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Chambered Nautilus

A metaphor for science.

The living nautilus actually lives only in the outermost, largest chamber of its shell. As it grows, it continually builds larger and larger chambers, leaving the smaller ones behind.   

In his poem “The Chambered Nautilus,” Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. imagines the growth and death of a nautilus found on the seashore as a call to spiritual growth. “As the spiral grew,” he says, “he left the past year’s dwelling for the new …Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul, / As the swift seasons roll! Leave thy low-vaulted past! / Let each new temple, nobler than the last, / Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast”   

This got us thinking. Science, too, builds then rebuilds as new evidence is accumulated. Theories are constructed, then subsumed, or even abandoned. Our animation shows the progression of our understanding of the skies, from Ptolemy to Einstein, shutting us from heaven with a dome ever more vast.   

We hope you like it.     

 


“The Chambered Nautilus”
By Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign, 
Sails the unshadowed main,— 
The venturous bark that flings 
On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings In gulfs enchanted, where the Siren sings, 
And coral reefs lie bare, 
Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.    

Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;    
Wrecked is the ship of pearl! And every chambered cell, 
Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell, 
As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell, 
Before thee lies revealed,— 
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!     

Year after year beheld the silent toil    

That spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,
Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.

Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,

Child of the wandering sea,
Cast from her lap, forlorn!
From thy dead lips a clearer note is born
Than ever Triton blew from wreathèd horn!
While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:—   

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,   

As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!    

 

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