Astronomy as Existential Calibration: A Poetic Manifesto for Science from Two Centuries Before the Golden Age of Space Telescopes
“Astronomy has enlarged the sphere of our conceptions, and opened to us a universe without bounds, where the human Imagination is lost.”
By Maria Popova
On March 13, 1781, the Solar System bloomed a new planet: The eminent astronomer William Herschel, whose son would later coin the word photography, discovered Uranus, the seventh planet from the Sun — an icy blue gas giant spinning on its side twofold farther than Saturn.
With the help of his unstoppable sister Caroline, who had ground the lenses, Herschel had built an unexampled telescope with a magnifying power of 6,000, dwarfing all the reigning royal instruments. With it, and with his superhuman patience for observing the heavens long into the English winter nights, he didn’t so much discover the fact of Uranus as deduce its nature — it had been visible to astronomers for a long time and was even included in the preeminent star catalogue of the time, but it had always been classified as a faint fixed star.
Just like Edwin Hubble had gasped at his telescopic realization that what was previously considered a nebula in the Milky Way was in fact a whole other galaxy beyond it, instantly changing the scale of the known universe, Herschel looked through his mighty instrument and realized that what was previously considered the fixed star of a faraway solar system was in fact another planet revolving around our very own star, instantly reconfiguring our corner of the cosmos.
In an age when the filter bubble was as thick for lack of access to information as it is today for excessive access to information, it took considerable time for Herschel’s discovery to travel from the ecstatic circle of the scientific community into the popular imagination. Chief among its driving forces was the unconventional 1786 book An Introduction to Astronomy in a Series of Letters from a Preceptor to His Pupil (public domain) by John Bonnycastle (1750/1–1821), who dedicated an entire chapter to Uranus. Nested into it is a lovely manifesto for the broader value of astronomy — and, by extension, of all science — as a tool of existential reckoning and a fulcrum for living up to our highest nature.
Epochs before the great Holocaust survivor and chemist Primo Levi considered the humanistic value of space exploration in a divided world, Bonnycastle takes the discovery of Uranus as a canvas for the bigger picture:
This discovery, which at first appears more curious than useful, may yet be of great service to astronomy; the circumstance of a primary planet having been unobserved for so many ages naturally led astronomers to examine, with greater accuracy, those small stars which had hitherto been genially neglected, or only considered as of use in determining the position of the planets. And these observations have produced many other new discoveries in the celestial regions by which our knowledge of the heavenly bodies, and of the immutable laws that govern the universe, will become much more extended; which is the great object of the science, and the source from which we may expect to derive such consequences as are of practical application, and the most useful to mankind.
The purpose of such discoveries, Bonnycastle observes two centuries before the golden age of space telescopes and their epoch-making discoveries of other worlds around other suns, is to liberate us from the parochial perspective of self-significance that is the downfall of the human animal. Reverencing the self-transcendence of the telescopic perspective, he writes:
Astronomy has enlarged the sphere of our conceptions, and opened to us a universe without bounds, where the human Imagination is lost. Surrounded by infinite space, and swallowed up in an immensity of being, man seems but as a drop of water in the ocean, mixed and confounded with the general mass. But from this situation, perplexing as it is, he endeavours to extricate himself; and by looking abroad into Nature, employs the powers she has bestowed upon him in investigating her works.
Bonnycastle also made a daring creative decision against the grain of convention — he punctuated the science with astronomically themed verses by beloved poets, explaining the rationale behind his choice in a passage that reads like a manifesto for the spirit of The Universe in Verse:
The frequent allusions to the Poets, and the various quotations interspersed throughout the work, are intended as an agreeable relief to minds unaccustomed to the regular deduction of facts by mathematical reasoning, and to enliven those parts where a simple detail of particular must, from its necessary length, become languid. Poetical descriptions, though they may not be strictly conformable to the rigid principles of the science they are meant to elucidate, generally leave a stronger impression on the mind, and are far more captivating than simple unadorned language.
Complement with an animated poem celebrating the cosmic perspective and a poetic tribute to our search for dark matter, then revisit composer Caroline Shaw’s stunning music for the poetry of the cosmos and poet Diane Ackerman’s stunning poems for the Solar System.
Published September 5, 2022