Notes to Poem:
The Universe Is Made of Stories

Peter Y. Chou

Preface: On December 4, 2010, my friend Steve Gould sent me three photos of a sidewalk plaque near the New York Public Library. It was Muriel Rukeyser's "The universe is made of stories, not of atoms." Rukeyser's "The Speed of Darkness" is not available online. After finding Rukeyser's 1968 book in the Stanford stacks (PS3535.U4S62), I typed the complete poem. Rukeyser's insightful plaque quote is found in stanza IX. The sculptor is Gregg LeFevre (Plaque, 1998). Other bronze plaques on Library Walk cites Descartes, Francis Bacon, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Tom Stoppard, and Ernest Hemingway. Library Walk on East 41st Street between Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue was officially dedicated on May 27, 2004 (Street Sign). The news on December 1, 2010 that our universe has 300 sextillion stars, triple the previous estimate, inspired my poem "Sextillion Stars". Then I had to write about Rukeyser's insightful universe quote. As a biochemist turned poet, I agree wholeheartedly that the universe is made of stories, but the chemist in me realized that each atom has a story to tell. Hence this poem is a journey from microscopic atoms to macroscopic stars, with the storyteller in between. (Peter Y. Chou)

Commentary on Poem "The Universe Is Made of Stories":

"The universe is made of stories
not of atoms" says Muriel Rukeyser
but each atom has a story to tell—

When Steve Gould told me about this quote he had seen on a sidewalk plaque near the New York Public Library, he asked if I had seen it. I recall the Lion sculptures at the entrance of the Library, but was not aware of the plaques when visiting there. Chemists and physicists can give the physical description of our universe and its atomic composition— Hydrogen 70.5%, Helium 27.5%, Oxygen 5.9%, Carbon 3.0%, Neon 1.5%, Iron 1.2%, Nitrogen 1.1%. However, only a writer would come up with the idea that "the universe is made of stories". So when Steve sent me the photos of the sidewalk plaque on December 4, 2010, I was happy to learn that the quote is from Muriel Rukeyser's poem "The Speed of Darkness". I've quoted a Rukeyser poem "Nine Poems for the Unborn Child" with its "dark lake" reminiscent of 9/11. Sharon Olds mentioned in her Poetry Workshops at Squaw Valley (1989) that she regards Muriel Rukeyser as a mentor. (Photo Source: Stephen Gould: New York Public Library)

Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen
combined to form amino acids,
building blocks of life whose stories
are still ongoing ever evolving

The four elements Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Nitrogen are the most important for life. Water, H2O, is made of two atoms of Hydrogen and one atom of Oxygen. Hydrogen with atomic number 1, is the lightest and most abundant element, constituting 75% of the Universe's chemical elemental mass. Oxygen constitutes 20.8% of the air we breathe. It is carried by hemoglobin to energize the cells in our body. Nitrogen is found in 78% by volume of Earth's atmosophere and is essential for plant growth (nitrogen fixing bacteria). Carbon is the main component of coal, graphite, and diamond. It is present in all known lifeforms, and is the second most abundant element by mass (18.5%) after oxygen. Organic molecules are defined by its carbon atoms. Primordial Soup is the combination of methane (CH4), ammonia (NH3), water (H2O), and hydrogen (H2) with a spark of electricity (lightning) to form 20 amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, which evolved into all the species of life. Protein homology sequences that point to a common ancestor supplement fossil records in mapping our evolutionary tree. Amino Acid Conformational Parameters for Protein Structure Predictions. (Image: Amino Acid, R = sidechain, Wikipedia)

from the DNA double helix
spiralling back to the first Adam

DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) consists of two long polymers of nucleotides, with backbones of sugar and phosphate molecules. These two strands are wound into a double helix. The sequence of four nucleotide bases forms the genetic code that determines the amino acids in proteins. Thus our DNA contains the genes of our ancestral parents like a spiral staircase going back to Adam or the "first Atom" (Hydrogen which began the universe in a Big Bang). Chapter 85 in Papyrus of Ani of Egyptian Book of the Dead tells about transformation into the soul of Atum, an early Egyptian deity who was responsible for creation of the universe. Atum emerged as a bubble of air in the vast, limitless ocean of darkness— the undifferentiated primordial waters (Nu) that existed before creation. Later, Atum was linked with the setting sun, who gave birth to Shu (Wind) and Tefnut (Moisture). (Egyptian Book of Life; Egyptian Cosmology). It's interesting that Adam, Atom, and Atum sound alike, and are associated with the beginning of man on earth (Adam) and the creation of the universe (Atom and Atum). (Image: DNA double helix, UC Berkeley)

Can you hear the rhyme and rhythm
of the Moon's double sonnet poem
waxing and waning with the tides?

