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Posts Tagged ‘diaries’

13 AUGUST, 2013

Religion vs. Humanism: Isaac Asimov on Science and Spirituality

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“The soft bonds of love are indifferent to life and death.”

Science and religion have a long history of friction as diametric opposites. But some of humanity’s greatest minds have found in science itself a rich source of spirituality, from Albert Einstein’s meditation on whether scientists pray to Richard Feynman’s ode to the universe to Carl Sagan on the reverence of science to Bucky Fuller’s scientific rendition of The Lord’s Prayer to Richard Dawkins on the magic of reality.

Here comes a wonderful addition from the mind of beloved science fiction author Isaac Asimov, found in the altogether indispensable It’s Been a Good Life (public library) — a revealing selection of Asimov’s letters, diary entries, and his three prior autobiographies, In Memory Yet Green (1979), In Joy Still Felt (1980), and the posthumously published I. Asimov: A Memoir (1994), edited by his spouse, Janet Jeppson Asimov, a decade after his death.

Asimov succinctly recapitulates his philosophy:

I have never, not for one moment, been tempted toward religion of any kind. The fact is that I feel no spiritual void. I have my philosophy of life, which does not include any aspect of the supernatural and which I find totally satisfying. I am, in short, a rationalist and believe only that which reason tells me is so.

Indeed, rather than suspending his conviction in the ether of vacant self-righteousness, it is with amiable reason and clever logic that Asimov responds to his inquisitors: Shortly after writing Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, he appeared on the David Frost Show and delivered his irreverent wit in full brilliance when badgered with the G-question. The author recounts:

[Frost] said, with neither warning nor preamble, “Dr. Asimov, do you believe in God?”

“That rather took my breath away. It was a dreadful way of putting a person on the spot. To answer honestly, “No,” with millions of people watching, could arouse a great deal of controversy I didn’t feel much need of. Yet I couldn’t lie, either. I played for time, in order to find a way out.

He said, “Dr. Asimov, do you believe in God?”

And I said, “Whose?”

He said, a little impatiently, “Come, come, Dr. Asimov, you know very well whose. Do you believe in the Western God, the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition?”

Still playing for time, I said, “I haven’t given it much thought.”

Frost said, “I can’t believe that, Dr. Asimov.” He then nailed me to the wall by saying, “Surely a man of your diverse intellectual interests and wide-ranging curiosity must have tried to find God?”

(Eureka! I had it! The very nails had given me my opening!) I said, smiling pleasantly, “God is much more intelligent than I am — let him try to find me.”

Painting by Rowena Morrill

Above all, however, Asimov was an unrelenting humanist:

I’ve never been particularly careful about what label I placed on my beliefs. I believe in the scientific method and the rule of reason as a way of understanding the natural Universe. I don’t believe in the existence of entities that cannot be reached by such a method and such a rule and that are therefore “supernatural.” I certainly don’t believe in the mythologies of our society, in Heaven and Hell, in God and angels, in Satan and demons. I’ve thought of myself as an “atheist,” but that simply described what I didn’t believe in, not what I did.

Gradually, though, I became aware that there was a movement called “humanism,” which used that name because, to put it most simply, Humanists believe that human beings produced the progressive advance of human society and also the ills that plague it. They believe that if the ills are to be alleviated, it is humanity that will have to do the job. They disbelieve in the influence of the supernatural on either the good or the bad of society, on either its ills or the alleviation of those ills.

He revisits the subject of self-classification in a letter to a friend, articulating the same gripe with the label “atheist” that Brian Cox would come to echo decades later, and writes:

Have I told you that I prefer “rationalism” to “atheism”? The word “atheist,” meaning “no God,” is negative and defeatist. It says what you don’t believe and puts you in an eternal position of defense. “Rationalism” on the other hand states what you DO believe; that, that which can be understood in the light of reason. The question of God and other mystical objects-of-faith are outside reason and therefore play no part in rationalism and you don’t have to waste your time in either attacking or defending that which you rule out of your philosophy altogether.

Speaking to the core belief that the unknown is a source of wonder rather than fear, a fundamental driver of science, Asimov allows for the possibility that his own convictions about the nonexistence of “god” might be wrong, with a playful wink at Bertrand Russell:

There is nothing frightening about an eternal dreamless sleep. Surely it is better than eternal torment in Hell and eternal boredom in Heaven. And what if I’m mistaken? The question was asked of Bertrand Russell, the famous mathematician, philosopher, and outspoken atheist. “What if you died,” he was asked, “and found yourself face to face with God? What then?”

