When I heard the learn'd astronomer

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meteor painting

—Nor the comet that came unannounced out of the north, flaring in heaven; Nor the strange huge meteor procession, dazzling and clear, shooting over our heads, (A moment, a moment long, it sail’d its balls of unearthly light over our heads, Then departed, dropt in the night, and was gone;)

— Exerpt from Walt Whitman's Year of Meteors, 1859

John Lundberg tells here of a physicist, Donald Olson, who recently saw the above painting, and cleverly put 2 and 2 together. He realized that the painting depicted a once-in-a-century physical phenomenon, a meteor that entered the atmosphere at a super-low angle. Based on the timing of the poem, he then identified this as the physical event which likely inspired Whitman's poem.

I passed Lundberg's story on to UT graduate student and Whitman scholar Travis Brown, and he told me that though the discovery was pretty neat, Whitman penned a reply long ago (Whitman, Leaves of Grass 180, first published in Drum-Taps, 1865):

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.


  1. Eli said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 4:37 pm

    Either Whitman (or the narrator) or the astronomer didn't get it. The latter should have been showing the former how to take the vision of stars outside and explore through it inside, and to take the proofs and figures inside and marvel at nature's way of displaying them outside. That's the synthesis that true scientists pursue.

    Instead, Whitman (or his narrator) tires of the charts inside and goes outside to watch the stars, dismissing rather than connecting what he just saw inside.

  2. Jonathan Badger said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

    Whitman was writing in the grand tradition of 19th century poets (see Poe's "To Science" for another example) who felt the very explanatory power of science was bad because it robbed the natural world of "mystery". I don't think he (and I think the narrator and Whitman are one in this) *wanted* to understand the theory.

  3. empty said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 5:23 pm

    Blake, too, a bit earlier.

  4. language hat said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 5:27 pm

    A contemporary example.

  5. language hat said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 5:27 pm

    And here's a contemporary example.

  6. Jair said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 5:33 pm

    I prefer Scott Aaronson's version:


  7. Travis Brown said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 5:46 pm

    I don't think it's quite fair to compare Whitman to the Insane Clown Posse, or to Poe, for that matter. He's reacting against a particularly lifeless brand of nineteenth-century popular science. For a contrast see this defense of Darwin, for example:

    When I alluded to Darwin's supposed lack of facility in composition, W. said: "I can hardly believe that: I have always thought the opposite: thought (from all I had read from him) that he was grandly simple—had the sweet directness of a child: that his style was as natural as the bursting of a pea in its pod." "And yet that very simplicity has been his power," continued W.: "we may say that there is nothing beyond it: it is the enclosing secret."

  8. marie-lucie said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 6:36 pm

    I didn't know about the Insane Clown Posse, but it looks like they are being deliberately provocative and sarcastic, not to be taken literally.

  9. Nicholas Waller said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 6:58 pm

    To be sure, some overly literal-minded dullards can suck the magic out of things, but in general I'm with an old girlfriend who disputed another friend's assertion that because she was a doctor and knew how the plumbing of the heart and reproductive system worked she was somehow necessarily crippled in her appreciation of the mysteries of romance. She said that is anything the opposite was true.

    And with Richard Feynman, who said:

    "I have a friend who's an artist and he's sometimes taken a view which I don't agree with very well. He'll hold up a flower and say, 'Look how beautiful it is,' and I'll agree, I think. And he says, 'You see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you, as a scientist, oh, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing."[…]

    Feynman thinks this is "kind of nutty" – he can appreciate a flower as well as the next person, but he can also wonder about all sorts of other associated things too, about the cell structure and the interaction with bees and more, all of which has a beauty of its own:

    "All kinds of interesting questions which shows that a scientific knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds; I don't understand how it can subtract."

  10. Carl Offner said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 8:31 pm

    It's a while since I've used this argument, but I used to hear people say that studying the theory and substance of a field made you lose appreciation for the wonder of it. I would tell people that according to that line of reasoning, Beethoven couldn't really appreciate music. I never knew if what I said was effective, but it tended to end that line of discussion.

