who had expanded the universe of possibility for half of our species a century earlier. The young Vera was suddenly seized with a life-altering realization: Not only was there such a thing as a professional stargazer, but it was a thing a girl could do.
In 1965— exactly one hundred years after Maria Mitchell was appointed the first professor of astronomy at Vassar, which Vera Rubin had chosen as her training ground in astronomy— she became the first woman permitted to use the Palomar Observatory. Peering through its colossal eye— the telescope, devised the year Rubin was born, had replaced the one through which Hubble made his discovery as the world’s most powerful astronomical instrument— she was just as wondersmitten as the little girl peering through the bedroom window, just as beguiled by the beauty of the cosmos. “I sometimes ask myself whether I would be studying galaxies if they were ugly,” she reflected in her most personal interview. “I think it may not be irrelevant that galaxies are really very attractive.” Galaxies had taken Rubin to Palomar, and galaxies — the riddle of their rotation, which she had endeavored to solve— became the key to her epochal confirmation of dark matter. One of the most mesmerizing unsolved puzzles in astronomy, dark matter had remained only an enticing speculation since the Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky had first theorized it when Vera was five. A generation later, a small clan of astronomers at Cambridge analyzed the deepest image of space the Hubble Space Telescope had yet captured— that iconic glimpse of the unknown, revealing a universe “so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back”— to discern the origin of the mysterious dark matter halo enveloping the Milky Way. Spearheading the endeavor was an extraordinary young astronomer back to work during a remission of a rare terminal blood cancer ordinarily afflicting the elderly.
Nursed on geology and paleontology on the shores of a prehistoric lake, Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999) was barely 16 and already in college when she first glimpsed Andromeda through a telescope. Instantly dazzled by its “delicate wisp of milky spiral light floating in what seemed a bottomless well of empty space,” she became a scientist but never relinquished the pull of the poetic dimensions of reality. During her postdoctoral work at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, Elson found refuge from the narrow patriarchy of academic science in a gathering of poets every Tuesday evening. She became a fellow at a Radcliffe-Harvard institute for postgraduate researchers devoted to reversing “the climate of non-expectation for women,” among the alumnae of which are Anne Sexton, Alice Walker, and Anna Deavere Smith. There, in a weekly writing group, she met and befriended the poet Marie Howe, whose splendid “Singularity” became the inspiration for this animated season of The Universe in Verse. It was then— 29 and newly elected the youngest astronomer in history to serve on the Decennial Review committee steering the course of American science toward the most compelling unsolved questions— that Elson received her terminal diagnosis.
Throughout the bodily brutality of her cancer treatment, she filled notebooks with poetic questions and experiments in verse, bridging with uncommon beauty the creaturely and the cosmic— those eternal mysteries of our mortal matter that make it impossible for a consciousness born of dead stars to fathom its own nonexistence. Rebecca Elson lived with the mystery for another decade, never losing her keen awareness that we are matter capable of wonder, never ceasing to channel it in poetry. When she returned her borrowed stardust to the universe, a spring shy of her fortieth birthday, she left behind nearly sixty scientific papers and a single, splendid book of poems titled A Responsibility to Awe (public library)— among them the staggering “Theories of Everything” (read by Regina Spektor at the 2019 Universe in Verse) and “Antidotes to Fear of Death (read by Janna Levin at the 2020 Universe in Verse). Permeating Elson’s poetic meditations, the mystery of dark matter culminates in one particular poem exploring with uncommon loveliness what may be the most touching paradox of being human— our longing for the light of immortality as creatures of matter in a cosmos governed by the dark sublime of dissolution. Bringing Elson’s masterpiece to life for this series is Patti Smith (who read Emily Dickinson’s pre-atomic ode to particle physics at the 2020 Universe in Verse), with animation by Ohara Hale (who animated Emily Dickinson’s pre-ecological poem about ecology in Chapter One of this experimental season of The Universe in Verse) and music by Zoë Keating (who read Rita Dove’s paleontological poem at the 2018 Universe in Verse).
LET THERE ALWAYS BE LIGHT (SEARCHING FOR DARK MATTER)
by Rebecca Elson
For this we go out dark nights, searching
For the dimmest stars,
For signs of unseen things:
To weigh us down.
To stop the universe
From rushing on and on
Into its own beyond
Till it exhausts itself and lies down cold,
Its last star going out.
Whatever they turn out to be,
Let there be swarms of them,
Enough for immortality,
Always a star where we can warm ourselves.
Let there be enough to bring it back
From its own edges,
To bring us all so close we ignite
The bright spark of resurrection.
This post was originally published on The Marginalian. 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); Chapter 3 (trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell and the poetry of the cosmic perspective, with David Byrne and Pattiann Rogers).