Brain Pickings

Big Thinkers on the Only Things Worth Worrying About

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A cross-disciplinary kaleidoscope of intelligent concerns for the self and the species.

In his famous and wonderfully heartening letter of fatherly advice, F. Scott Fitzgerald gave his young daughter Scottie a list of things to worry and not worry about in life. Among the unworriables, he named popular opinion, the past, the future, triumph, and failure “unless it comes through your own fault.” Among the worry-worthy, courage, cleanliness, and efficiency. What Fitzgerald touched on, of course, is the quintessential anxiety of the human condition, which drives us to worry about things big and small, mundane and monumental, often confusing the two classes. It was this “worryability” that young Italo Calvino resolved to shake from his life. A wonderful 1934 book classified all of our worries in five general categories that endure with astounding prescience and precision, but we still struggle to identify the things truly worth worrying about — and, implicitly, working to resolve — versus those that only strain our psychoemotional capacity with the deathly grip of anxiety.

'My Wheel of Worry' by Andrew Kuo, depicting his inner worries, arguments, counterarguments, and obsessions in the form of charts and graphs.

Click image for details.

In What Should We Be Worried About? (public library), intellectual jockey and Edge founder John Brockman tackles this issue with his annual question — which has previously answered such conundrums as the single most elegant theory of how the world works (2012) and the best way to make ourselves smarter (2011) — and asks some of our era’s greatest thinkers in science, psychology, technology, philosophy, and more to each contribute one valid “worry” about our shared future. Rather than alarmist anxiety-slinging, however, the ethos of the project is quite the opposite — to put in perspective the things we worry about but shouldn’t, whether by our own volition or thanks to ample media manipulation, and contrast them with issues of actual concern, at which we ought to aim our collective attention and efforts in order to ensure humanity’s progress and survival.

Behavioral neuroscientist Kate Jeffery offers one of the most interesting answers, reminiscent of Alan Watts’s assertion that “without birth and death … the world would be static, rhythm-less, undancing, mummified,” exploring our mortality paradox and pointing to the loss of death as a thing to worry about:

Every generation our species distills the best of itself, packages it up and passes it on, shedding the dross and creating a fresher, newer, shinier generation. We have been doing this now for four billion years, and in doing so have transmogrified from unicellular microorganisms that do little more than cling to rocks and photosynthesize, to creatures of boundless energy and imagination who write poetry, make music, love each other and work hard to decipher the secrets of themselves and their universe.

And then they die.

Death is what makes this cyclical renewal and steady advance in organisms possible. Discovered by living things millions of years ago, aging and death permit a species to grow and flourish. Because natural selection ensures that the child-who-survives-to-reproduce is better than the parent (albeit infinitesimally so, for that is how evolution works), it is better for many species that the parent step out of the way and allow its (superior) child to succeed in its place. Put more simply, death stops a parent from competing with its children and grandchildren for the same limited resources. So important is death that we have, wired into our genes, a self-destruct senescence program that shuts down operations once we have successfully reproduced, so that we eventually die, leaving our children—the fresher, newer, shinier versions of ourselves—to carry on with the best of what we have given them: the best genes, the best art, and the best ideas. Four billion years of death has served us well.

Now, all this may be coming to an end, for one of the things we humans, with our evolved intelligence, are working hard at is trying to eradicate death. This is an understandable enterprise, for nobody wants to die—genes for wanting to die rarely last long in a species. For millennia, human thinkers have dreamed of conquering old age and death: the fight against it permeates our art and culture, and much of our science. We personify death as a specter and loathe it, fear it and associate it with all that is bad in the world. If we could conquer it, how much better life would become.

Celebrated filmmaker Terry Gilliam leans toward the philosophical with an answer somewhere between John Cage and Yoda:

I’ve given up asking questions. I merely float on a tsunami of acceptance of anything life throws at me… and marvel stupidly.

Music pioneer Brian Eno, a man of strong opinions on art and unconventional approaches to creativity, is concerned that we see politics, a force that impacts our daily lives on nearly every level, as something other people do:

Most of the smart people I know want nothing to do with politics. We avoid it like the plague — like Edge avoids it, in fact. Is this because we feel that politics isn’t where anything significant happens? Or because we’re too taken up with what we’re doing, be it Quantum Physics or Statistical Genomics or Generative Music? Or because we’re too polite to get into arguments with people? Or because we just think that things will work out fine if we let them be — that The Invisible Hand or The Technosphere will mysteriously sort them out?

Whatever the reasons for our quiescence, politics is still being done — just not by us. It’s politics that gave us Iraq and Afghanistan and a few hundred thousand casualties. It’s politics that’s bleeding the poorer nations for the debts of their former dictators. It’s politics that allows special interests to run the country. It’s politics that helped the banks wreck the economy. It’s politics that prohibits gay marriage and stem cell research but nurtures Gaza and Guantanamo.

But we don’t do politics. We expect other people to do it for us, and grumble when they get it wrong. We feel that our responsibility stops at the ballot box, if we even get that far. After that we’re as laissez-faire as we can get away with.

What worries me is that while we’re laissez-ing, someone else is faire-ing.

Barbara Strauch, science editor of The New York Times, echoes Richard Feynman’s lament about the general public’s scientific ignorance — not the good kind, but the kind that leads to the resurgence of preventable diseases — when it comes to science, as well as the dismal state of science education. She sees oases of hope in that desert of ignorance but finds the disconnect worrisome:

Something quite serious has been lost. . . . This decline in general-interest science coverage comes at a time of divergent directions in the general public. At one level, there seems to be increasing ignorance. After all, it’s not just science news coverage that has suffered, but also the teaching of science in schools. And we just went through a political season that saw how all this can play out, with major political figures spouting off one silly statement after another, particularly about women’s health. . . .

