Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Stop this Day and Night with Me

Background: Phases and Seasons: Is Less More or Is Less Less?, an article by astronomer, educator, and textbook author Jay Pasachoff about some ongoing controversies in astronomy education. (This article was forwarded to me in relation to an earlier post on the place of Newton's Laws in the physics curriculum.)

April 24th was the opening of the MULTIPLES show (c.f. the last post), and afterwards the organizers, the artists, and I went out to a restaurant to celebrate. At dinner I sat next to Charlotte Sullivan, a student who'd shown work that night. Charlotte uses many media, and her work tends to the conceptual. Our conversation was about the next piece she's going to present.

To create this piece, Charlotte and a fellow student, Todd Weeks, went outside and sat on a campus green for 24 hours, from midnight to midnight, leaning against each other back-to-back. Charlotte faced east; Todd faced west. Every hour, they each took a picture of the scene directly in front of them. She's still working out how to present the piece - how to share the experience and its depths along with the 48 photographs. And there's lot to think about besides the photos: the sensations of pain and fatigue...the ongoing negotiation for comfort between two sets of shoulders...and, almost, the transfer of moods and thoughts over the course of 24 continuous hours of direct contact with another person.

As we spoke, it also became clear that this event had been a tremendous opportunity for two people to slow down and observe and contemplate various phenomena. For example, Charlotte had wondered about the ways in which predawn light would differ from the light which follows sunset. She also expressed to me, in the most enthusiastic terms, what she learned that day and night about our physical situation on this planet. Her initial expectation had been that the sun would rise directly in front of her, sail over the top of her head, and fall below the horizon directly in front of her partner. Instead, a couple hours after sunrise, she noted with surprise that the sun was now off to the side, on a course passing over her shoulder. With time to reflect, she came to understand her observations in terms of Vermont's northern latitude.

She next went on to describe how incredible it was to see the moon descend, and then later rise again - at which point it hit home for the two of them that they had gone all the way around once. The vast distance they'd evidently traveled - and the time this had taken, directly sensed - combined to give her a dizzying sensation of speed and motion.

How many adults have such a visceral sense of our place on this spinning world?

It occurred to me later that if I were to teach astronomy, or a course with astronomy in it, an interesting idea would be to have the students follow Charlotte's course. You wouldn't tell anyone what to look for as they passed the night and day. You wouldn't know what they'd come back with, either. But given the notorious difficulty of teaching astronomy students about the round earth, I would think that if even two or four of them made the discovery that Charlotte and her friend made, one would have to consider it a pretty successful piece of "curriculum."

Driving home after dinner, I reflected on Whitman's poem "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer." Frankly this poem has always disappointed me, in the way it appears to set up what I consider to be a false dichotomy between learning and appreciating; between knowing and wondering. ("The Learn'd Astronomer" is not the only place where "the poet of exact demonstration" falls into this easy trap.) But reflecting on Charlotte's project, I had the hopeful thought that at the end of this poem, the speaker's upward gaze might after all have been as penetrating as it was reverent.


Jeff said...

So, off of this blog, Jason suggests a learn'd English professor like myself might be able to "set [him] straight about Whitman." Setting aside how reluctant, in how many ways, Walt would be to have anybody set straight...

...the whole post is a great meditation on what it means to know even some of the most basic facts of astronomy, like the roundness of the earth. Where do you know that, anyway? In your brain, in your balance, in your aching shoulders? I remember first learning the explanation of tidal forces when I had to teach the phenomenon (on short notice) to a group of ninth graders. I was just about thirty myself. Basically, I discovered, a high tide is the result of the pull of the moon's gravity; as the earth turns, the water rises in those parts of the oceans nearest the moon. But tides rise and fall *twice* a day, and the moon passes over us (or we pass under the moon) only once a day: huh? As it turns out, this is because the moon is also *pulling the earth away from the oceans* on the far side of the planet. They rise too (relative to their shores) because the planet is being drawn away beneath them. Gravity is stronger the nearer you are to its source: the near oceans feel the greatest pull from the moon, and swell; the solid mass of our planet is also pulled, but not enough to negate the rise of the near tides; and the far oceans, pulled least of all, are as it were left behind. A quick look at the Wikipedia article on tides, to check myself, shows how much more complicated the business is, but it looks like this is still a good account as far as it goes. My point however is not so much to make another stab at lay-scientific paraphrase as to describe what it felt like to me to understand, as much as I understood: I had and still have a slightly deflated dodge ball in my hands, being pulled away from me (by a force like running water? or a strong wind?) and deforming, becoming ovoid between my palms, as I hold it. That analogy adds another order of simplification to the simplification of the description above, but I adduce it to say that the phenomenon made SENSE to me when I had some FEEL for it. I spent a lot of time trying to get that across to the kids, especially with chalk diagrams. It might have gone better if I had had that dodge ball.

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Anyhow: it’s hard to dispute that the poem casts Walt as one of those kids who could not make, or believe in, the connection between number and experience. Lots of things Whitman is great on; maybe not astronomy. (There’s a long history of poets disparaging astronomers: esp how, looking up at the sky, they’re prone to fall into ditches.) But there might still be some purchase for Jason’s hope at the end. Whitman loves a catalogue, and his lists can get ecstatic about all the stuff they contain: here that stuff is proofs, figures, charts etc., and they’re all carried along by that Old Testament chant of his long lines. Is there some sympathy there? And what about that funny word, “unaccountable”? Not “unaccountab*ly*”: is there some sense in which Walt acknowledges here that he was irresponsible to the world as it was being described to him? And might have been responsible, accountable?

Maybe that’s a stretch, though. He seems to rise and glide out of the room like a heavenly body himself, on a defiantly eccentric and unmathematized path: unaccountable might just mean, well, you can’t count *me*. (I contain multitudes.) His observations, taken from time to time, are programmatically unscheduled. But then again, there is that final line: after eight lines in Walt’s incantatory free verse, it snaps into perfect iambic pentameter. Meter, a poem’s “numbers,” was often thought of by poets of earlier periods as the axis of art’s sympathy with the Pythagorean majesty of the turning spheres. Walt knew this. So maybe there’s a final rapprochement with regularity and measure?

JasonZimba said...

Jeff, wonderful - from the tides to the insights about the poem. Your observation about the regular meter of the last line seems to me crucial; I'll fold it into my thinking on this.

By the way, for any others reading this thread, I sometimes think about this poem in relation to one of Whitman's diary entries from Specimen Days:

"Birds—and a Caution

May 14.—Home again; down temporarily in the Jersey woods. Between 8 and 9 A.M. a full concert of birds, from different quarters, in keeping with the fresh scent, the peace, the naturalness all around me. I am lately noticing the russet-back, size of the robin or a trifle less.... Many I cannot name; but I do not very particularly seek information. (You must not know too much, or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and water-craft; a certain free margin, and even vagueness—perhaps ignorance, credulity—helps your enjoyment of these things, and of the sentiment of feather’d, wooded, river, or marine Nature generally. I repeat it—don’t want to know too exactly, or the reasons why. My own notes have been written off-hand in the latitude of middle New Jersey. Though they describe what I saw—what appear’d to me—I dare say the expert ornithologist, botanist, or entomologist will detect more than one slip in them.)"

It's hard for a scientist to know how to react when the poet who sings the praises of exact demonstration and the body electric seems also to be the man who leaves the lecture early: the man content not to know.

Let there be commerce between us, Walt Whitman!