  11. language hat said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 8:49 pm

    I used to hear people say that studying the theory and substance of a field made you lose appreciation for the wonder of it. I would tell people that according to that line of reasoning, Beethoven couldn't really appreciate music. I never knew if what I said was effective, but it tended to end that line of discussion.

    Well, it wouldn't have ended it with me. I would have told you there's a big difference between creators like Beethoven, who take whatever they need in order to create and often have opinions about their art that seem bizarre to others (cf. Nabokov's attitude toward Dostoevsky), and people who "study the theory and substance of a field" for the purpose of analyzing rather than creating. I would have pointed out that the music majors at my college seemed to have less interest in the aesthetics of music than anyone else taking music classes. Of course it would be silly to claim that studying a subject automatically makes you "lose appreciation for the wonder of it," but it would be equally silly to claim that's not a danger.

  12. language hat said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 8:52 pm

    Two things about my "contemporary example" comment: 1) it was meant for humor value and not in any way intended to suggest that Insane Clown Posse was comparable to Whitman, and 2) I posted again because the first try seemed to vanish into the ether, and wasn't there even when I retreated from LL and came back in to look. It seems to have shown up belatedly just to spite me.

    [(myl) It was stuck in the Akismet spam filter, from which I liberated it without checked for duplication.]

  13. D.O. said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 9:35 pm

    Are there poets or other artist who think that they can't appreciate the aesthetics of nature enough because they do not know the scientific basis of what they see? Something along the lines "O tree! How much more beautiful would you be, if I knew how nitrates get from roots to the leaves." Of course, it has to be more poetic than that…

  14. Bloix said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 9:40 pm

    IFRC, Mark Twain says in Life on the Mississippi that after he learned all the details of what it took to be a riverboat pilot – how to read the channels and bars – he could no longer appreciate the beauty of the river.

  15. marie-lucie said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 10:17 pm

    As a pilot, Mark Twain was not looking at the river from the point of view of a geographer or geomorphologist. let alone an artist – he had to pilot a boat on a treacherous river, something which took different skills and a lot of careful attention which was not at all the same as that required by either scientific analysis or esthetic contemplation. He couldn't just stop and admire the river. Similarly, if you are driving a car or truck on a dangerous mountain road, you can't really take in the spectacular landscape – that's why the authorities provide "lookouts" where people in cars can stop and admire without the practical considerations of staying on the road.

  16. Travis Brown said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 10:22 pm

    Here's one example, D.O., from Blake:

    Thou knowest that the ancient trees seen by thy eyes have fruit;
    But knowest thou that trees and fruit flourish upon the earth
    To gratify senses unknown? trees beasts and birds unknown:
    Unknown, not unperceived, spread in the infinite microscope,
    In places yet unvisited by the voyager. and in worlds
    Over another kind of seas, and in atmospheres unknown.

    This is spoken by a character who is a kind of representative of Enlightenment reason, and whose viewpoint Blake is actively critiquing. But it's part of a lovely speech, and it's hard not to attribute some of the wonder to Blake himself.

    Richard Holmes's recent The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science is a good source for other examples from the same time period.

  17. Will said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 10:36 pm

    If you ask Edna St. Vincent Millay, Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare.

  18. Ben said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 1:44 am

    With regards the Richard Feynman quote that Nicholas Waller posted, and which I partially reproduce here:

    "I have a friend who's an artist and he's sometimes taken a view which I don't agree with very well. He'll hold up a flower and say, 'Look how beautiful it is,' and I'll agree, I think. And he says…"

    Having never seen this quote before, and not knowing much about Richard Feynman, I honestly was expecting him (based solely on what he wrote in that passage) to conclude the reverse of what actually came.

    The actual conclusion was "You see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you, as a scientist, oh, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing." I was expecting something more along the lines of "You see, I as an artist am required to take this beautiful thing, and then dissect it into spacial placements of lines and colors, and as a result lose the essential wonder of it as a flower."

    I have artist friends who have actually given accounts along those lines, so I was surprised to see this passage conclude the way it did.

    In any case, I personally don't think I lose my initial appreciation for something regardless of how decide to analyze it or from what philosophical angle I decide to look at it. But at the same time, that initial appreciation–while not lost–might become overshadowed by the additional of new information. And it might take effort to rediscover the initial wonderment.