But something else is going on, as well. Even as we have in some pockets what seems like increasing ignorance of science, we have at the same time, a growing interest of many. It’s easy to see, from where I sit, how high that interest is. Articles about anything scientific, from the current findings in human evolution to the latest rover landing on Mars, not to mention new genetic approaches to cancer — and yes, even the Higgs boson — zoom to the top of our newspaper’s most emailed list.

We know our readers love science and cannot get enough of it. And it’s not just our readers. As the rover Curiosity approached Mars, people of all ages in all parts of the country had “Curiosity parties” to watch news of the landing. Mars parties! Social media, too, has shown us how much interest there is across the board, with YouTube videos and tweets on science often becoming instant megahits.

So what we have is a high interest and a lot of misinformation floating around. And we have fewer and fewer places that provide real information to a general audience that is understandable, at least by those of us who do not yet have our doctorates in astrophysics. The disconnect is what we should all be worried about.

Nicholas Carr, author of the techno-dystopian The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, considers the effects that digital communication might be having on our intricate internal clocks and the strange ways in which our brains warp time:

I’m concerned about time — the way we’re warping it and it’s warping us. Human beings, like other animals, seem to have remarkably accurate internal clocks. Take away our wristwatches and our cell phones, and we can still make pretty good estimates about time intervals. But that faculty can also be easily distorted. Our perception of time is subjective; it changes with our circumstances and our experiences. When things are happening quickly all around us, delays that would otherwise seem brief begin to feel interminable. Seconds stretch out. Minutes go on forever. . . .

Given what we know about the variability of our time sense, it seems clear that information and communication technologies would have a particularly strong effect on personal time perception. After all, they often determine the pace of the events we experience, the speed with which we’re presented with new information and stimuli, and even the rhythm of our social interactions. That’s been true for a long time, but the influence must be particularly strong now that we carry powerful and extraordinarily fast computers around with us all day long. Our gadgets train us to expect near-instantaneous responses to our actions, and we quickly get frustrated and annoyed at even brief delays.

I know that my own perception of time has been changed by technology. . . .

As we experience faster flows of information online, we become, in other words, less patient people. But it’s not just a network effect. The phenomenon is amplified by the constant buzz of Facebook, Twitter, texting, and social networking in general. Society’s “activity rhythm” has never been so harried. Impatience is a contagion spread from gadget to gadget.

One of the gravest yet most lucid and important admonitions comes from classicist-turned-technologist Tim O’Reilly, who echoes Susan Sontag’s concerns about anti-intellectualism and cautions that the plague of ignorance might spread far enough to drive our civilization into extinction:

For so many in the techno-elite, even those who don’t entirely subscribe to the unlimited optimism of the Singularity, the notion of perpetual progress and economic growth is somehow taken for granted. As a former classicist turned technologist, I’ve always lived with the shadow of the fall of Rome, the failure of its intellectual culture, and the stasis that gripped the Western world for the better part of a thousand years. What I fear most is that we will lack the will and the foresight to face the world’s problems squarely, but will instead retreat from them into superstition and ignorance.

[…]

History teaches us that conservative, backward-looking movements often arise under conditions of economic stress. As the world faces problems ranging from climate change to the demographic cliff of aging populations, it’s wise to imagine widely divergent futures.

Yes, we may find technological solutions that propel us into a new golden age of robots, collective intelligence, and an economy built around “the creative class.” But it’s at least as probable that as we fail to find those solutions quickly enough, the world falls into apathy, disbelief in science and progress, and after a melancholy decline, a new dark age.

Civilizations do fail. We have never yet seen one that hasn’t. The difference is that the torch of progress has in the past always passed to another region of the world. But we’ve now, for the first time, got a single global civilization. If it fails, we all fail together.

Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who studies the brain on love and whose Why We Love remains indispensable, worries that we misunderstand men. She cites her research for some findings that counter common misconceptions and illustrate how gender stereotypes limit us:

Men fall in love faster too — perhaps because they are more visual. Men experience love at first sight more regularly; and men fall in love just as often. Indeed, men are just as physiologically passionate. When my colleagues and I have scanned men’s brains (using fMRI), we have found that they show just as much activity as women in neural regions linked with feelings of intense romantic love. Interestingly, in the 2011 sample, I also found that when men fall in love, they are faster to introduce their new partner to friends and parents, more eager to kiss in public, and want to “live together” sooner. Then, when they are settled in, men have more intimate conversations with their wives than women do with their husbands—because women have many of their intimate conversations with their girlfriends. Last, men are just as likely to believe you can stay married to the same person forever (76% of both sexes). And other data show that after a break up, men are 2.5 times more likely to kill themselves.

[…]

In the Iliad, Homer called love “magic to make the sanest man go mad.” This brain system lives in both sexes. And I believe we’ll make better partnerships if we embrace the facts: men love — just as powerfully as women.

David Rowan, editor of Wired UK and scholar of the secrets of entrepreneurship, worries about the growing disconnect between the data-rich and the data-poor:

Each day, according to IBM, we collectively generate 2.5 quintillion bytes — a tsunami of structured and unstructured data that’s growing, in IDC’s reckoning, at 60 per cent a year. Walmart drags a million hourly retail transactions into a database that long ago passed 2.5 petabytes; Facebook processes 2.5 billion pieces of content and 500 terabytes of data each day; and Google, whose YouTube division alone gains 72 hours of new video every minute, accumulates 24 petabytes of data in a single day. . . . Certainly there are vast public benefits in the smart processing of these zetta- and yottabytes of previously unconstrained zeroes and ones. . . .

