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30 JULY, 2012

John Updike on the Universe and Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing


“The mystery of being is a permanent mystery, at least given the present state of the human brain.”

“What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?,” wondered Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time. “Why does the universe go through all the bother of existing?”

This inquiry has long occupied scientists, philosophers, and deep thinkers alike, culminating in the most fundamental question of why there is something rather than nothing. That, in fact, is the epicenter of intellectual restlessness that Jim Holt sets out to resolve in Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story (public library). Seeking to tease apart the most central existential question of all — why there is a world, rather than nothingness, a question he says is “so profound that it would occur only to a metaphysician, yet so simple it would occur only to a child” — Holt pores through millennia of science and theology, theory by theory, to question our most basic assumptions about the world, reality, and the nature of fact itself, with equal parts intelligence, irreverence, and insight.

Reflecting on his many conversations with philosophers, theologians, particle physicists, cosmologists, mystics, and writers, Holt puts things in perspective:

When you listen to such thinkers feel their way around the question of why there is a world at all, you begin to realize that your own thoughts on the matter are not quite so nugatory as you had imagined. No one can confidently claim intellectual superiority in the face of the mystery of existence. For, as William James observed, ‘All of us are beggars here.’

And while the book is remarkable in its entirety — take a closer look with Kathryn Schulz’s exquisite review for New York Magazine — one of Holt’s most fascinating conversations is with someone one wouldn’t immediately peg as an expert on cosmogony: novelist John Updike, who seems to share in Isaac Asimov’s famous contention that “the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.”

The laws amount to a funny way of saying, ‘Nothing equals something,'” Updike said, bursting into laughter. “QED! One opinion I’ve encountered is that, since getting from nothing to something involves time, and time didn’t exist before there was something, the whole question is a meaningless one that we should stop asking ourselves. It’s beyond our intellectual limits as a species. Put yourself into the position of a dog. A dog is responsive, shows intuition, looks at us with eyes behind which there is intelligence of a sort, and yet a dog must not understand most of the things it sees people doing. It must have no idea how they invented, say, the internal-combustion engine. So maybe what we need to do is imagine that we’re dogs and that there are realms that go beyond our understanding. I’m not sure I buy that view, but it is a way of saying that the mystery of being is a permanent mystery, at least given the present state of the human brain. I have trouble even believing—and this will offend you—the standard scientific explanation of how the universe rapidly grew from nearly nothing. Just think of it. The notion that this planet and all the stars we see, and many thousands of times more than those we see — that all this was once bounded in a point with the size of, what, a period or a grape? How, I ask myself, could that possibly be? And, that said, I sort of move on.

Taking a jab at the “beautiful mathematics” of string theory, Updike echoes the landmark conversation between Einstein and Indian philosopher Tagore, exclaiming:

Beautiful in a vacuum! What’s beauty if it’s not, in the end, true? Beauty is truth, and truth is beauty.

Holt invites Updike to reconcile the “brute fact theory” of science and the “God theory” of religion:

He was silent again for a moment, then continued. “Some scientists who are believers, like Freeman Dyson, have actually tackled the ultimate end of the universe. They’ve tried to describe a universe where entropy is almost total and individual particles are separated by distances that are greater than the dimensions of the present observable universe … an unthinkably dreary and pointless vacuum. I admire their scientific imagination, but I just can’t make myself go there. And a space like that is the space in which God existed and nothing else. Could God then have suffered boredom to the point that he made the universe? That makes reality seem almost a piece of light verse.”

What a lovely conceit! Reality is not a “blot on nothingness,” as Updike’s character Henry Bech had once, in a bilious moment, decided. It is a piece of light verse.

The rest of Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story is just as stirringly, stimulatingly uncomfortable — read at your own riveting risk.

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27 JULY, 2012

Marilyn Monroe’s Unpublished Poems: The Complex Private Person Behind the Public Persona


“Only parts of us will ever touch only parts of others.”

Did you ever begin Ulysses? Did you ever finish it? Marilyn Monroe did both. She took great pains to be photographed reading or holding a book — insistence born not out of vain affectation but of a genuine love of literature. Her personal library contained four hundred books, including classics like Dostoyevsky and Milton, and modern staples like Hemingway and Kerouac. While she wasn’t shooting, she was taking literature and history night classes at UCLA. And yet, the public image of a breezy, bubbly blonde endures as a caricature of Monroe’s character, standing in stark contrast with whatever deep-seated demons led her to take her own life.

But her private poetry — fragmentary, poem-like texts scribbled in notebooks and on loose-leaf paper, published for the first time in Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters (public library) — reveals a complex, sensitive being who peered deeply into her own psyche and thought intensely about the world and other people. What these texts bespeak, above all, is the tragic disconnect between a highly visible public persona and a highly vulnerable private person, misunderstood by the world, longing to be truly seen.