  19. Scriptor Ignotior said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 2:54 am

    Keats, of course:

         … Do not all charms fly
    At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
    There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
    We know her woof, her texture; she is given
    In the dull catalogue of common things.
    Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
    Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
    Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine –
    Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
    The tender-person'd Lamia melt into a shade.

    Famously used by Richard Dawkins; earlier and less famously, but acknowledged by Dawkins in an endnote on reprinting, by C.L. Hardin in his splendid Color for Philosophers: Unweaving the Rainbow.

  20. Scriptor Ignotior said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 2:57 am

    Huh. The HTML tag for small font is implemented in preview, but stripped away in the post itself. Grr. Switch software, guys?

  21. Jo said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 4:07 am

    It's bizarre to see this post because I've spent the last few weekends lying on a rock in front of the Mediterranean, looking up at the stars and thinking about Whitman and his learn'd astronomer. And on Saturday night I saw a whopper of a bolide, not unlike the one in the painting.

    I'm not a scientist, and until last summer I didn't know a bolide from a bowling ball, nor could I name a single star. Far from robbing the heavens of mystery, astronomy has opened up entirely new planes of awe. Indeed, I think Walt was dealing with a particularly inarticulate astronomer, or maybe the discoveries that have been made over the last century or so have definitively shelved the idea that science will ever break the universe down into chewable morsels.

  22. BReed said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 4:25 am

    A Feynman quote from a promo poster for his lectures that hangs in my office:

    "Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination – stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one – million – year – old light. A vast pattern – of which I am a part… What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?"

    It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it, indeed.

  23. Mark Etherton said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 5:50 am

    Isn't there a distinction to be made between the view that explaining something destroys its mystery (Scriptor Ignotior's Keats example) and believing that there are some things inaccessible to science? Mickiewicz puts takes the second approach in Romantyczność, which describes a village girl's vision of her dead lover and ends, in WH Auden's translation:

    “The girl is out of her senses!”
    Shouts a man with a learned air,
    “My eye and my lenses
    Know there’s nothing there.

    Ghosts are a myth
    Of ale-wife and blacksmith.
    Clodhoppers! This is treason
    Against King Reason!”

    “Yet the girl loves,” I reply diffidently,
    “And the people believe reverently:
    Faith and love are more discerning
    Than lenses or learning.

    You know the dead truths, not the living,
    The world of things, not the world of loving.
    Where does any miracle start?
    Cold eye, look in your heart!”

  24. Sili said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 7:06 am

    Well, some poets have no trouble taking on the sciences in a more respectful manner.

  25. rejiquar said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 8:10 am

    @ Ignotior: your quote renders in the small font, and indented—with one of those along-the-left-side bars even—just fine in chrome. So mebbe it's your browser.

    @ Ben, 1:44: artists are indeed required to render what they're seeing into line and shape, and in fact I was tearing my hear out (metaphorically) yesterday drawing a common celandine; it's that conversion process in the brain, not "magic fingers" that makes representational drawing so difficult.

    I love drawing and photographing flowers, but I've learnt, if I *really* want to understand, that careful drawings of them, no matter how frustrating from my inability to capture what I *see*, is vastly superior to photography—the very struggle is what really impresses the plant's (gross) structures.

    In the same way, I would expect a greater understanding of botany to increase the scientist's appreciation—even the little I know, frex whether the leaves are palmate or pinnate, or the decorative doohickies are real petals or bracts or what those pin-like things are in the middle (stamens and pistil) improves mine. I should think that understanding, say, the genetic or mathematics behind the stripe and spot deposition would make me appreciate those patterns just that much more.

    And, in fact, many scientists are interested in art—just yesterday I found a fascinating link to art using single celled creatures as the medium, over and above the beautiful photomicrography with which scientists have been treating us for years—and Feynman, mentioned above, was a decent draftsman. Stephan Jay Gould talked about the `orgiastic joys of research' (which sounded suspiciously close to me to orgiastic joys of creating [art]) so yeah, plenty of sensawunder to go around.

