Career amazed: Writers and scientists will gather under the stars at UCSC to ponder the cosmos


On a spectacularly clear night somewhere in the mountains of Chile, UC Santa Cruz astrophysicist Natalie Batalha climbed a “creepy” little ladder adjacent to a huge telescope on a rooftop, where she lay down on the back and looked at the sky.

The Milky Way arched just above her. She could spot the planets of the solar system and Alpha Centauri, our nearest neighboring star. Because she was an experienced astronomer, she knew the relative positions of the celestial bodies she was observing at that time.

Janna Levin reading poetry at Universe in Verse at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn in 2018.

(Courtesy of Annie Minoff/

“For the first time,” she told an audience in Brooklyn, New York in the spring of 2019, “the sky dome above me transformed from a flat surface into a three-dimensional landscape…and so I was no longer just a human stuck in a gravity well under a bell jar, I became the Earth itself traveling through space.

The occasion was the annual “Universe in Verse” event, a gathering of artists, writers and scientists celebrating the vastness of the cosmos. This year, on Saturday evening, “Univers” takes place in Santa Cruz, at UCSC’s Quarry Amphitheater, his first foray into the West Coast.

“Universe” has an ambitious agenda, to try and capture the awe and grandeur of the universe – something those who work in the field of astronomy regularly experience – on stage for lay audiences, using the best tools available, science and poetry.

After telling the Brooklyn audience about her experience in Chile, Batalha began reciting a poem by early 20th-century poet Edna St. Vincent Millay that says in part:

The sky, I thought, is not so big

I could (almost) touch it with my hand

And reaching out to try,

I screamed to feel it touch the sky.

That sense of wonder and majesty will be evoked again at the Quarry event on Saturday. The fifth “Universe in Verse” will feature a number of big names, including writers Rebecca Solnit and Roxane Gay, “On Being” podcast host Krista Tippett, famed astronomer Jill Tarter, curator/designer Debbie Millman , artist/teacher Wendy MacNaughton, musicians Zoe Keating and Joan As Police Woman, and many others, including Natalie Batalha.

Everyone will speak and share an inspiring poem live and in person, under the stars in a setting conducive to contemplating the cosmos at the Carrière.

Natalie Batalha, professor of astronomy at UC Santa Cruz.

Natalie Batalha, professor of astronomy at UC Santa Cruz.

(via UCSC)

Batalha is a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC, and a distinguished name in his field for his work in discovering potentially habitable Earth-like planets in other star systems, the so-called “D-loop zone”. ‘gold “. In 2017, she was named to the Time 100 list, Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the year, for her work as a mission scientist for NASA’s Kepler mission.

As a faculty member at UCSC, Batalha is the de facto host of this year’s event, but its creator is writer Maria Popova, best known for her stylish and thought-provoking blog.The misfit.

“I met Maria Popova in 2018,” Batalha said via Zoom from her office at UCSC. “In fact, Krista Tippett, one of our performers, hosted an in-person event she called ‘The Gathering,’ which actually happened in the Santa Cruz Mountains (at 1440 Multiversity in Scotts Valley ).”

Tippett brought Batalha and Popova together for an onstage interview at the 2018 event, and the two women immediately struck up a rapport and became good friends.

The view from above of the quarry shows its magical potential.

The view from above of the quarry shows its magical potential.

(Kevin Painchaud/Veille Santa Cruz)

“On one of her visits to California,” Batalha said, “I took her hiking in the redwoods just above campus. And I arranged, sneakily, that on the way back to the office, I just took him to the quarry. And I didn’t need to say a word. As soon as she saw the quarry, she was like, ‘Oh my God, we have to do ‘Universe in Verse’ here!’ »

In fact, “Universe in Verse” was originally scheduled to hit the quarry in April 2020. Ticket sales had been open for a few days when the pandemic hit in full.

“Universe” is a clear effort to inspire through two fields often characterized as obscure and inaccessible, science and poetry. In a way, science and poetry are opposite forces, one empirical above all and the other at the very root of the encounter between language and art. But both pursue the same thing: revelation and insight. And both carry an unjust burden, often portrayed as dry and lifeless.

Popova has set out to marry poetry and science through the “Universe” events and associated videos, animated to promote the power of scientific words and concepts.

She created the event in 2017 in her hometown of Brooklyn, and after the pandemic hiatus during which it converted to an online event, it is now returning to in-person status in Santa Cruz. Many individual performances, as well as animations of the performances, are available on Popova’s Blog.

“Everyone I saw moved me to tears,” Batalha said. “I mean, they just give you goosebumps. I feel like they are so underrated.

She referenced an interview Popova and cosmologist Janna Levin did at the “Universe” event with NPR’s Ira Flatow. “Science Friday”.

“(In this interview), when Maria first came up with this idea,” Batalha said, “Janna’s first reaction was, ‘No one will come. Because it’s science and poetry. These are like niche things, right? For much of the audience, the knee-jerk reaction is going to be a big yawn, two of the most boring things put together, science and poetry.

“Well, nothing could be further from the truth. And, as Janna also said, ‘No one will come, but let’s do it anyway.’ That’s exactly it. You have to demonstrate the power and the rapture of these two subjects brought together by expressing that fundamental emotion of wonder, which is, after all, the source of science and art.

“Universe in verse” will betake place at the Quarry Amphitheater on the UC Santa Cruz campus on Saturday, April 16. Tickets range from $15 to $100, and proceeds will go to the Nature Conservatory and a new scholarship fund at UCSC in honor of astronomer Frank Drake. Show time is at 7 p.m.

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