Yet as our lives are swept unstoppably into the data-driven world, such benefits are being denied to a fast-emerging data underclass. Any citizen lacking a basic understanding of, and at least minimal access to, the new algorithmic tools will increasingly be disadvantaged in vast areas of economic, political and social participation. The data disenfranchised will find it harder to establish personal creditworthiness or political influence; they will be discriminated against by stock markets and by social networks. We need to start seeing data literacy as a requisite, fundamental skill in a 21st-century democracy, and to campaign — and perhaps even to legislate — to protect the interests of those being left behind.

Some, like social and cognitive scientist Dan Sperber, go meta, admonishing that our worries about worrying are ushering in a new age of anxiety, the consequences of which are debilitating:

Worrying is an investment of cognitive resources laced with emotions from the anxiety spectrum and aimed at solving some specific problem. It has its costs and benefits, and so does not worrying. Worrying for a few minutes about what to serve for dinner in order please one’s guests may be a sound investment of resources. Worrying about what will happen to your soul after death is a total waste. Human ancestors and other animals with foresight may have only worried about genuine and pressing problems such as not finding food or being eaten. Ever since they have become much more imaginative and have fed their imagination with rich cultural inputs, that is, since at least 40,000 years (possibly much more), humans have also worried about improving their lot individually and collectively — sensible worries — and about the evil eye, the displeasure of dead ancestors, the purity of their blood — misplaced worries.

A new kind of misplaced worries is likely to become more and more common. The ever-accelerating current scientific and technological revolution results in a flow of problems and opportunities that presents unprecedented cognitive and decisional challenges. Our capacity to anticipate these problems and opportunities is swamped by their number, novelty, speed of arrival, and complexity.

[…]

What I am particularly worried about is that humans will be less and less able to appreciate what they should really be worrying about and that their worries will do more harm than good. Maybe, just as on a boat in rapids, one should try not to slowdown anything but just to optimize a trajectory one does not really control, not because safety is guaranteed and optimism is justified — the worst could happen — but because there is no better option than hope.

Mathematician and economist Eric R. Weinstein considers our conventional wisdom on what it takes to cultivate genius, including the myth of the 10,000 hours rule, and argues instead that the pursuit of excellence is a social malady that gets us nowhere meaningful:

We cannot excel our way out of modern problems. Within the same century, we have unlocked the twin nuclei of both cell and atom and created the conditions for synthetic biological and even digital life with computer programs that can spawn with both descent and variation on which selection can now act. We are in genuinely novel territory which we have little reason to think we can control; only the excellent would compare these recent achievements to harmless variations on the invention of the compass or steam engine. So surviving our newfound god-like powers will require modes that lie well outside expertise, excellence, and mastery.

Going back to Sewall Wright’s theory of adaptive landscapes of fitness, we see four modes of human achievement paired with what might be considered their more familiar accompanying archetypes:

A) Climbing—Expertise: Moving up the path of steepest ascent towards excellence for admission into a community that holds and defends a local maximum of fitness.

B) Crossing—Genius: Crossing the ‘Adaptive Valley’ to an unknown and unoccupied even higher maximum level of fitness.

C) Moving—Heroism: Moving ‘mountains of fitness’ for one’s group.

D) Shaking—Rebellion: Leveling peaks and filling valleys for the purpose of changing the landscape to be more even.

The essence of genius as a modality is that it seems to reverse the logic of excellence.

He adds the famous anecdote of Feynman’s Challenger testimony:

In the wake of the Challenger disaster, Richard Feynman was mistakenly asked to become part of the Rogers commission investigating the accident. In a moment of candor Chairman Rogers turned to Neil Armstrong in a men’s room and said “Feynman is becoming a real pain.” Such is ever the verdict pronounced by steady hands over great spirits. But the scariest part of this anecdote is not the story itself but the fact that we are, in the modern era, now so dependent on old Feynman stories having no living heroes with which to replace him: the ultimate tragic triumph of runaway excellence.

This view, however, is remarkably narrow and defeatist. As Voltaire memorably remarked, “Appreciation is a wonderful thing: It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.” Without appreciation for the Feynmans of the past we duly don our presentism blinders and refuse to acknowledge the fact that genius is a timeless quality that belongs to all ages, not a cultural commodity of the present. Many of our present concerns have been addressed with enormous prescience in the past, often providing more thoughtful and richer answers than we are able to today, whether it comes to the value of space exploration or the economics of media or the essence of creativity or even the grand question of how to live. Having “living heroes” is an admirable aspiration, but they should never replace — only enhance and complement — the legacy and learnings of those who came before.

Indeed, this presentism bias is precisely what Noga Arikha, historian of ideas and author of Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours, points to as her greatest worry in one of the most compelling answers. It’s something I’ve voiced as well in a recent interview with the Guardian. Arikha writes:

I worry about the prospect of collective amnesia.

While access to information has never been so universal as it is now — thanks to the Internet — the total sum of knowledge of anything beyond the present seems to be dwindling among those people who came of age with the Internet. Anything beyond 1945, if then, is a messy, remote landscape; the centuries melt into each other in an insignificant magma. Famous names are flickers on a screen, their dates irrelevant, their epochs dusty. Everything is equalized.

She points to a necessary antidote to this shallowing of our cultural hindsight:

There is a way out: by integrating the teaching of history within the curricula of all subjects—using whatever digital or other means we have to redirect attention to slow reading and old sources. Otherwise we will be condemned to living without perspective, robbed of the wisdom and experience with which to build for the future, confined by the arrogance of our presentism to repeating history without noticing it.

Berkeley developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik, author of The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life, worries that much of modern parenting is concerned with the wrong things — particularly the push for overachievement — when evidence strongly indicates that the art of presence is the most important gift a parent can bestow upon a child:

Thinking about children, as I do for a living, and worrying go hand in hand. There is nothing in human life so important and urgent as raising the next generation, and yet it also feels as if we have very little control over the outcome. . . .

