Astronomer-Poet Rebecca Elson Remembered at Brainpickings


Rare indeed is the scientist-poet, gifted in language and math/ scientific thinking at the same time, but this describes Rebecca Elson, featured in this post on the Brainpickings site, a gift from one-woman-curator Maria Popova. Elson’s stellar scientific career, for which she was a natural genius, was cut short by 9/11 funding crises and the scientific patriarchy which did not give women their due at the time. At that point she turned to poetry; and the result is amazing, a collection of poetry, essays, and other writings selected by those who knew her and published as A Responsibility to Awe in 2001. She died at the age of 39 in 1999.

Despite her untimely death, she returned to scientific inquiry and is remembered most for her scientific contributions (52 scientific research papers), although her poetry also remains popular and was highly praised even at its publication: The Economist named her book as one of the best of the year in 2001.

Since I myself wanted to be both a poet and astronomer at the age of 9, Elson’s work holds a particular fascination to me. And as I attempted to explain relativity in college by having people on my dorm floor act it out (or at least one dramatic aspect of it), at which point I had an epiphany about it, I was particularly drawn to this poem of hers from the book:

Explaining Relativity

Forget the clatter of ballistics,
The monologue of falling stones,
The sharp vectors,
And the stiff numbered grids.

It’s so much more a thing of pliancy, persuasion,
Where space might cup itself around a planet
Like your palm around a stone,

Where you, yourself the planet
Caught up in some geodesic dream,
Might wake to feel it enfold your weight
And know there is, in fact, no falling.

It is this, and the existence of limits.

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