  26. Scriptor Ignotior said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 8:24 am


    Total weirdness. The indented material looks fine now, but just after I posted it  – same browser and settings (Firefox 3.6.3), different computer – it was a mess. In preview it made a distinct difference to apply the "small" tags for the blockquoted text, but the effect of them seemed completely nullified in the post.

    However the details go, this software is just too skittish. It embarrasses posters here too often. A preview that doesn't reliably show what will be posted is simply substandard. Sorry, but that's how I see it; and I think I'm not alone.

  27. Ben said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 9:38 am

    In the the Simpsons episode "The PTA Disbands," Professor Frink has taken over the kindergarten class and is drawing equations and free-body diagrams on the blackboard to explain the workings of one of those things that kids push which makes the balls pop.

    Frink: N'hey hey! Ahem, n'hey, so the compression and expansion of the
    longitudinal waves cause the erratic oscillation — you can see
    it there — of the neighboring particles.
    [a girl raises her hand]
    [sighs] Yes, what is it? What? What is it?
    Girl: Can I play with it?
    Frink: No, you can't play with it; you won't enjoy it on as many levels
    as I do.
    [he chuckles as he plays with it] The colors, children!

    I cut and paste this from here. In case you're wondering what "one of those things that kids push which makes the balls pop" is, it's this. Apparently they're called "corn poppers." Didn't know that.

  28. Ralph Hickok said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 9:42 am

    It may be worth noting that artists (most notably, Leonardo) made many contributions to the early study of anatomy. Deanna Pethbridge documented these contributions in a fascinating little book, "The Quick and the Dead," which I read just recently.

    And I can't help adding a little verse from Emily Dickinson, who could be remarkably hardheaded and clear-sighted:

    "Faith" is a fine invention
    When Gentlemen can see—
    But Microscopes are prudent
    In an Emergency.

  29. Leonardo Boiko said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 9:44 am

    I wonder how many artists there are who actually thinks scientific understanding would rob them of a sense of beauty, as the stereotype goes. I know I’ve never met any. In fact, whenever I start babbling enthusiastically about physics or biology, I find people who like art to be a most interested public.

    I’ve met, however, artists who complain artistic understanding makes them lose something – as in, after you get to know the tricks of the trade in, say, movie-making, you can never unsee them. The consensus seem to be (I’m being anecdotal here) that you have to learn to enjoy your new informed appreciation, because you can never return to your former naïveté.

    I’ve also met too many scientists (well, computer scientists, not real scientists) who are guilty of the opposite sin – i.e. they assume that, because they know the science behind things, they can appreciate nature better than science-deprived artists – without ever bothering to learn a first thing about art. They are too quick to dismiss art studies altogether – especially analysis and theory – with a derisive “it’s all subjective anyway”. I agree with Feynman that science can add to your wonder, but the reverse is also true – art can give you things that science never will. That’s why my goal is to become a man who knows everything 8) (like Feynman…)

  30. Leonardo Boiko said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 9:49 am

    @marie-lucie: I’d say not only Insane Clown Posse are being sarcastic, they also have a great knack for publicity. In fact, they admitted as much – it was all a calculated move to stir up controversy for a new tour and movie.

  31. Lynn said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 9:53 am

    A poem, though, captures a mood–a moment in time and thought. It's much as if it were a snapshot while a novel would be more a film. For me, "When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer" captures a thing we've all felt from time to time. We get weary of the clinical, especially when it's presented by an uninspiring speaker; we want to escape, do, see, experience. Such restlessness doesn't make us science cynics. It makes us well-rounded humans.

    Whitman DID embrace science, but saw it through a mystic's eye. Combined with his enormous talent, his writings simply offer us another way to view our world. Here, for example, he examines evolution in his own Whitmany kind of way:

    AND who art thou? said I to the soft-falling shower,
    Which, strange to tell, gave me an answer, as here translated:
    I am the Poém of Earth, said the voice of the rain,
    Eternal I rise impalpable out of the land and the bottomless sea,
    Upward to heaven, whence, vaguely formed, altogether changed, and yet the same,
    I descend to lave the drouths, atomies, dust-layers of the globe,
    And all that in them without me were seeds only, latent, unborn,
    And forever, by day and night, I give back life to my own origin, and make pure
    and beautify it:
    (For song, issuing from its birth-place, after fulfillment, wandering,
    Recked or unrecked, duly with love returns.)