[But] “parenting” worries focus on relatively small variations in what parents and children do — co-sleeping or crying it out, playing with one kind of toy rather than another, more homework or less. There is very little evidence that any of this make much difference to the way that children turn out in the long run. There is even less evidence that there is any magic formula for making one well-loved and financially supported child any smarter or happier or more successful as an adult than another.

Instead, she argues, it is neglect that parents should be most worried about — a moral intuition as old as the world, yet one lamentably diluted by modern parents’ misguided concerns:

More recently research into epigenetics has helped demonstrate just how the mechanisms of care and neglect work. Research in sociology and economics has shown empirically just how significant the consequences of early experience actually can be. The small variations in middle-class “parenting” make very little difference. But providing high-quality early childhood care to children who would otherwise not receive it makes an enormous and continuing difference up through adulthood. In fact, the evidence suggests that this isn’t just a matter of teaching children particular skills or kinds of knowledge—a sort of broader institutional version of “parenting.” Instead, children who have a stable, nurturing, varied early environment thrive in a wide range of ways, from better health to less crime to more successful marriages. That’s just what we’d expect from the evolutionary story. I worry more and more about what will happen to the generations of children who don’t have the uniquely human gift of a long, protected, stable childhood.

Journalist Rolf Dobelli, author of The Art of Thinking Clearly, offers an almost Alan Wattsian concern about the paradox of material progress:

As mammals, we are status seekers. Non-status seeking animals don’t attract suitable mating partners and eventually exit the gene pool. Thus goods that convey high status remain extremely important, yet out of reach for most of us. Nothing technology brings about will change that. Yes, one day we might re-engineer our cognition to reduce or eliminate status competition. But until that point, most people will have to live with the frustrations of technology’s broken promise. That is, goods and services will be available to everybody at virtually no cost. But at the same time, status-conveying goods will inch even further out of reach. That’s a paradox of material progress.

Columbia biologist Stuart Firestein, author of the fantastic Ignorance: How It Drives Science and champion of “thoroughly conscious ignorance,” worries about our unreasonable expectations of science:

Much of science is failure, but it is a productive failure. This is a crucial distinction in how we think about failure. More importantly is that not all wrong science is bad science. As with the exaggerated expectations of scientific progress, expectations about the validity of scientific results have simply become overblown. Scientific “facts” are all provisional, all needing revision or sometimes even outright upending. But this is not bad; indeed it is critical to continued progress. Granted it’s difficult, because you can’t just believe everything you read. But let’s grow up and recognize that undeniable fact of life. . . .

So what’s the worry? That we will become irrationally impatient with science, with it’s wrong turns and occasional blind alleys, with its temporary results that need constant revision. And we will lose our trust and belief in science as the single best way to understand the physical universe. . . . From a historical perspective the path to discovery may seem clear, but the reality is that there are twists and turns and reversals and failures and cul de sacs all along the path to any discovery. Facts are not immutable and discoveries are provisional. This is the messy process of science. We should worry that our unrealistic expectations will destroy this amazing mess.

Neuroscientist Sam Harris, who has previously explored the psychology of lying, is concerned about bad incentives that bring out the worst in us, as individuals and as a society:

We need systems that are wiser than we are. We need institutions and cultural norms that make us better than we tend to be. It seems to me that the greatest challenge we now face is to build them.

Writer Douglas Rushkoff, author of Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, offers a poignant and beautifully phrased, if exceedingly anthropocentric, concern:

We should worry less about our species losing its biosphere than losing its soul.

Our collective perceptions and cognition is our greatest evolutionary achievement. This is the activity that gives biology its meaning. Our human neural network is in the process of deteriorating and our perceptions are becoming skewed — both involuntarily and by our own hand — and all that most of us in the greater scientific community can do is hope that somehow technology picks up the slack, providing more accurate sensors, faster networks, and a new virtual home for complexity.

We should worry such networks won’t be able to function without us; we should also worry that they will.

Harvard’s Lisa Randall, one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists and the author of, most recently, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World, worries about the decline in major long-term investments in research, the kind that made the Large Hadron Collider possible, which would in turn diminish our capacity for exploring the most intensely fascinating aspects of the unknown:

I’m worried I won’t know the answer to questions I care deeply about. Theoretical research (what I do) can of course be done more cheaply. A pencil and paper and even a computer are pretty cheap. But without experiments, or the hope of experiments, theoretical science can’t truly advance either.

One of the most poignant answers comes from psychologist Susan Blackmore, author of Consciousness: An Introduction, who admonishes that we’re disconnecting our heads from our hands by outsourcing so much of our manual humanity to machines, in the process amputating the present for the sake of some potential future. She writes:

What should worry us is that we seem to be worrying more about the possible disasters that might befall us than who we are becoming right now.

From 'Things I have learned in my life so far' by Stefan Sagmeister.

Click image for details.

What Should We Be Worried About? is an awakening read in its entirety. For more of Brockman’s editorial-curatorial mastery, revisit the Edge Question compendiums from 2013 and 2012, and see Nobel-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman on the marvels and flaws of our intuition.

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Beauty, Aging, and the Expansion of Our Sympathies: What George Eliot Teaches Us About the Rewards of Middle Age

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“The greatest benefit we owe the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies.”

At twenty-six, Henry James was a handsome young man, well-dressed, hair brushed and polished with a straight part down the middle. In 1869 he left New York in what would become a permanent relocation to England, and his first order of business was to meet the greatest writers of his adopted country. In a letter to his father, he described a meeting with George Eliot, who would begin that year to write a novel of life in an average country town she called Middlemarch:

She is magnificently ugly — deliciously hideous… She has a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth full of uneven teeth…

In My Life in Middlemarch (public library), Rebecca Mead writes that for visitors to Eliot’s’ home, a consideration of the writer’s famously ungainly looks was compulsory and often the basis for the most backhanded of compliments. James continued:

Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her… Yes behold me literally in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking.

