Astronomer and Poet Rebecca Elson’s Spare, Stunning Meditation on the Mystery of Being – Brain Pickings

by Jeremy

What is it about the human-animal that compels us to interrupt the elemental elegance and perpetual incompleteness of a perfect ellipse with an arbitrary point we call a beginning? And yet here we are, once every three hundred and sixty-some days, marking the start of a new year as gravity — a force outside time and space, acting instantaneously on each body across infinite distances, holding the universe together — goes on dragging our planet around an orbit with no beginning and no end. Here we are, childlike in our yearning for a fresh start, our future a thing with feathers perching on that arbitrary point in the ellipse.

New Year’s Eve: Astronomer and Poet Rebecca Elson’s Spare, Stunning Meditation on the Mystery of Being

Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999) was sixteen and already in university when she glimpsed Andromeda for the first time and was instantly besotted by our sister galaxy’s “delicate wisp of milky spiral light floating in what seemed a bottomless well of space.” The daughter of a geologist, she had grown up exploring the shores of a prehistoric lake and becoming a penetrating, sensitive observer of nature, enchanted with the night sky of northern Canada and its bellowing intimation of an infinite universe, dark and mysterious and salted with wonders. By twenty-six, having completed her doctorate in astronomy at Newton’s hallowed ground in Cambridge, Elson received a fellowship to work with the first data from the Hubble Space Telescope at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, Einstein’s hallowed ground.

Rebecca Elson, 1987

At twenty-nine, just as she began teaching creative writing at Harvard, stepping publicly into the private literary passion that had always buoyed her science, Elson’s blazing path of promise and possibility was dimmed by a terminal diagnosis — a rare form of lymphoma that typically afflicts the elderly. Full of life and full of wonder, she moved through the years of chemical brutality, remission, and more brutality by weaving her parallel lifelines: She continued studying how stars are born, live, and die, and she wrote poetry — spare, stunning poems tessellating the grandest search for cosmic truth with the most humbling human quest for meaning.

When she returned her borrowed stardust to the universe at only thirty-nine, she left in her meteoric path 56 scientific papers and a slender, sublime book of poetry titled A Responsibility to Awe (public library) — a shrine of such uncommon treasures as her “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” “Explaining Relativity,” and “Theories of Everything.”

Among these delicate wisps of sensemaking is a meditation on the meaning of New Year’s Eve — on how we hold on to our tenderest humanity against the elemental austerity of this arbitrary point in our planet’s orbit. Composed at a time when Elson knew her store of new Year had run out, the poem reverberates with a love of life more significant than her existence.

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