The singer David Bowie, one of the most creative performers in rock 'n' roll history, died of cancer at age 69 on Sunday — two days after releasing a new album.
I remember going to a few of his concerts when I was a graduate student in London in the '80s. One performance, at the satellite city of Milton Keynes, was particularly striking. There he was, incredibly elegant in a white linen suit, his androgynous face an enigma. He didn't look quite human, then and always. If you don't believe me, watch the video of Ashes to Ashes. Who better to play the part of the alien in the 1976 movie The Man Who Fell to Earth?
Bowie is famous for many hits, but it is to space that we go with him. From "Starman" (1972) to "Life on Mars?" (1971) to "Space Oddity" (1969), Bowie was in love with the space race, humans going out there, aliens coming here, a voice against our ineptitude to deal with misfits, from this world or others. Starman "would like to come and meet us but he thinks he'd blow our minds." How right he was.
"Space Oddity" captures the awe and isolation of being in space, our smallness and fragility as we leave our home planet to float in a "tin can, far above the world." Astronaut Chris Hadfield created a beautiful rendition on board the International Space Station, lyrics adapted to his mission, guitar floating as the spaceship free falls in its orbit around Earth. This time, thankfully, Major Tom gets home.
Bowie leaves us with a "parting gift," his new album Blackstar. According to BBC Radio presenter Bob Harris, the song Lazarus could be considered his epitaph.
Bowie stays with us, resurrected every time we admire his art. "Oh I'll be free; Just like that bluebird; Oh I'll be free; Ain't that just like me."
Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist — and professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the co-founder of 13.7, a prolific author of papers and essays, and active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser.