My God, It’s Full of Stars: Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and Our Human Hunger to Know the Universe (Tracy K. Smith Reads Tracy K. Smith) (2023)

This is the second of nine installments in the animated interlude season of The Universe in Verse in collaboration with On Being, celebrating the wonder of reality through stories of science winged with poetry. See the rest here.

My God, It’s Full of Stars: Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and Our Human Hunger to Know the Universe (Tracy K. Smith Reads Tracy K. Smith) (1)

In 1908, Henrietta Swan Leavitt — one of the women known as the Harvard Computers, who changed our understanding of the universe long before they could vote — was analyzing photographic plates at the Harvard Observatory, singlehandedly measuring and cataloguing more than 2,000 variable stars — stars that pulsate like lighthouse beacons — when she began noticing a consistent correlation between their brightness and their blinking pattern. That correlation would allow astronomers to measure their distance for the first time, furnishing the yardstick of the cosmos.

My God, It’s Full of Stars: Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and Our Human Hunger to Know the Universe (Tracy K. Smith Reads Tracy K. Smith) (2)

Meanwhile, a teenage boy in the Midwest was repressing his childhood love of astronomy and beginning his legal studies to fulfill his dying father’s demand for an ordinary, reputable life. Upon his father’s death, Edwin Hubble would unleash his passion for the stars into formal study and lean on Leavitt’s data to upend millennia of cosmic parochialism, demonstrating two revolutionary facts about the universe: that it is vastly bigger than we thought, and that it is growing bigger by the blink.

One October evening in 1923, perched at the foot of the world’s most powerful telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory in California, Hubble took a 45-minute exposure of Andromeda, which was then thought to be one of many spiral nebulae in the Milky Way. The notion of a galaxy — a gravitationally bound swirl of stars and interstellar gas, dust and dark matter — did not exist as such. The Milky Way — a name coined by Chaucer — was commonly considered an “island universe” of stars, beyond the edge of which lay cold dark nothingness.

When Hubble looked at the photograph the next morning and compared it to previous ones, he (I like to imagine) furrowed his brow, then with a gasp of revelation he (this we know for a fact) crossed out the marking N on the plate, scribbled the letters V A R beneath it, and could not help adding an exclamation point.

My God, It’s Full of Stars: Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and Our Human Hunger to Know the Universe (Tracy K. Smith Reads Tracy K. Smith) (4)

Hubble had realized that a tiny fleck in Andromeda, previously mistaken for a nova, could not possibly be a nova, given its blinking pattern across the different photographs. It was a variable star — which, given Henrietta Leavitt’s discovery, could only be so if the tiny fleck was very far away, farther than the edge of the Milky Way.

Andromeda was not a nebula in our own galaxy but a separate galaxy, out there in the cold dark nothingness.

(Video) "My God It's Full Of Stars" by Tracy K. Smith, A Poetry Film by Daniel Bruson

Suddenly, the universe was a garden blooming with galaxies, with ours but a single bloom.

That same year, in another country suspended between two World Wars, another young scientist named Hermann Oberth was polishing the final physics on a daring idea: to subvert a deadly military technology with roots in medieval China and rocket-launch an enormous telescope into Earth orbit — closer to the stars, bypassing the atmosphere that occludes our terrestrial instruments.

It would take two generations of scientists to make that telescope a reality — a shimmering poem of metal, physics, and perseverance, bearing Hubble’s name.

My God, It’s Full of Stars: Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and Our Human Hunger to Know the Universe (Tracy K. Smith Reads Tracy K. Smith) (5)

But when the Hubble Space Telescope finally launched 1990, hungry to capture the most intimate images of the cosmos humanity had yet seen, humanity had crept into the instrument’s exquisite precision — its main mirror had been ground into the wrong spherical shape, warping its colossal eye.