The moon completes 4 phases once it has wandered through the 28 lunar mansions. (Annemarie Schimmel, The Mystery of Numbers, Oxford Univesity Press, 1993, p. 239). Moon Phases proceed from New Moon, Waxing Crescent, First Quarter (Half Moon D-shape), Waxing Gibbous, Full Moon, Waning Gibbous, Third Quarter (Half Moon C-shape), Waning Crescent, New Moon. Since the Lunar Cycle is composed of 14 days of waxing (to fullness) and 14 days of waning (to emptiness), we may say its rhythm is like a double sonnet poem of 14 lines each. Composers who waxed wistfully to the Moon include Beethoven, Moonlight Sonata #14, Opus 27, #2 (1801, Video); Antonin Dvorak, Rusalka: Song to the Moon (1900, Video); Claude Debussy, Claire de Lune (1903, Video); Johnny Mercer & Henry Mancini, Moon River (1961, Video). Paying homage to the Moon, I wrote "Lunar Eclipse" (Notes) and "Meditation on the Moon" (Notes). (Image Source: Moon Phases, Alexander and Things)

The Earth has an anthology with
scintillating short stories each told
by those who lived here

Earth is the third planet from the Sun, and appears to be the only planet in our solar system to harbor life. Earth was formed 4.54 billion years ago, and life appeared on its surface within a billion years. The physical properties of the Earth, as well as its geological history and orbit, have allowed life to persist during this period. The planet is expected to continue supporting life for at least another 500 million years. Earth orbits the Sun yearly in 365.25 days at 66,618 miles/hour. Earth has approximately 6,803,000,000 human inhabitants as of December 12, 2009. Based on 6.2 billion peopke on Earth in 2002, Population Reference Bureau estimated that 106.5 billion people have lived on Earth since the dawn of time. Those who have had a near death experience (NDE) report a Life Review where one has a panoramic review of everything they have ever done. That is, they relive every act they have ever done to other people, even from the perspective of the other people involved. Perhaps everyone's life story is stored in the Akashic Records which are retrievable by advanced yogis and sages. If each life is comparable to a short story enacted on this world stage, then our Earth has a rich anthology of them. (Photo Source: "Blue Marble: Earth from Space", NASA: Apollo 17, Dec. 7, 1972)

Sun's epic is bolder than The Odyssey travelling
around the Milky Way spanning 225 million years

The Odyssey of Homer (circa 8th century BC) is an epic poem, a sequel to the Iliad. It centers on the Greek hero Odysseus and his 10-years sea journey home to Ithaca following the fall of Troy. On his way, Odysseus was enslaved by Calypso as her lover for seven years before he escaped. Then he and his shipmates were captured by the one-eyed Cyclops before blinding him to escape. Then the goddess Circe turned half of his men into swine. His ship skirted the Sirens, passed between the six-headed monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis. When his men killed a sacred cattle of the sun god Helios, he was shipwrecked and all his crew drowned. Despite these calamities, Odysseus sailed home finally to Ithaca and reunited with his wife Penelope after 20 years of absence. In the English language as well as many others, the word "odyssey" has come to refer to an epic voyage. The Milky Way is the spiral galaxy where our solar system lives. It is 100,000 light years in diameter and 1000 light years thick at the center of the galactic disk. There are 200-400 billion stars in the Milky Way. Our Sun is 26,400 light years from the galactical center. On a dark night, we can see a faint hazy whitish band of starlight spanning the sky. That band is the Milky Way galaxy. The Milky Way divides the night sky into two roughly equal hemispheres indicating that the Solar System lies close to the galactic plane. Based on a distance of 30,000 light years and a speed of 492,140 miles/hour, the Sun's orbit around the center of the Milky Way once every 225 million years. The period of time is called a cosmic year. The Sun has orbited the galaxy, more than 20 times during its 5 billion year lifetime. (Image Source: Homer's The Odyssey,; Milky Way Galaxy, NASA)

your hair will stand on end when
Sun recounts the marauding black hole
swallowing up neighboring galaxies

