Friday, February 3, 2012

Astronomy and Poetry

What are the relationships between poetry and astronomy? Both are very ancient, from the dawn of the civilization, and seem to be very different. Astronomy is very scientific while poetry is about expressing feelings. Harvard university hosts a series of art lectures every summer. In 1967, Jorge Luis Borges was invited to give 6 lectures. The lectures were later forgotten for a long time, but eventually they were found and published in an audio book and as a regular book whose name is "This craft of verse".

The citation  which is related to our topic appears at the beginning of the book:

"Whenever I have dipped into books of aesthetics, I have had an uncomfortable feeling that I was reading the works of astronomers who never looked at the stars."
Borges might have referred to this cartoon, showing 3 astronomers debate which one of them looks the least at the skies.
The physician Richard Feynman however has a very different attitude:
"What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?"
However many poems and songs are about stars, and most astronomers and astrophysicist take a look at the stars and enjoy this.
Lets start with Space Oddity, the famous hit by David Bowie. There are lots of cover versions for this song.

The following song is in Hebrew, but I am adding a short translation of my own, even if you do not speak Hebrew you will enjoy the tune and identify some of the names. You can also try and Google translate the following page

Milky way Ballad
Venus send a smile to Jupiter
Hey Jupiter, lets go out
A cappuccino cup in the Milky way
And drop by Cassiopeia
Grab the dipper, little or big
This night is terrific

It's quite a bit, Jupiter and Venus alone
Going out hand in hand 
hand in hand in the heavens...

Lets jump for an hour to the north star
With a light breeze blowing
Just don't be like Plato
Those I do not like
Without a notice, on the tail of a comet,
we will sit for a moment

It's quite a bit...

Jupiter and Venus going higher
The stars wink to them
And Orion said without doubts
What a couple
And only Mars become jealousy red
She will leave him soon in the future...

Let's continue...

Robert Burnham was a professional astronomer and his work "Burnham's celestial Handbook" (BCH) is a must be in every  astronomy library. His handbook (3 large volumes with more than 1000 pages) is a result of thousands of hours of work prior to the era of digital photography. And although the photos look old, and many amateurs get better results today, the books are still valuable with tons of information. Burnham's story is tragic, and mentioning his work is important. An important part of his books were the poems he wrote between the chapters. There are people who bought the books only for the poems. If you do not own a copy of the BCH, get one today (All 3 volumes).

Another good example would be the poet Robert Frost, with his poem Canis Major (The greater dog).

Canis Major

by Robert Frost

The great Overdog
That heavenly beast
With a star in one eye
Gives a leap in the east.

He dances upright
All the way to the west
And never once drops
On his forefeet to rest.

I'm a poor underdog,
But to-night I will bark
With the great Overdog
That romps through the dark.

And for dessert listen to this one: 'Drops of Jupiter" by Train.

So it seems that both Borges and Feynman were wrong, and astronomy and poetry go together hand in hand at least as Jupiter and Venus.
I am sure that there are plenty more poems and songs. Please add your favorites (to the comments area).