My God, It’s Full of Stars: Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and Our Human Hunger to Know the Universe (Tracy K. Smith Reads Tracy K. Smith) (6)Up the coast from Mount Wilson Observatory, a teenage girl watched her father — who had worked on the Hubble as one of NASA’s first black engineers — come home brokenhearted. He didn’t know that his observant daughter would become Poet Laureate of his country and would come to commemorate him in the tenderest tribute an artist-daughter has ever made for a scientist-father. That tribute — the splendid poetry collection Life on Mars (public library) — earned Tracy K. Smith the Pulitzer Prize the year the Hubble’s corrected optics captured the revolutionary Ultra Deep Field image of the observable universe, revealing what neither Henrietta Leavitt nor Edwin Hubble could have imagined — that there isn’t just one other galaxy besides our own, or just a handful more, but at least 100 billion, each containing at least 100 billion stars.

by Tracy K. Smith

(Video) My God, It’s Full Of Stars (The Universe in Verse, Part 2)

When my father worked on the Hubble Telescope, he said
They operated like surgeons: scrubbed and sheathed
In papery green, the room a clean cold, a bright white.

He’d read Larry Niven at home, and drink scotch on the rocks,
His eyes exhausted and pink. These were the Reagan years,
When we lived with our finger on The Button and struggled

To view our enemies as children. My father spent whole seasons
Bowing before the oracle-eye, hungry for what it would find.
His face lit up whenever anyone asked, and his arms would rise

As if he were weightless, perfectly at ease in the never-ending
Night of space. On the ground, we tied postcards to balloons
For peace. Prince Charles married Lady Di. Rock Hudson died.

We learned new words for things. The decade changed.

The first few pictures came back blurred, and I felt ashamed
For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe. The second time,
The optics jibed. We saw to the edge of all there is —

So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.

(Video) Humanity's Search for Cosmic Truth and Poetic Beauty | Maria Popova | TED


Every poet is a miniaturist of meaning, building cathedrals of beauty and truth with the smallest particles of language. It is with a poet’s mindset that Brazilian graphic artist and animation director Daniel Bruson approached his contribution to The Universe in Verse. (Special thanks to On Being creative director Erin Colasacco for bringing Daniel into the project and for working with him and with composer Gautam Srikishan on making this symphonic cinepoem come alive.)

After I relayed to Daniel why I had chosen this particular poem (which Tracy read at the inaugural Universe in Verse in 2017) to illustrate the larger story of our search for cosmic truth — a search both made possible and made imperfect by our humanity — he grasped the nested layers of meaning with uncommon sensitivity, mirroring back his interpretation:

The Hubble tries to see or make sense of the Universe, the father tries to understand the Hubble, the daughter tries to make sense of the father, the decade, the world, and the poet tries to put this whole into perspective. All these efforts have to face problems of scale or distortion: something too big or small, too close or too distant, too dark or too familiar. Not to mention the original problem with the Hubble mirror.

This cascade of distortion sparked the idea “to use optics as a metaphor, to seek for these imperfect, unresolved and elusive, but also suggestive and alive images.”

My God, It’s Full of Stars: Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and Our Human Hunger to Know the Universe (Tracy K. Smith Reads Tracy K. Smith) (7)

Daniel set about creating his deliberately blurry cosmic animations frame by frame, painting each tiny detail onto a glass plate with nail polish, oil paint, glitter, acrylic, and other materials he mixed, scrubbed, smudged, and swirled with brushes and cotton swabs beneath the lens of a camera capturing the process of creation and destruction.

My God, It’s Full of Stars: Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and Our Human Hunger to Know the Universe (Tracy K. Smith Reads Tracy K. Smith) (8)

My God, It’s Full of Stars: Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and Our Human Hunger to Know the Universe (Tracy K. Smith Reads Tracy K. Smith) (9)

He magnified the optical enchantment by filming the vignettes through upside-down drinking glasses of various shapes and thicknesses.

