To besuspended between the scale of snails and stars, confined by our creaturely limitations but not doomed by them. We have, after all, transcended them to compose the Benedictus and eradicate smallpox and .
Our most pernicious creaturely challenge is not one of the imaginations, which soars so readily when given half a chance, but one of perspective, so easily contracted by the fleeting urgencies of the present. On the scale of our individual lives and the collective scale of the human future, there are few more gladsome correctives for our limitations than learning to take— which is why, for the past few years, I have poured my heart and every resource into the endeavor to build New York City’s first-ever public observatory as a democratic dome of perspective and possibility for generations to come, and why I inscribed into its an aspiration irradiated by : to make this cosmic calibration of perspective available to “all souls, all living bodies though they are ever so different… all nations, colors… all identities that have existed or may exist on this globe.”
But it was Whitman’s contemporary Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) — America’s first professional female astronomer and a key figure in(from which this story is adapted) — who furnished the foundational inspiration for the endeavor: her quiet intellect, her indomitable spirit, her discomposing experience while visiting the most venerable observatories of the Old World — an experience that no human being should have along the vector of their talent and their dreams — and the way she emerged from that experience with the absolute determination to eradicate it from the world’s repertoire of exclusion. Already an international scientific celebrity after the she had
made while still in her twenties, Mitchell had spent working as the first woman employed by the American federal government for a “specialized non-domestic skill” as a “computer of Venus” — a one-person GPS performing complex celestial calculations to help sailors navigate the globe — all the while saving up for a trip to visit thewho were her living heroes. In the summer of 1857, after the most brutal winter of her life, she rounded up her savings for a transatlantic ticket, made the arduous journey from her native Nantucket Island to
Manhattan, and boarded a steamer to Liverpool. Having narrowlya collision with another ship during the ten-day crossing, it arrived in England on her thirty-ninth birthday. With a particular letter of introduction from Sir John Herschel — the era’s most esteemed astronomer, who had played a vital role in a quarter-century earlier and had applauded Mitchell’s comet discovery — she hastened to meet her greatest scientific hero:
the polymathic Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville, for whomtwo decades earlier and whose amiable genius left Mitchell feeling that “no one can make the acquaintance of this remarkable woman without increased admiration for her.” From England, with the help of Nathaniel Hawthorne — who had taken the post as American consul after his — Mitchell set out to visit some of Europe’s intellectual luminaries, including her , and to look through humanity’s finest telescopes.
In Italy, she headed for the Observatory of Rome, the mecca of the latest research on spectroscopy, but was jarred to learn that the observatory was closed to women. Somerville, by then revered as Europe’s most learned woman, had been denied entrance. Even Herschel had failed to arrange entry for his scientifically inclined daughter.