Stellar black holes typically have less than 100 solar masses and are produced when ancient, giant stars explode. At the other end of the scale are supermassive black holes with masses equal to millions or even billions of Suns, and which lie nestled at the hearts of many galaxies. Hundreds of undetected black holes, each with a mass thousands of times greater than the Sun, might be stealthily roving our galaxy, ready to devour anything that crosses their paths. These 'rogue' black holes would be very difficult to spot, said Kelly Holley-Bockelmann, an astronomer at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, USA. "Unless it's swallowing a lot of gas, about the only way to detect the approach of such a black hole would be to observe the way in which its super-strength gravitational field bends the light that passes nearby," she added. (Image Source: "Rogue Black Holes", Cosmos, January 10, 2008))

Ask a Tibetan monk whose mind
has propelled him back to the womb
and beyond to his previous life

Recalling past lives may be done under hypnosis. However Tibetan monks who meditate for prolong periods have been able to experience their time in the womb and recall experiences of past lives. We find in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, III.18 "By direct perception of one's mental impressions, knowledge of past births is obtained." The Tibetan Book of the Dead gives details of the Bardo state— the existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan tradition, after death and before one's next birth, when one's consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena. Ian Stevenson (1918-2007), University of Virginia, has investigated 3,000 childhood cases that suggested to him the possibility of past lives. His book Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (1966, 1974) is a classic in the field. More recently, in Same Soul, Many Bodies (2004), Dr. Brian Weiss explored the past lives of his patients as a means of therapy. (Image Source: "Tibetan Book of the Dead",

Hua-Yen Buddhist who has seen
tiers and tiers of universes in their
recurring cycles of birth and death

I first learned from my first spiritual mentor Anthony Damiani (circa 1969) that advanced Buddhist masters can perceive not only their past lives, but even "tiers and tiers of universes" and their cosmic cycles. Hua-Yen Buddhism's image of universal interconnection in the Net of Indra: "Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it, stretches out indefinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel at the net's every node, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars of the first magnitude, a remarkable sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but also each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that the process of reflection is infinite."Avatamsaka Sutra (translated by Francis H. Cook, Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra, 1977). (Image: The Net of Indra by Gail Atkins)

cosmic programmer who wrote
this universe as a computer simulation
that's played out as in The Matrix films

Computer simulation is a computer program or network of computers, that attempts to simulate an abstract model of a particular system. Blue Brain Project (2005) attempts to create a synthetic brain by reverse-engineering the mammalian brain down to the molecular level. Professor Nick Bostrom (Oxford) lectured on "Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?" at Stanford (May 15, 2006). His argument (2003) that we're now living in a universe that's someone's computer simulation sounded quite persuasive to many of the Stanford computer engineers at the talk. In his article (2001), Ross Rhodes proposed that "the universe as we know it is not a physical, material world but a computer-generated simulation, a kind of virtual reality." The idea of simulated reality is the theme of The Matrix film (1999). The film depicts a future in which reality as perceived by most humans is actually created by sentient machines to pacify and subdue the human population. Recent films on this theme include Avatar (2009), Surrogates (2009), and Inception (2010). (Image Source: Brewster Rockit: Space Guy Comics, 10-19-2008, PAG E-News)

This universe has sextillion stories
but there is one song yet to be sung—
and that singer is you!

Children love fairy tales beginning with "Once upon a time..." that transport young minds to fantasy land of awe and wonder. The recent news "Sextillion Stars in Universe" (, 12-1-2010) is like an adventure story bringing us back to childhood. Astronomers from Yale and Harvard have found 300 sextillion stars in our universe, three times more than previous estimates. In "How Many Stars?" (By Kenneth Chang, New York Times, 12-1-2010), Dr. Pieter van Dokkum (Yale) and Dr. Charles Conroy (Harvard) found that elliptical galaxies had more stars than spiral galaxies, and since ellipticals account for a third of all galaxies, the new estimate is three times as many stars for the entire universe. "Starry, Starry, Starry Night" (Associated Press). If there are 300 sextillion stars in the universe, each star has a story to tell. Since we are made of star dust, there is a story within us too. Let's sing it so everyone will learn from it. (Image Source: "Once Upon a Time", Dead Raccoon)

                                                            — Peter Y. Chou
                                                                Mountain View, 12-16-2010
                                                                Beethoven's 240th birthday

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