My God, It’s Full of Stars: Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and Our Human Hunger to Know the Universe (Tracy K. Smith Reads Tracy K. Smith) (10)

My God, It’s Full of Stars: Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and Our Human Hunger to Know the Universe (Tracy K. Smith Reads Tracy K. Smith) (11)

In a crowning feat of ingenuity — itself a miniature masterpiece of engineering and composition — he built a tiny model of the Hubble out of cardboard, paper, and aluminum foil, dismantled it frame by frame, filmed the destruction, then reversed the footage to create the building effect. (I am reminded here of Bertrand Russell’s astute observation, made shortly after Edwin Hubble took his historic glass plate of Andromeda, that “construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it” — a truth as true of the universe itself, with its elemental triumph of something over nothing, as it is of the human endeavor to know it by building optical prosthesis of our curiosity.)

My God, It’s Full of Stars: Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and Our Human Hunger to Know the Universe (Tracy K. Smith Reads Tracy K. Smith) (12)

Something about Daniel’s process — the exquisite craftsmanship, the passionate patience, the tiny scale on which he made such beauty and grandeur of feeling — calls to mind Emily Dickinson and her miniature cherrywood writing desk, on the seventeen square inches of which she conjured up such cosmoses of truth, among them the poem illustrating Chapter One of this series.


What was the contribution to astronomy by Henrietta Swan Leavitt or Edwin Hubble? ›

Henrietta Swan Leavitt's contribution to the field of astronomy is that she gave us the tools to map out the stars in the universe. She discovered the correlation between Period and Luminosity. This helped turn the sky into a three-dimensional map allowing astronomers to solve the unknown in the equation: Distance.

What did Henrietta Leavitt notice in 1912 while studying a star cloud called the small Magellanic cloud? ›

Henrietta Swan Leavitt measured the positions and brightnesses of stars in the Magellanic Clouds as recorded in the photographic plates. Leavitt stacked two photographic plates of the Small Magellanic Cloud taken on different nights on top of each other, and noticed that a number of stars changed brightness.

Who is Henrietta Leavitt summary? ›

Henrietta Swan Leavitt was a Harvard "computer" — one of several women in the early 1900s who studied photographic plates for fundamental properties of stars. Leavitt is best known for discovering about 2,400 variable stars between 1907 and 1921 (when she died).

What was the significance of Henrietta Swan Leavitt's work quizlet? ›

Henrietta Swan Leavitt discovered the period-luminosity relationship. This relationship is critical because it tells us the longer the pulsation period, the more luminous the star.

What is the Leavitt law? ›

The Leavitt Law (LL) relates the luminosity of a Cepheid to its pulsation period, revealing that Cepheids with longer periods are intrinsically brighter than their shorter period counterparts.

What was Henrietta Leavitt's discovery and why was it so important in the society in which she lived? ›

While cataloging photos of stars, Henrietta Leavitt discovered that the length of time between the brightest and dimmest points of variable stars is related to their overall brightness. This allowed astronomers to measure the size of galaxies and demonstrate that the universe is expanding.

What is the most important property of a star? ›

The most important property of a star is its mass.

What did Henrietta Swan Leavitt believe? ›

Leavitt's outstanding achievement was her discovery in 1912 that in a certain class of variable stars, the Cepheid variables, the period of the cycle of fluctuation in brightness is highly regular and is determined by the actual luminosity of the star.

What did Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Edwin Hubble's work prove? ›

Leavitt's discovery ignited a scientific powder trail whose blaze brought fame and glory to many of her peers: without it, Edwin Hubble might never have been able to show that the spiral nebula Andromeda was not located at the edge of our galaxy, as had been previously thought, but almost a million light years away.

What challenges did Henrietta Swan Leavitt face? ›

She was unable to engage regularly with this work however, in large part because of continuous health issues, which she suffered from for the majority of her life. At age 17, Leavitt began experiencing hearing loss, which continued to decline throughout her life.

How did Henrietta Leavitt contribute to our understanding of the universe quizlet? ›

What did Henrietta Leavitt contribute to astronomy? Was the first person to recognize the relationship between the period and luminosity of Cepheid Variable stars.