Only parts of us will ever
touch only parts of others —
one’s own truth is just that really — one’s own truth.
We can only share the part that is understood by within another’s knowing acceptable to
the other — therefore
so one
is for most part alone.
As it is meant to be in
evidently in nature — at best though perhaps it could make
our understanding seek
another’s loneliness out.

Life —
I am of both of your directions
Somehow remaining hanging downward
the most
but strong as a cobweb in the
wind — I exist more with the cold glistening frost.
But my beaded rays have the colors I’ve
seen in a paintings — ah life they
have cheated you

Oh damn I wish that I were
dead — absolutely nonexistent —
gone away from here — from
everywhere but how would I do it
There is always bridges — the Brooklyn
— no not the Brooklyn Bridge
But I love that bridge (everything is beautiful from there and the air is so clean) walking it seems
peaceful there even with all those
cars going crazy underneath. So
it would have to be some other bridge
an ugly one and with no view — except
I particularly like in particular all bridges — there’s some-
thing about them and besides these I’ve
never seen an ugly bridge

Stones on the walk
every color there is
I stare down at you
like these the a horizon —
the space / the air is between us beckoning
and I am many stories besides up
my feet are frightened
from my as I grasp for towards you

Beyond her poems, the rest of Monroe’s intimate thoughts collected in Fragments are equally soul-stirring. Writing in her famous Record notebook in 1955, she echoes Kerouac’s famous line, “No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge”:

feel what I feel
within myself — that is trying to
become aware of it
also what I feel in others
not being ashamed of my feeling, thoughts — or ideas

realize the thing that
they are —

In her 1955-1956 Italian diary engraved in green, she writes:

I’m finding that sincerity
and trying to be as simple or direct as (possible) I’d like
is often taken for sheer stupidity
but since it is not a sincere world —
it’s very probable that being sincere is stupid.
One probably is stupid to
be sincere since it’s in this world
and no other world that we know
for sure we exist — meaning that —
(since reality exists it should be must be dealt should be met and dealt with)
since there is reality to deal with

In 1956, Monroe traveled to London to shoot The Prince and the Showgirl. She stayed at the Parkside House, a luxurious manor outside the city, and used the hotel stationery for her thoughts:

To have your heart is
the only completely happy proud possession thing (that ever belonged
to me) I’ve ever possessed so

I guess I have always been
deeply terrified at to really be someone’s
since I know from life
one cannot love another,
ever, really

Some of her undated notes live between the discipline of the to-do list and the expansive contemplation of philosophy:

for life
It is rather a determination not to be overwhelmed

for work
The truth can only be recalled, never invented

Tender, tortured, thoughtful, the texts in Fragments hint at what playwright Arthur Miller, whom Monroe eventually married, must have meant when he said that she “had the instinct and reflexes of the poet, but she lacked the control.”

Images courtesy of FSG // thanks, Sean

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27 JULY, 2012

Illustration (The Finest Occupation): An Animated Short Film


A charming tongue-in-cheek testament to the art of taking joy in one’s work.

I recently had the delight of moderating an AIGA conversation on the future of illustration with all-star illustrators Christoph Niemann, Nicholas Blechman, and Jennifer Daniel, in which two things became immediately clear: The borders of what illustration actually is are ever-shifting, and the finest illustrators take enormous pride and pleasure in their work, despite its creative frustrations.

From Temujin Dorandocumentarian, illustrator, language-lover, provocateur — comes Illustration (The Finest Occupation), a lovely short film about illustration based on a poem he wrote in his last year of (illustration) school, “a fictitious congratulatory letter written by a proud tutor to a recent graduate.” Doran’s drawings reminiscent of Edward Gorey and tongue-in-cheek rhymes, despite their irreverent tone, deliver the same tremendously important message Ray Bradbury so passionately articulated: Work with joy, always.

The greatest illustration
is not mere decoration
but succinct accumulation
of creative demonstration
and ratifying observation
of the intended subjectation
with alarming innovation
and shining punctuation
of all relevant information
done with stoic consideration
for its intended situation
exceeding all expectation
with regard to the examination
of images domination
to that of textual affectation
that commands generation upon generation
to convey without hesitation
their continued exultation
at its supreme imagination
within the realms of communication.

Thus it delights be beyond all anticipation
to relay my admiration
and relentless adoration
at your unbridled determination
towards your education
and after serious meditation
in the height of contemplation
it becomes my acclimation
to give you confirmation
after just deliberation
and close interrogation
of your startling illumination
and exemplification
accomplished in the field of illustration.