Youth and beauty hadn’t rewarded George Eliot with their typical pleasures, nor did she expect them to. Eliot was fifty-one years old when she began Middlemarch, having only begun to write novels under her pen-name in her early forties. “What would at first appear to be a book about youth turns out to be a book about middle age,” explained Mead at a recent talk at the New York Public Library. Yet middle age for Eliot was the most expansive period of her life, which allowed her to create the most expansive novel of her career. The year she turned thirty-eight, Eliot wrote in her diary:

Few women, I fear have had such reason as I have to think the long sad years of youth were worth living for the sake of middle age.

Painting of Mary Ann Evans in 1849 by Alexandre Louis François d'Albert Durade. Evans was living with the painter’s family in Switzerland when she turned thirty. The next year she moved to London and began to write.

In the Victorian era, middle age as a phase of life was not a thing to be celebrated — it was an age at which one simply lived, having passed the excitement and signposts of youth. It was an age in which one was lucky to be alive, let alone fortunate enough to look to a future. Mead writes:

The notion of middle age as a distinct stage of life was a relatively recent concept; its onset was earlier that would be reckoned today, and much more of middle life would fall within it.

She goes on to note that an American writer in 1828 placed middle age as existing somewhere between 26 and 60. Middle age for Mary Ann Evans, who adopted the pseudonym George Eliot in her late thirties and began writing fiction nearing forty, therefore becomes life itself — not a decline or a thing to be borne wearily. It’s a time in which our actions and our memory are in balance, and each informs the other. In The Mill on the Floss, Eliot writes:

The middle aged, who have lived through their strongest emotions, but are yet in the time when memory is still half passionate and not merely contemplative, should surely be a sort of natural priesthood whom life has disciplined and consecrated to be the refuge and rescue of early stumblers and victims of self-despair.

It took a peculiar life to recognize this new phase, a life that George Eliot was not reluctant to embrace. The uses of age would not be dictated to her, even in youth. At twenty-five, Mary Ann Evans, as she was still known, considered herself merely at the beginning of what would be an expansive emotional life:

One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy. I am just beginning to make some progress in the science.

For the entirety of her twenties, a segment of the Victorian biographical timeline in which much of her life plot should have been enacted and resolved, Evans took care of her father. He died in 1849, the year she turned thirty. Evans left her childhood home, traveled to Switzerland, and decided that she would move to London to become a journalist. Happiness, she suspected, would only grow with age.

And so it did. A successful and well-known magazine writer at thirty-eight, Evans met critic George Henry Lewes, a married man with three children who had been separated from an unfaithful wife for years. They lived together for twenty-four years until his death, and their mutual love and support was considered by those around them as a true modern marriage built on a union of character and intellect. From him she took the pen name of George, and began to write her first novels as she approached forty.

Photograph of Mary Ann Evans in 1858. Well-known as a journalist, she had yet to publish under her pen name. She turned thirty-eight this year. (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

In her beautiful and compassionate exploration of the creation of Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead, in her early forties, found herself in a similar position as Eliot, realizing that she had a capacity to find joy in a life in which you could “no longer see the endless possibilities of the person you might become.”

This is where Eliot began to build her novel. In the closing off of infinite space, one’s sympathies are enlarged for those around. This, Mead explains, is the essence of Middlemarch — a book which begins where many novels of the time ended, with marriage. But it is the drama that spins out after the milestones of youth that fascinate Eliot:

We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves.

Expanded sympathy is the essence of middle age and the center of Middlemarch, argues Mead — a novel about “the necessity of growing out of self-centeredness.” Middlemarch could only have been written by an author whose sympathies were expansive, who allowed herself to feel deeply even what was painful. For much of her youth, George Eliot threw herself into loving men who did not love her back (“I suppose no woman ever before wrote a letter such as this—but I am not ashamed of it.”), but she also recognized early on when a young man who offered her marriage was not worthy of her respect and “would involve too great a sacrifice of her mind and pursuits.”

Drawing of George Eliot in 1864 by Frederick Burton. She turned forty-four this year and had just published Romola.

A novel allows us to experience deeply the lives of others, to grow out of self-centeredness as Mead says, and enlarge our sympathy. Perhaps Eliot’s plainness allowed her to transcend youth’s narcissism sooner than others, but it feels ungenerous to diagnose sympathetic genius from a face. (“No major American novelist has led a more privileged life than Edith Wharton,” Jonathan Franzen wrote in in The New Yorker, enumerating her luxurious existence. “Edith Newbold Jones did have one potentially redeeming disadvantage: she wasn’t pretty.”) Eliot’s sympathies were instead the product of a life well-considered and fully lived. She wrote in an essay in 1856:

The greatest benefit we owe the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies… Art is the nearest thing to life, it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.

In an age when we grasp so tightly and so tragically at the idea of the beauty and pleasures of youth, George Eliot and Rebecca Mead have both extended it far beyond its natural boundaries to find a richer source of creative inspiration and pleasure in middle age.

Portrait of George Eliot by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists project.

In Middlemarch, Eliot takes the necessary dramas of life — a marriage, a birth, an inheritance, a debt, a death — and uses them as a mere beginning, leading the reader along a path where a turn in sympathy, a changed mind, is far more powerful than a birth or death. When thinking about our own life, we strive to carve out its plot — a beginning, middle, and end; a conflict, a change, a resolution. In My Life in Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead found herself in the years between 26 and 60 living unmoored by the typical signposts of an adult life, returning to Middlemarch again and again to find herself among characters whose lives expand and contract, changing each day, each hour, unconsciously as breath itself. Mead reminds us that Eliot’s characters exist stubbornly in-between, their lives are the “home epic,” conjured by an inspired middle-aged mind. Unlike in her youth, Mead no longer sought instruction from her reading, but instead now saw her own expanded sympathies reflected there:

A book many not tell us exactly how to live our own lives, but our own lives can teach us how to read a book.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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We Are Singing Stardust: Carl Sagan on the Story of Humanity’s Greatest Message and How the Golden Record Was Born

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“We [are] a species endowed with hope and perseverance, at least a little intelligence, substantial generosity and a palpable zest to make contact with the cosmos.”