Why do we call dark matter dark? ›

First, it is dark, meaning that it is not in the form of stars and planets that we see. Observations show that there is far too little visible matter in the universe to make up the 27% required by the observations.

What was Henrietta Swan Leavitt's job and what project was she working on? ›

Henrietta Swan Leavitt (/ˈlɛvɪt/; July 4, 1868 – December 12, 1921) was an American astronomer. A graduate of Radcliffe College, she worked at the Harvard College Observatory as a human computer, tasked with measuring photographic plates to catalog the positions and brightness of stars.

What did Henrietta Leavitt and Edwin Hubble discover? ›

The accomplishments of Edwin Hubble, the American astronomer who established that the universe is expanding, also were made possible by Leavitt's groundbreaking research. Hubble often said that Leavitt deserved the Nobel Prize for her work.

Who contributed the most to astronomy? ›

Galileo Galilei

The astronomer (also mathematician, physicist and philosopher) turned the new observational tool toward the heavens, where he discovered the four primary moons of Jupiter (now known as the Galilean moons), as well as the rings of Saturn.

Who made the most contributions to astronomy? ›

Top four most famous astronomers
  • Galileo. Galileo Galilei (say that three times as fast as you can) was an Italian astronomer famous for discovering craters on the Moon, the stars of the Milky Way and is also credited with the creation of the first pendulum clock. ...
  • Isaac Newton. ...
  • Albert Einstein. ...
  • Charles Messier.
Mar 28, 2021

Who contributed to astronomy? ›

Famous Astronomers and Astrophysicists
Classical Period
Galileo Galilei1564-1642 Italian
Johannes Kepler1571-1630 German
John Babtist Riccioli1598-1671 Italian
Giovanni Cassini1625-1712 Italian-born French
104 more rows
Jan 22, 2020

Who discovered the universe? ›

Edwin Hubble: The man who discovered the Cosmos.

Why is Hubble's law important? ›

The Hubble constant is one of the most important numbers in cosmology because it tells us how fast the universe is expanding, which can be used to determine the age of the universe and its history.

Who is the greatest astronomers of all time? ›

Here are just a few of the most famous astronomers throughout history that shaped the world of stars and planets.
  • Claudius Ptolemy (100 – 170 AD) ...
  • Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 - 1543) ...
  • Galileo Galilei (1564 - 1642) ...
  • CJohannes Kepler (1571 – 1630) ...
  • Frederick William Herschel (1738 - 1822) ...
  • Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868 - 1921)

How old is the universe thought to be? ›

According to their estimates the universe is 13.7 billion years old with an uncertainty of 200 million years.

Who was the first person to discover astronomy? ›

In 1609, using this early version of the telescope, Galileo became the first person to record observations of the sky made with the help of a telescope. He soon made his first astronomical discovery.

What is a person who studies the stars called? ›

Astronomers study the origin and structure of the universe, including its planets, stars, galaxies and black holes.

What is the difference between astronomy and astrology? ›

Astronomers base their studies on research and observation. Astrology, on the other hand, is the belief that the positioning of the stars and planets affect the way events occur on earth.

Who discovered Jupiter? ›

While Jupiter has been known since ancient times, the first detailed observations of this planet were made by Galileo Galilei in 1610 with a small telescope.

How did astronomy impact the world? ›

Astronomy has and continues to revolutionize our thinking on a worldwide scale. In the past, astronomy has been used to measure time, mark the seasons, and navigate the vast oceans. As one of the oldest sciences astronomy is part of every culture's history and roots.

Why is astronomy important? ›

By studying the cosmos beyond our own planet, we can understand where we came from, where we are going, and how physics works under conditions which are impossible to recreate on Earth. In astronomy, the Universe is our laboratory!

Why was astronomy invented? ›

Monitoring the motions of stars and planets in the sky was the best tool to track time, which was fundamental for agriculture, religious rituals and navigation. The first documented records of systematic astronomical observations date back to the Assyro-Babylonians around 1000 BCE.

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