At The Tech Conference

I first came upon Walt Whitman’s poem “Upon Hearing the Learn’d Astronomer” (have a listen) while pretty young, and was confused by it. I’d talked my parents into a cheap telescope for my 8th birthday… knew all the star names and where to find them (this was back when dark skies still existed). But by my university years I got it and was onboard with his sentiments. Here’s my parallel tribute around information technology. (Based on a true story.)


[ Image Source (I superimposed the dayglow text) :]  (link)

Notes: A tanka is a Japanese short form akin to a haiku, but with a five line structure built of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. There’s other rules too, which I generally ignore. You can hear a decent narration of Whitman’s brief poem here.

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  1. Lovely, Rob. Your story and the poems reminded me of something I read in Robin Kemmerer’s (2013) book, “Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants.”

    “Listening in wild places, we are audience to conversations in a language not our own. I think now that it was a longing to comprehend this language I hear in the woods that led me to science, to learn over the years to speak fluent botany. A tongue that should not, by the way, be mistaken for the language of plants. I did learn another language in science, though, one of careful observation, an intimate vocabulary that names each little part. To name and describe you must first see, and science polishes the gift of seeing. I honor the strength of the language that has become a second tongue to me. But beneath the richness of its vocabulary and its descriptive power, something is missing, the same something that swells around you and in you when you listen to the world. Science can be a language of distance with reduces a being to its working parts; it is a language of objects. The language scientists speak, however precise, is based on a profound error, an omission, a grave loss in translation from the native languages of these shores” (pp. 48-49).

    Kimmerer goes on to describe plants as wondrous living beings who are so much more than science alone can comprehend, like the stars in the Whitman poem that suddenly made sense to you in your university years.


    1. Thank you kindly, Carol. That sounds like the sort of book I would pounce upon if I came across it. A very worthy quote too. It is true, the use of the word ‘omission’ in the last sentence of it. That is the aspect that science-only-blind persons cannot comprehend. And it is even more pronounced in the information tech industry; I have known and worked with them.

      I had an astronomy PhD candidate acquaintance years ago. We had known each other awhile and talked of many things; then this Whitman poem came up. She said she hated it with a passion and could not grasp what I loved about it. Whitman was so intrepid! His word choice ‘mystical’ in that phrase “in the mystical moist night air” was so masterful. You know, he was writing on the heels of Darwin’s earth shattering publications and a full-scale scientific reductionist revolution across many fields of study. Mystical had a very low currency in the intellectual market at that time. But Whitman turned it around and thrust it under their noses, clearly implying he could see something which they could not. πŸ™‚


    1. That is true. I think it is because people like Whitman were visionaries. They could see when most could not what was delusional about the burgeoning trend towards scientism and reductionist thought which colored the last half of the19th century.


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