  32. language hat said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 10:58 am

    Goethe: "Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie,/ Und grün des Lebens goldner Baum."

  33. Ben said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 11:20 am

    Wait, is the tree of life green or gold? (Homer Simpson would answer: "Neither, it's both.")

  34. Chandra said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 3:01 pm

    In my opinion, anyone who delves deeply enough into science will find that it is just as full of mystery and beauty as anything we can find in art or nature. I can hardly think of anything much more mysterious and awe-inspiring than quantum physics, for example.

  35. Nicholas Waller said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 7:05 pm

    @ Lynn – I guess Whitman was large, and contained multitudes.

  36. AlexB said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 8:30 am

    To go off on a tangent, I think that 'great balls of unearthly light' would make an excellent exclamation.

  37. Zubon said,

    June 10, 2010 @ 1:27 am

    Eliezer Yudkowsky, addressing Keats specifically:

    ..Do not all charms fly
    At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
    There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
    We know her woof, her texture; she is given
    In the dull catalogue of common things.
    Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
    Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
    Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine –
    Unweave a rainbow…

    "If we cannot learn to take joy in the merely real, our lives will be empty indeed." …
    The rainbow was explained. The haunts in the air, and gnomes in the mine, were explained away. … The rainbow is still there!

  38. Bloix said,

    June 10, 2010 @ 5:02 pm

    From Life on the Mississippi:

    Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; …

    But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river's face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, in this fashion: "This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody's steamboat one of these nights,…

    No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat.


  39. Mary Kuhner said,

    June 10, 2010 @ 5:47 pm

    That blood is red is symbolically powerful, and appeals to artists and scientists alike. But to know that it's red because each hemoglobin molecule clutches an atom of iron, and that those iron atoms are there only because of the critical instant in a supernova where the combining of particles into heavier and heavier atoms suddenly fails to generate more energy and the whole thing explodes–every single iron atom in my body came out of a supernova–this amazes me on additional levels, and seems very poetic.

    There are sorts of amazement that any kind of familiarity erodes away. The only cure for that is to be a dilettante who doesn't become familiar with things, I think–a travel writer who's only there for a week or two, or an art dabbler who never studies art. But there are plenty of other sorts of amazement.

    Now, sometimes it does help to be able to stand and gasp at the rainbow, and postpone considering its optics. But a trained scientist can learn that discipline too, and many do.

    I saw a red rainbow once, many years ago. It was very strange and ominous. I would like to know what made it red, and why they are so rare; then I could appreciate it even better. It's true, though, that I can use it in my novel without knowing that, as long as the viewpoint character doesn't know either.

    In human-created fields there's a problem that learning to appreciate good work can destroy your previous enjoyment of bad work. I guess the natural-sciences analog is when you have a theory that appeals to you esthetically, and then have to replace it with one that's more true, but less beautiful. I personally have faith that the more true ones will in the long run be more beautiful.

    One other issue is that finding out too much about reality might squick you. That pretty cowbird reproduces by pushing the eggs of other songbirds out of the nest. For some people, the cowbird is not pretty anymore once they know that. But you could teach yourself to separate your esthetic from your moral reaction, and still see that the cowbird is beautiful, even though you dislike its lifestyle. (I think of this yearly when I eat the blackberries off the invasive-pest bushes. I wish this plant could be utterly removed from my area, as it's ecologically harmful. But the berries are tasty, and bring back fond childhood memories.)

  40. Simon Cauchi said,

    June 11, 2010 @ 3:14 pm

    Eliezer Yudkowsky, quoting Keats's line "Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine" comments: "The haunts in the air, and gnomes in the mine, were explained away".

    What are these "haunts"? Doesn't he understand that Keats meant there were ghosts in the air and gnomes in the mine?

    A haunted house has got ghosts in it, not "haunts".

  41. Bloix said,

    June 11, 2010 @ 5:02 pm

    My dictionary gives as a definition of "haunt" "a ghost" (a regionalism, to be sure.)

    Haunts haunt haunts.
    Haunts haunted haunts.
    Haunts haunted haunted haunts.
    Haunted haunts haunt haunted haunts.

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