In 1939, just before his fifth birthday, Carl Sagan visited the New York World’s Fair, where he marveled at the Time Capsule evincing the fair’s confidence in the future — a hermetically sealed chamber, filled with newspapers, books and artifacts from that year, buried in Flushing Meadows to be revisited in some far-off future era by a future culture very different from and curious about the present. “There was something graceful and very human in the gesture, hands across the centuries, an embrace of our descendants and our posterity,” Sagan writes in Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record (public library) — the fascinating chronicle of how, in the early fall of 1977, he and a team of collaborators imbued a similar time capsule with even greater hopefulness of cosmic proportions and sent it into space aboard the Voyager spacecraft as humanity’s symbolic embrace of other civilizations. On it, they set out to explain our planet and our civilization to another in 117 pictures, greetings in 54 different languages and one from humpback whales, and a representative selection of “the sounds of Earth,” ranging from an avalanche to an elephant’s trumpet to a kiss, as well as nearly 90 minutes of some of the world’s greatest music.

Sagan, in his characteristic eloquence, writes of the motivation, offering a poetic, humbling, and timelier than ever reminder of just how misplaced our existential arrogance is:

The coming of the space age has brought with it an interest in communication over time intervals far longer than any [of our predecessors] could have imagined, as well as the means to send messages to the distant future. We have gradually realized that we humans are only a few million years old on a planet a thousand times older. Our modern technical civilization is one ten-thousandth as old as mankind. What we know well has lasted no longer than the blink of an eyelash in the enterprise of cosmic time. Our epoch is not the first or the best. Events are occurring at a breathless pace and no one knows what tomorrow will bring — whether our present civilization will survive the perils that face us and be transformed, or whether in the next century or two we will destroy our technological society. But in either case it will not be the end of the human species.

He also reminds us that our existence is a cosmic accident and our lives are shaped by chance encounters, but that’s precisely what makes it all — what makes us — valuable:

There will be other people and other civilizations, and they will be different from us. Our civilization is the product of a particular path our ancestors have followed among the vagaries of historical alternatives. Had events of the distant past taken a slightly different turn, our surroundings and thought processes, what we find natural and hold dear, might be very different. Despite our every sense that things should of course be the way that they are, the details of our particular civilization are extraordinarily unlikely, and it is easy to imagine a set of historical events which would have led to a rather different civilization. . . . This lack of historical determinism in the details of a civilization means that those details are of extraordinary value, not just to professional historians but to all who wish to understand the nature of culture. I think it is this respect for the integuments of a civilization that, above all other reasons, make us sympathetic to the enterprise of time capsuling.

As for the obvious question of how arrogant it seems to assume that if other civilizations exist — something most scientists agree has a high likelihood given the vastness of the cosmos — they would be similar enough to us to be able to interpret our messages, Sagan offers some optimistic rationale:

There is an argument — perhaps it is only a hope — that we might be able to communicate with representatives of such exotic civilizations, because they, like we, must come to grips with the same laws of physics and chemistry and astronomy. The composition of a star and its spectral properties are not fundamental impositions that scientists have made on nature, but rather the other way around. There is an external reality that we ignore at our peril, and indeed much of the evolution of the human species can be described as an increasing concordance between the images within our brains and the reality in the external world. Thus, whatever the differences in starting points, there must come to be a gradual convergence in intellectual content and discipline between diverse planetary species.

And so the idea of the Golden Record was born — a piece of communication that captures the essence of our species and our civilization, and transmits it using the era’s best recording technology and spacecraft to possible others out in the unknown. Sagan’s first thought was to improve on the plaques which accompanied NASA’s Pioneer spacecraft, mankind’s first interstellar probes launched in the early 1970s, which contained some scientific information in textual form and “a sketch of two representatives of the human species greeting the cosmos with hope.” To that, Sagan wanted to add some information from molecular biology to represent what we are made of, and some other materials. He gathered together a small group of scientific consultants, each of whom would advise on the contents of the Voyager message. Some of the opinions were wonderfully poetic — B.M. Oliver, vice-president for research and development at Hewlett-Packard, captured the heart of the project beautifully:

There is only an infinitesimal chance that the plaque will ever be seen by a single extraterrestrial, but it will certainly be seen by billions of terrestrials. Its real function, therefore, is to appeal to and expand the human spirit,and to make contact with extraterrestrial intelligence a welcome expectation of mankind.

Meanwhile, beloved sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke — who was highly invested in space exploration and had participated in a historic conversation on the subject with Sagan some years earlier — phoned in from Sri Lanka and recommended that the plaque contain the following message, intended as a statement of hope that our civilization would go on long enough for the message to be read:

Please leave me alone; let me go on to the stars.

The original proposal to NASA included this photograph of two nude human beings, which Sagan and his team selected meticulously as a non-offensive image 'neither sexist, pornographic, nor clinical,' to show potential recipients how our bodies look. NASA, however, refused to include it due to fear of potentially negative public reaction. But Sagan and this team decided to keep the silhouette of the picture in the package, feeling strongly that it represented an essential part of who we are and how reproduce.

