Wish you were here?

A section of the Omega Nebula, three light years wide. Taken by the Hubble Space Telescope (NASA).

Back in December, my dad threw down the gauntlet.

He was talking about the life cycle of stars, and the fact that all the building blocks of our world – carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, iron, etc. – were created in the hearts of supernovae. [CORRECTION: Strictly speaking, this is not true. The elements I named are actually the product of stellar fusion rather than supernovae per se. Supernovae are responsible for even heavier elements, like uranium. Ahem. Carry on.] The stars themselves forged the elements that make us up today.

Or, as Carl Sagan put it:

…we who embody the local eyes and ears and thoughts and feelings of the cosmos, we’ve begun, at last, to wonder about our origins. Star stuff, contemplating the stars. Organized collections of 10 billion billion billion atoms, contemplating the evolution of matter, tracing that long path by which it arrived at consciousness here on the planet Earth, and perhaps, throughout the cosmos.

But my dad said that although this view of the world is very beautiful, you don’t see many poems written about it. Let’s face it, most poets just aren’t that into astrophysics.

Or, as Richard Feynman put it:

Our poets do not write about it; our artists do not try to portray this remarkable thing. I don’t know why. Is no one inspired by our present picture of the universe? This value of science remains unsung by singers: you are reduced to hearing not a song or poem, but an evening lecture about it. This is not yet a scientific age.

You can see where this is going. Dad challenged me to write a poem celebrating the beauty of our stellar origins. For the right price, I accepted. I wrote the sonnet below on the last day of the year.


From stars we come, and to the stars return.
My hands, my wife, my Chevrolet, Milan,
The weathered heath, the dew-encrusted fern,
Aurora borealis and Cezanne:
Ambassadors of one ancestral realm
Where all, their duty done, alike retire –
One mother’s children drive one vessel’s helm,
And keep, in hearts and hulls, a common fire.
When downstairs in the stillness of the dark
My desperate chains of thought hold sleep away
And green electric digits glowing stark
Denote the drowning of another day,
I listen to the rush of distant cars
And tell myself I hear the song of stars.

In spite of its flaws, I like it pretty well, and was thinking I might send it off a few places, try to get it published.

Unfortunately, the first line was bugging me. I wasn’t sure I’d invented it; I thought I’d heard it elsewhere before. A little Googling revealed I was right.

From the stars we came. To the stars we return. From now, till the end of time. We therefore commit these bodies to the deep.

-Captain John Sheridan, Babylon 5

I’m not sure whether this would be considered plagiarism in the strictest sense, but I know the line isn’t my own work, so I don’t feel right keeping it. Unfortunately, I can’t think of any replacement that sounds half as good and still fits the rest of the poem.

So, lacking any other home for it, I’ll put it here.

I’m not sure I really fulfilled what Feynman had in mind with his quote above. I think he was talking more about celebrating the spirit of scientific inquiry, whereas I focused more on the vision that spirit revealed. But then, Feynman was kind of a dick, so I don’t especially care. My dad liked it, which means a whole lot more to me. And I’ll venture to say it might have made Dr. Sagan smile, too.

By the way, as a prize for this endeavor, my dad gave me a totally kickass Monty Python’s Holy Grail mug, shaped like, well, a grail. Good things come to those who write. Just sayin’.

What inspires you?


12 responses to “Starstuff

  1. I read this post and I started thinking about songs… I always make it my goal to sample all kinds of music.. I came across very cool types of music which I am pretty sure no one has heard of.. For example, something called ‘geek rap’ which celebrates something called ‘geek pride’.. Anyway getting back to the subject here is a cool song on astrophysics, the song itself is a little too different for my taste… But you have got to check out the lyrics.. Here is the link
    What did you think.. It’s totally astrophysics!

  2. By no one I mean not a lot of people .. been in a lot of trouble for generalizing before lol

  3. I love your poem – it is beautiful and thought-provoking.

  4. I prefer a couple old quotes about the universe…

    “The universe is a spheroid region, 705 metres in diameter”

    or this classic…
    “If there’s nothing wrong with me… maybe there’s something wrong with the universe!”

  5. Farris those quotes are some of my faves. After i’m done with my 6 hours of street fighter practice, which i promptly start after getting out of work, i like to think about how the universe wouldnt be able to exist if it wasnt for me and my smack talk.

    On a related note there is this gentleman at work who scares the stockings right off of me. Without thinking clearly I challenged him and some nobody to a bout in Super Street Fighter 4, and now lunch is on the line. Alright gotta go, need to practice my wake up dragon punch.

    Zing Zuiken,


  6. Nice poem! Make me think, so was a nice worthwhile way to spend some time.
    As for what inspires me, it can be really anything. (Or nothing at all, like the void. .
    Biology is a nice place to draw inspiration from. Dreams and nature can also become the very basis of an idea. So can my current interpretation of the world, spinning and colliding with my other ideas to create something totally new.
    Thanks for posting.

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