Awestruck at the Quarry: Writers, scientists will gather under the stars at UCSC to ponder the cosmos

The "Universe in Verse" participants.

For the first time, UCSC will host “Universe in Verse,” an annual gathering of big-name writers and scientists to celebrate and honor the wonder of the cosmos at the reborn Quarry Amphitheater.

One spectacularly clear night, somewhere in the mountains of Chile, UC Santa Cruz astrophysicist Natalie Batalha climbed up a small “scary” ladder adjacent to an enormous telescope onto a rooftop, where she laid on her back and gazed at the sky.

The Milky Way arched straight overhead above her. She could spot the planets of the solar system and Alpha Centauri, our closest neighboring star. Because she was an experienced astronomer, she knew about the relative positions of the celestial bodies she was observing in that moment.

Janna Levin reading poetry at Universe in Verse at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn in 2018.
Janna Levin reading poetry at Universe in Verse at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn in 2018.
(Via Annie Minoff / sciencefriday.com)

“For the first time,” she told an audience in Brooklyn, New York in the spring of 2019, “the dome of the sky over me transformed from a flat surface into a three-dimensional landscape … and so I was no longer a mere 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 immensity of the cosmos. This year, on Saturday evening, “Universe” takes place in Santa Cruz, at UCSC’s Quarry Amphitheatre, its first foray to the West Coast.

“Universe” has a lofty agenda, to try and capture the awe and grandeur of the universe — something that those who work in the astronomy field experience regularly — on stage for a lay audience, using the best tools available, science and poetry.

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

The sky, I thought, is not so grand

I (almost) could touch it with my hand

And reaching up my hand to try,

I screamed to feel it touch the sky.

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

All will be speaking and sharing an inspiring poem live and in-person, under the stars in a setting conducive to contemplating the cosmos at the Quarry.

UC Santa Cruz astronomy professor Natalie Batalha.
(Via UC Santa Cruz)

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

As a UCSC faculty member, Batalha is the de-facto host of this year’s event, but its creator is writer Maria Popova, most known for her elegant and stimulating blogThe Marginalian.

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

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

The view from above the Quarry shows its magical potential.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“In one of her visits back to California,” said Batalha, “I took her hiking in the redwoods right above campus. And I arranged, sneakily, so that on the way back to the office I just took her by the Quarry. And I didn’t have 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 come to the Quarry in April of 2020. Ticket sales had been opened for a few days when the pandemic fully hit.

“Universe” is an overt effort to inspire by means of two realms often characterized as arcane and inaccessible, science and poetry. In a way, science and poetry are countervailing forces, one empirical above all else and the other at the very root of where language meets art. But both pursue the same thing: revelation and insight. And both carry an unfair burden, often portrayed as dry and lifeless.

Popova has made a project out of marrying poetry and science through the “Universe” events and related videos, animated to enhance the power of the words and the scientific concepts.

She established the event in 2017 in her hometown of Brooklyn, and after the pandemic interruption in which it converted to an online event, it now returns to in-person status in Santa Cruz. Many of the individual performances, as well as animations of the performances, are available on Popova’s blog.

“Every one I’ve seen has moved me to tears,” said Batalha. “I mean, they just give you goosebumps. I feel they are so underappreciated.”

She referred to an interview that Popova and cosmologist Janna Levin did on the “Universe” event with Ira Flatow of NPR’s “Science Friday.”

“(In that interview), when Maria first put forward this idea,” said Batalha, “Janna’s first reaction was ‘Nobody will come. Because it’s science and poetry.’ These are like such niche things, right? For a lot of the public, the knee-jerk reaction is going to be 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, ‘Nobody will come, but let’s do it anyway.’ That’s exactly right. You have to demonstrate the power and rapture of these two subjects brought together by expressing this fundamental emotion of wonder, which is, after all, the wellspring of both science and art.”

“Universe in Verse” will take place at the Quarry Amphitheater on the campus of UC Santa Cruz on Saturday, April 16. Tickets range from $15 to $100, and proceeds will benefit The Nature Conservatory and a new scholarship fund at UCSC honoring astronomer Frank Drake. Showtime is 7 p.m.