And so after such examination
it is my proud pronunciation
of your swift galvanization
a first rate qualification
you may receive with due humiliation
despite its floccinaucinihilipilification
(worthless accreditation)
so it becomes my recommendation
without prevarication
for celebration
and recreation
to be your obligation

Yours truly
Professor Toby Flosotation
B.A. M.A. Ph. D. Illustration

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27 JULY, 2012

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge


“The real enemy is the man who tries to mold the human spirit so that it will not dare to spread its wings.”

In an age obsessed with practicality, productivity, and efficiency, I frequently worry that we are leaving little room for abstract knowledge and for the kind of curiosity that invites just enough serendipity to allow for the discovery of ideas we didn’t know we were interested in until we are, ideas that we may later transform into new combinations with applications both practical and metaphysical.

This concern, it turns out, is hardly new. In The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge (PDF), originally published in the October 1939 issue of Harper’s, American educator Abraham Flexner explores this dangerous tendency to forgo pure curiosity in favor of pragmatism — in science, in education, and in human thought at large — to deliver a poignant critique of the motives encouraged in young minds, contrasting those with the drivers that motivated some of history’s most landmark discoveries.

We hear it said with tiresome iteration that ours is a materialistic age, the main concern of which should be the wider distribution of material goods and worldly opportunities. The justified outcry of those who through no fault of their own are deprived of opportunity and a fair share of worldly goods therefore diverts an increasing number of students from the studies which their fathers pursued to the equally important and no less urgent study of social, economic, and governmental problems. I have no quarrel with this tendency. The world in which we live is the only world about which our senses can testify. Unless it is made a better world, a fairer world, millions will continue to go to their graves silent, saddened, and embittered. I have myself spent many years pleading that our schools should become more acutely aware of the world in which their pupils and students are destined to pass their lives. Now I sometimes wonder whether that current has not become too strong and whether there would be sufficient opportunity for a full life if the world were emptied of some of the useless things that give it spiritual significance; in other words, whether our conception of what .is useful may not have become too narrow to be adequate to the roaming and capricious possibilities of the human spirit.

Flexner goes on to explore the question from two points of view — the scientific and the humanistic, or spiritual — and recounts a conversation with legendary entrepreneur and Kodak founder George Eastman, in which the two debate who “the most useful worker in science in the world” is. Eastman points to radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi, but Flexner stumps Eastman by arguing that, despite his invention, Marconi’s impact on improving human life was “practically negligible.” His explanation bespeaks a familiar subject — combinatorial creativity and the additive nature of invention:

Mr. Eastman, Marconi was inevitable. The real credit for everything that has been done in the field of wireless belongs, as far as such fundamental credit can be definitely assigned to anyone, to Professor Clerk Maxwell, who in 1865 carried out certain abstruse and remote calculations in the field of magnetism and electricity…. Other discoveries supplemented Maxwell’s theoretical work during the next fifteen years. Finally in 1887 and 1888 the scientific problem still remaining — the detection and demonstration of the electromagnetic waves which are the carriers of wireless signals — was solved by Heinrich Hertz, a worker in Helmholtz’s laboratory in Berlin. Neither Maxwell nor Hertz had any concern about the utility of their work; no such thought ever entered their minds. They had no practical objective. The inventor in the legal sense was of course Marconi, but what did Marconi invent? Merely the last technical detail, mainly the now obsolete receiving device called coherer, almost universally discarded.

Hertz and Maxwell could invent nothing, but it was their useless theoretical work which was seized upon by a clever technician and which has created new means for communication, utility, and amusement by which men whose merits are relatively slight have obtained fame and earned millions. Who were the useful men? Not Marconi, but Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz. Hertz and Maxwell were geniuses without thought of use. Marconi was a clever inventor with no thought but use.

Flexner goes on to contend that the work of Hertz and Maxwell is exemplary of the motives underpinning all instances of monumental scientific discovery, bringing to mind Richard Feynman’s timeless wisdom.

[Hertz and Maxwell] had done their work without thought of use and that throughout the whole history of science most of the really great discoveries which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.

Upon Eastman’s surprise, Flexner defends the idea of curiosity as a guiding principle in science and innovation:

Curiosity, which may or may not eventuate in something useful, is probably the outstanding characteristic of modern thinking. It is not new. It goes back to Galileo, Bacon, and to Sir Isaac Newton, and it must be absolutely unhampered. Institutions of learning should be devoted to the cultivation of curiosity and the less they are deflected by considerations of immediacy of application, the more likely they are to contribute not only to human welfare but to the equally important satisfaction of intellectual interest which may indeed be said to have become the ruling passion of intellectual life in modern times.

This lament, alas, is timelier than ever. As Columbia biological sciences professor Stuart Firestein reminds us in the excellent Ignorance: How It Drives Science, grant applications for scientific research are now routinely denied on the grounds of being “curiosity-driven” — a term used in a pejorative sense whereas, ironically, it should describe the highest aspiration of science, something many a great scientist can speak to.

