Darkness at Night by Edward Harrison

A few months ago I used the word “dark” in a poem, and brought it into my workshop. I knew it was a risk, there are a number of words that are more or less off limits to ‘serious’ poets. In fact, there are so many words that are off limits to poets that it’s hard to categorize them, or say generally what makes them off limits. For the most part it’s overuse – which gives an easiness to the word that belies the harder work a ‘serious’ poet is supposed to be doing with language. When used without a hipster-esque self-conscious irony, these words are unacceptable – we’re not allowed to take them seriously. Words like “good” and “bad” and “pretty” and “ugly” – easy and not extremely specific – are these kinds of words. Dark and light, like good and bad, have this doubleness working against them as well: they aren’t specific enough to be interesting, and are at the same time poetic cliches. The invested emotional resonance is called up so often that it becomes overly sentimental, a kind of fullness that results in the depletion of meaning. Of course, many many wonderful poets use the word “dark” in any of its variants, in some great poems. So these words can be “saved” to some degree by careful use. I’ve been thinking a lot about that, that part of the work I’m interested in doing with language is saving, or proving possible, the use of depleted, exhausted words.

I’ve also been long interested in astrophysics, and the words dark and light clearly have significant importance in discussing the observable universe. It was all of this that came together to interest me in the 1987 work Darkness at Night that poses and then treats historically Olber’s paradox: why, in an infinite universe filled with stars, are the night skies dark? If the universe is infinite, shouldn’t any line of sight from Earth into the universe eventually be intercepted by a star, making the night sky fully bright?

The book provides, in chronological order, a number of proposed solutions to this riddle, and the corresponding understandings of the universe that inform them. So more than merely answering the question for a contemporary reader with a contemporary understanding of the universe, it lays out in fascinating ways a number of historical ways of viewing the universe and our place within it. Its written with a minimum of technical language and mathematical formulas, so that someone like me with little to no formal scientific training can understand the principles of the models of the universe, and the proposed solutions to cosmic darkness. Of course, as he moves into more contemporary models, the concepts get significantly more complicated and harder to understand.

And this is in part my own failing, but at the end of the book I was still not quite sure what the solution to the riddle is! Is it the expansion of the universe, redshifting light out of visible spectrums? Is it that stars die before they reach the edge of the visible universe, and so there is never sufficient density of stars to cover the sky? Does it have to do with entropy, or an insufficiency of energy in the universe? I wish there were a clear, concise explanation of his understanding of the paradox at the end, something I could confidently walk away with… As it is, I did a little more reading, and listening, on my own, and walked away with this: the assumption that the universe is infinite in time and space is generally regarded to be false, and so striking that assumption resolves the paradox.

Anyway, I’m super glad I read this book, even if I didn’t walk away with a crystal clear, sophisticated, understanding of the resolution according to our current scientific understanding of the universe. And that’s because it gave me a great idea for a syllabus I’d love to put together (and potentially co-teach with a scientist) on the poetry and science. Harrison, author of this book, is clearly widely read in literature and quotes frequently and with taste from a number of poets throughout. But most interestingly, he gives Edgar Allen Poe credit for first tentatively (and unscientifically) posing a solution to the paradox. The recent eco-poetics movement is only one iteration of a lasting interest in literature with the scientific and natural world; and many scientists are avid readers of all kinds of literature. In high school I took a class called Physics for Poets, and just last month came across a text book of that same title in a used bookstore. There is clearly fertile ground for interdisciplinary collaboration here, I think.

Did I leave the book with a new understanding of darkness? Almost definitely. But more valuably, I’ve gotten a lot of other great ideas from reading it. This is a broadly interesting scientific work, that is not at all lazy in presentation, and doesn’t skimp on rigor, but is still accessible for a general audience. Just fabulous.

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