“Light gives light because it is its nature.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
“I sometimes ask myself whether I would be studying galaxies if they were ugly… I think it may not be irrelevant that galaxies are really very attractive,” Vera Rubin, who confirmed the existence of dark matter, pondered in her most extensive interview. More than a century earlier, trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell — Rubin’s formative role model — contemplated the same question after attending a lecture on beauty by Emerson: Mitchell, too, found the splendor of the cosmos inseparable from its allure as an object of scientific investigation, each enhancing rather than distracting or detracting from the other. The great physicist Richard Feynman extolled this interplay in his memorable Ode to a Flower, in which he insisted that “the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower,” and Marina Abramović touched on it in her manifesto for art and life, which asserts that “an artist should stay for long periods of time looking at the stars in the night sky.”
Indeed, for as long as we humans have gazed up into the night sky, our imagination has been captivated equally by aesthetic awe and scientific curiosity — something reflected in our earliest sky myths, the Medieval wonder-sighting of comets, and our 4,000-year history of visualizing the universe.
That dual enchantment is what artist Vija Celmins and writer Eliot Weinbergerbring to life in the limited-edition MoMA book The Stars (public library) — an uncommonly poetic ode to the resplendence of the night sky.
Reminiscent of the poet Mark Strand’s 89 meditations on the clouds, Weinberger’s text is a sort of florilegium composed of lyrical descriptions of the stars drawing on various myths, folk tales, or anthropological sources from different eras and cultures. What emerges is a quintilingual mythopoetic masterpiece, written in English and translated in Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, and Maori, accompanied by three stunning celestial etchings by Celmins, each months in the making.
The whimsical text begins:
The stars: what are they?
They are chunks of ice reflecting the sun;
they are lights afloat on the waters beyond the transparent dome;
they are nails nailed to the sky;
they are holes in the great curtain between us and the sea of light;
they are holes in the hard shell that protects us from the inferno beyond
they are the daughters of the sun;
they are the messengers of the gods;
they are shaped like wheels and are condensations of air with flames
roaring through the spaces between the spokes;
they sit in little chairs;
they are strewn across the sky;
they run errands for lovers…
all stars move and shine in order to be
most fully what they are — light
gives light because it is its nature…
Complement The Stars with Adrienne Rich’s sublime poem “Planetarium,” Henry Beston on how the beauty of the night sky nourishes the human spirit, and the forgotten woman who pioneered the art of astropoetics in the nineteenth century.