Flexner goes on to give several more examples, pointing to the work of Einstein, Faraday, Gauss, and other legendary scientists, then sums it all up with a thoughtful disclaimer:

I am not for a moment suggesting that everything that goes on in laboratories will ultimately turn to some unexpected practical use or that an ultimate practical use is its actual justification. Much more am I pleading for the abolition of the word ‘use,’ and for the freeing of the human spirit. To be sure, we shall thus free some harmless cranks. To be sure, we shall thus waste some precious dollars. But what is infinitely more important is that we shall be striking the shackles off the human mind and setting it free for the adventures which in our own day have, on the one hand, taken Hale and Rutherford and Einstein and their peers millions upon millions of miles into the uttermost realms of space and, on the other, loosed the boundless energy imprisoned in the atom. What Rutherford and others like Bohr and Millikan have done out of sheer curiosity in the effort to understand the construction of the atom has released forces which may transform human life; but this ultimate and unforeseen and unpredictable practical result is not offered as a justification for Rutherford or Einstein or Millikan or Bohr or any of their peers.


With the rapid accumulation of ‘useless’ or theoretic knowledge a situation has been created in which it has become increasingly possible to attack practical
problems in a scientific spirit. Not only inventors, but ‘pure’ scientists have indulged in this sport. I have mentioned Marconi, an inventor, who, while a benefactor to the human race, as a matter of fact merely ‘picked other men’s brains.’ Edison belongs to the same category.


Ehrlich, fundamentally speculative in his curiosity, turned fiercely upon the problem of syphilis and doggedly pursued it until a solution of immediate practical use — the discovery of salvarsan — was found. The discoveries of insulin by Banting for use in diabetes and of liver extract by Minot and Whipple for use in pernicious anemia belong in the same category: both were made by thoroughly scientific men, who realized that much ‘useless’ knowledge had been piled up by men unconcerned with its practical bearings, but that the time was now ripe to raise practical questions in a scientific manner.

Flexner sums up the idea that, as Steve Jobs famously observed, “creativity is just connecting things” and, as Mark Twain put it, “all ideas are second-hand” in this beautiful articulation, adding to history’s greatest definitions of science:

Thus it becomes obvious that one must be wary in attributing scientific discovery wholly to anyone person. Almost every discovery has a long and precarious history. Someone finds a bit here, another a bit there. A third step succeeds later and thus onward till a genius pieces the bits together and makes the decisive contribution. Science, like the Mississippi, begins in a tiny rivulet in the distant forest. Gradually other streams swell its volume. And the roaring river that bursts the dikes is formed from countless sources.

He extends this into a vision for the future of education, touching on points we’ve more recently seen made by contemporary education reform thinkers like Sir Ken Robinson and John Seely Brown:

Over a period of one or two hundred years the contributions of professional schools to their respective activities will probably be found to lie, not so much in the training of men who may to-morrow become practical engineers or practical lawyers or practical doctors, but rather in the fact that even in the pursuit of strictly practical aims an enormous amount of apparently useless activity goes on. Out of this useless activity there come discoveries which may well prove of infinitely more importance to the human mind and to the human spirit than the accomplishment of the useful ends for which the schools were founded.

The prescience of Flexner’s insights on education continues, eventually circling back to the whole of the human condition:

The subject which I am discussing has at this moment a peculiar poignancy. In certain large areas — Germany and Italy especially — the effort is now being made to clamp down the freedom of the human spirit. Universities have been so reorganized that they have become tools of those who believe in a special political, economic, or racial creed. Now and then a thoughtless individual in one of the few democracies left in this world will even question the fundamental importance of absolutely untrammeled academic freedom. The real enemy of the human race is not the fearless and irresponsible thinker, be he right or wrong. The real enemy is the man who tries to mold the human spirit so that it will not dare to spread its wings, as its wings were once spread in Italy and Germany, as well as in Great Britain
and the United States.


Justification of spiritual freedom goes, however, much farther than originality whether in the realm of science or humanism, for it implies tolerance throughout the range of human dissimilarities. In the face of the history of the human race what can be more silly or ridiculous than likes or dislikes founded upon race or religion? Does humanity want symphonies and paintings and profound scientific truth, or does it want Christian symphonies, Christian paintings, Christian science, or Jewish symphonies, Jewish paintings, Jewish science, or Mohammedan or Egyptian or Japanese or Chinese or American or German or Russian or Communist or Conservative contributions to and expressions of the infinite richness of the human soul?

For more of Flexner’s timeless, timelier than ever insights on education and the human spirit, see Iconoclast: Abraham Flexner and a Life in Learning.

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