As more suggestions rolled in, it became clear that the capsule should contain more than scientific information — it should include, rather, a full-spectrum view of humanity, including our artistic footprint. But that would require a recording technology for encoding text, image, and audio, as a visual plaque would no longer suffice. Around the same time, Sagan realized that 1977 was the 100th anniversary of Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph. 1977 was also the year when Peter Goldmark, inventor of the long-playing record, perished in a tragic car-crash. Thanks to this bittersweet symmetry and the suggestions of his technological advisors, Sagan decided to encode humanity’s message on a record. And thus the Golden Record was born. He considers the less obvious but no less important reason for this choice, one that honors the notion that emotion is at the heart of human creativity and the intellect alone is never enough:

I was delighted with the suggestion of sending a record for a different reason: we could send music. Our previous messages had contained information about what we perceive and how we think. But there is much more to human beings than perceiving and thinking. We are feeling creatures. However, our emotional life is more difficult to communicate, particularly to beings of very different biological make-up. Music, it seemed to me, was at least a creditable attempt to convey human emotions. Perhaps a sufficiently advanced civilization would have made an inventory of the music of species on many planets, and by comparing our music with such a library, might be able to deduce a great deal about us.

There was another reason for music, too: Because of music’s highly mathematical quality and the fact that scientists believe mathematical relationships hold up for all cultures, philosophies, biologies, and planets, this universality would suggest, as Sagan puts it, “that much more than our emotions are conveyed by the musical offerings on the Voyager record.”

Once the idea was conceived, the first set of challenges were technical. An ordinary vinyl record is made by pressing the vinyl from a mold made of a copper and nickel positive material called “mother.” A vinyl record would be vulnerable to erosion in space, but the “mother” would be considerably less so. But because nickel is ferromagnetic, it would interfere with the fine-tuned magnetic field detection experiments of the Voyager. So Sagan decided that a copper mother would be needed and reached out to the vice-president of RCA Records to help with the technical development of the record.

The Golden Record

But another technical challenge was that, limited by the compression technology of the time, they could only fit around 27 minutes of playing time on each side of a record to be played at a standard 33 1/3 revolutions per minute. One side would be musical, and the other graphical, containing pictures. That immediately put enormous pressure on them as to the selection of the music, given the space afforded was “barely enough for two movements of a single symphony.”

Once again, Sagan enlisted a team of advisors, including various musicologists, conductors, musicians, scholars, and the writer Ann Druyan, with whom he’d go on to fall in love over the course of the project and spend the rest of his life. Among them was the famed 20th-century folk music field collector Alan Lomax, who had spent decades building a classified library of virtually all recorded musical styles in the world. He became a major influence that shaped the Golden Record’s truly global sound. Sagan recalls one of his first encounters with Lomax:

When Lomax first played Valya Balkanska’s soaring Bulgarian shepherdess’ aria for Ann, she was moved to spontaneous dance. “Do you hear that, honey?” he drawled, grinning and leaning forward. “That’s Europe. That’s the first people who had enough to eat.”

[…]

We are particularly grateful to him for his help in broadening our transcultural musical perspectives, as well as in substantially enhancing the beauty of the Voyager’s musical offerings.

Eventually, Sagan and his collaborators brainstormed a way to increase the storage capacity: They had a record designed for 16 1/3 revolutions per minute, which would decrease the fidelity slightly, but would more than triple the length to a total of nearly 90 minutes, which Sagan felt would let them “at least approach doing some justice to the range, depth and magic of the world’s music.” But by the time the technical challenge had been solved, the launch date of the Voyager had drawn alarmingly near, which made the decision about what to include all the more overwhelming. Sagan offers a taste of just how dizzying that process was:

There is obviously no best answer about what music to send to the stars; there are as many answers as there are people who attempt to make such a decision.

[…]

There were long debates on Gregorian chants, Charles Ives and Bob Dylan (would the music stand if the words were incomprehensible?); whether we should include more than one Bulgarian or Peruvian composition; an Apache lullaby (and the role of Apaches among Native Americans); the definition of Near Eastern music; whether to include music performed by alleged Nazi sympathizers; whether to include music performed by Pablo Casals, whose spirit we very much admired but whose records were of poor quality; which version of the Second Brandenburg Concerto. . . .

They even brushed up against the absurdities of copyright:

We wanted to send “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles, and all four Beatles gave their approval. But the Beatles did not own the copyright, and the legal status of the piece seemed too murky to risk.

And yet beneath all the madness lay a heartening allegory for the spirit of the project, best captured in this anecdote by Ann Druyan:

Robert Brown [the executive director of the Center for World Music in Berkeley] had placed Surshri Kesar Bai Kerkar’s “Jaat Kahan Ho” at the top of his list of world music for outer space. It was an old recording that had recently gone out of print. After hunting through a score of record stores without any success, I phoned Brown and asked him to suggest an alternative raga.

He refused.

“Well, what happens if we can’t find a copy of this one in time to get it on the record?” I pleaded. We had three more days in which to complete the repertoire. I was terribly worried that Indian music, one of the world’s most intricate and fascinating traditions, might not be represented.

“Keep looking,” he told me.

When I phoned him the following day after a series of very unrewarding conversations with librarians and cultural attachés, I was desperate.

“I promise I’ll keep looking for ‘Jaat Kahan Ho,’ but you’ve simply got to give me the name of a piece that we can fall back on. What’s the next best thing?

“There’s nothing close,” he insisted. “Keep looking.” The other ethnomusicologists we had been consulting told me to trust him. I started phoning Indian restaurants.

There’s an appliance store on Lexington Avenue in the Twenties in New York City that is owned by an Indian family. Under a card table with a madras cloth thrown over it sits a dusty brown carton with three unopened copies of ‘Jaat Kahan Ho.’`” Why I want to buy all three occasions a great deal of animated speculation on the part of the owners. I fly out of the shop and race uptown to listen to it.

It’s a thrilling piece of music. I phone Brown and find myself saying thank you over and over.

Nearly every challenge was resolved in a similarly heartening way, but nowhere more so than when it came to the eternal see-saw of greed and altruism. When RCA realized that only one song from the final selections was recorded by RCA Victor, they refused to be of further help with producing the record. Sagan and his team had chosen the music without any reference to label or manufacturer, but realized many of the selections came from Columbia Records, so they reached out to the label for help. After the greedy RCA letdown, a much-needed restoration of faith in the human spirit presented itself when the president of Columbia enthusiastically backed the project. Sagan writes with equal parts humor and humility:

It is not as easy as you might think to attract the attention of the president of a major competitive commercial record company on short notice for any enterprise, much less for volunteering corporate resources to send a record to the stars where, even if there are many potential listeners, no impact on corporate profits is likely to be made, at least in the near future. But, eventually, CBS Records, entirely as a public service, secured all the releases, mixed the music, greetings and sounds, and cut the wax masters from which the metal mothers are made. Worldwide releases were obtained in an unprecedentedly brief time. Since there was no way for CBS Records to increase corporate earnings from this project, their cooperation, although in some quarters reluctant, was on the whole truly remarkable.

(One has to wonder whether such selflessness could be expected of today’s increasingly avaricious commercial recording industry.)

The next challenge was of the bureaucratic kind. In addition to the music, Sagan and his team had decided to include a simple greeting in spoken human language. To keep it globally representative, they decided to have a “Hello” in a few dozen languages and figured approaching the United Nations would be the best way to secure the greetings. Sagan had just given an address on space exploration at the UN General Assembly the previous year and had kept in touch with some members of the UN Outer Space Committee, so he used the connection to ask for the greetings. But he was told that the Committee couldn’t itself initiate any “action,” which was only possible for the national delegations. The American Mission to the United Nations was in charge of those, but it would only act if instructed by the State Department, which would only act if so requested by NASA. The Catch-22 was that at that point, NASA hadn’t even formally agreed to include the record on the Voyager, and the State Department needed firm assurance that UN greetings would be included in order to initiate the “action.”

This, in other words, is what happens when a government is a string of middle-managers and bureaucrats whom humanity is supposed to trust for representation.

So Sagan proposed a solution: A recording studio would be set up for a couple of days at the UN Headquarters in New York, and a delegate from each member nation would drop in to record the coveted “Hello” in his or her language. “Her” turned out to be another point of challenge, and one tragically similar today: Sagan wanted an equal number of male and female voices, in order to represent the gender balance of Earth, but was quickly informed that “virtually all the chiefs of delegations were male, and it was unlikely that they would delegate the privilege of saying ‘Hello’ to the stars to anyone else.” (The male ego, indeed, is of cosmic proportions.) Other concerns were raised about what happens if a delegate is not in New York and further bureaucracy ensued. Sagan recounts with amused exasperation:

What is more, the Outer Space committee would have to vote on whether to say “Hello,” and its next meeting was to be in Europe in late June. I explained that even if greetings from the Outer Space Committee were desirable, the launch schedule of Voyager would not permit such a dilatory pace. Could we not, I was then seriously queried, postpone the Voyager launch?

Eventually, they plowed forward with a selection of 55 languages not even remotely representative of Earth. But when the delegates showed up at the UN Headquarters, it quickly became clear that none was satisfied with a simple “Hello” and each wanted to make a speech. Some read poetry from their home nation. Others spoke in Esperanto, the now-defunct “universal language.” The Nigerian delegate included the following endearing sentence:

As you probably know, my country is situated on the west coast of the continent of Africa, a land mass more or less in the shape of a question mark in the center of our planet.

Despite Sagan’s best efforts to keep the project away from the press during the time of the recording, the United Nations, unbeknownst to him, had issued a press release announcing the recording session. The next day, Sagan also discovered that Kurt Waldheim, Secretary General of the United Nations, had made a recording himself. Though the team never requested it, “the speech was so sensitively and gracefully composed, and so appropriate in its sentiments” that they felt they must include it:

As the Secretary General of the United Nations, an organization of 147 member states who represent almost all of the human inhabitants of the planet Earth, I send greetings on behalf of the people of our planet. We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship, to teach if we are called upon, to be taught if we are fortunate. We know full well that our planet and all its inhabitants are but a small part of the immense universes that surrounds us and it is with humility and hope that we take this step.

Since they were including the Secretary General’s message, Sagan thought it appropriate to at least give the President of the United States the opportunity to contribute one as well. To his surprise and delight, President Jimmy Carter eagerly complied, electing to have his message — one of breathtaking optimism — as text rather than audio:

This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, and our good will in a vast and awesome universe.

But the most eloquent and moving encapsulation of the spirit of the Golden Record comes from Sagan himself, who extracts from the adventure in musicology a beautiful metaphor for the essence of the project in reflecting on a “charming and powerful tradition” in Javanese gamelan music, which they serendipitously discovered over the course of the research:

There is, it is said, a kind of spirit music in the world, continuously but silently playing. When a gamelan orchestra performs, it is merely making audible the present movement of the music of eternity. Perhaps all of the Voyager record can be viewed similarly — as a local and momentary expression of cosmic discourse, and exchange of greetings and music and information among diverse galactic species that has been in progress for billions of years.

Billions of years from now our sun, then a distended red giant star, will have reduced Earth to a charred cinder. But the Voyager record will still be largely intact, in some other remote region of the Milky Way galaxy, preserving a murmur of an ancient civilization that once flourished — perhaps before moving on to greater deeds and other worlds — on the distant planet Earth.

In the epilogue to Murmurs of Earth, which is an absolutely wonderful and priceless piece of cultural heritage, Sagan reflects on the legacy of the Golden Record:

One thing would be clear about us: no one sends such a message on such a journey, to other worlds and beings, without a positive passion for the future. For all the possible vagaries of the message, they could be sure that we were a species endowed with hope and perseverance, at least a little intelligence, substantial generosity and a palpable zest to make contact with the cosmos.

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