And the doughty old champion said, “I would say, ‘Lord, you should have given us more evidence.’”

But Asimov’s philosophy shines with its fullest heart in these beautiful words penned at the end of his life, at once validating and invalidating the mortality paradox:

The soft bonds of love are indifferent to life and death. They hold through time so that yesterday’s love is part of today’s and the confidence in tomorrow’s love is also part of today’s. And when one dies, the memory lives in the other, and is warm and breathing. And when both die — I almost believe, rationalist though I am — that somewhere it remains, indestructible and eternal, enriching all of the universe by the mere fact that once it existed.

It’s Been a Good Life is excellent in its entirety. Complement it with Asimov on science and creativity in education and the author’s endearing fan mail to young Carl Sagan.

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02 AUGUST, 2013

Frida Kahlo’s Politics

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“I am only a cell in the complex revolutionary mechanism of the peoples for peace in the new nations … united in blood to me.”

Though Mexican painter and reconstructionist Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907, she insisted on listing July 7, 1910, as her birth date — the start of the Mexican revolution — so that her life would parallel the birth of modern Mexico. But how, exactly, did the iconic artist arrive at her strong political convictions? The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait (public library) — the same magnificent volume that gave us her passionate hand-written love letters to Diego Rivera and her poignant meditation on how we are all connected in our pain — offers a fascinating glimpse of the evolution of Kahlo’s political beliefs, which were heavily inspired by Marxist ideology but still reflective of the underlying ethos of her art, a profound celebration of our shared existence and the connectedness of the universe.

1st. I’m convinced of my disagreement with the counterrevolution — imperialism — fascism — religions — stupidity — capitalism — and the whole gamut of bourgeois tricks — I wish to cooperate with the Revolution in transforming the world into a class-less one so that we can attain a better rhythm for the oppressed classes

2nd. a timely moment to clarify who are the allies of the Revolution

Read Lenin — Stalin — Learn that I am nothing but a “small damned” part of a revolutionary movement.

Always revolutionary, never dead, never useless

From a handful of pages dated 1950–1951, which follow a lapse in her diary after seven grueling surgeries on her spinal column, and open with her gratitude for Doctor Farill, the surgeon whom Kahlo believes saved her, she offers this meditation on the urgency she feels to find a political utility for her art:

A despair which no words can describe. I’m still eager to live. I’ve started to paint again. A little picture to give to Dr Farill on which I’m working with all my love.

I feel uneasy about my painting. Above all I want to transform it into something useful for the Communist revolutionary movement, since up to now I have only painted the earnest portrayal of myself, but I’m very far from work that could serve the Party. I have to fight with all my strength to contribute the few positive things my health allows me to the revolution. The only true reason to live for.

Frida Kahlo, reconstructionist

A five-page entry dated November 4, 1952, marks a turning point for Kahlo’s work as she begins to see her painting not merely as the subjective, inward-turned reflection on her inner world but as a Marxist interpretation of reality, which she terms “Revolutionary Realism”:

Today I’m in better company than for 20 years) I am a self and a Communist.

I know
I have read methodically
that the main origins are wrapped in ancient roots. I have read the History of my country and of nearly all nations. I know their class struggles and their economic conflicts. I understand quite clearly the dialectical materialism of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Tse. I love them as pillars of the new Communist world. Since Trotsky came to Mexico I have understood his error. I was never a Trotskyist. But in those days 1940 — my only alliance was with Diego (personally)

Political fervor. But one has to make allowances for the fact that I had been sick since I was six years old and for really very short periods of my life have I enjoyed truly good HEALTH and I was of no use to the Party. Now in 1953. After 22 surgical interventions I feel better and now and then I will be able to help my Communist Party. Although I’m not a worker, but a craftswoman — And an unconditional ally of the Communist revolutionary movement.

For the first time in my life my painting is trying to help in the line set down by the Party: REVOLUTIONARY REALISM

Before it was my earliest experience — I am only a cell in the complex revolutionary mechanism of the peoples for peace in the new nations, Soviets — Chinese — Czechoslovakians — Poles — united in blood to me. And to the Mexican Indian. Among those great multitudes of Asian people there will always be the faces of my own — Mexicans — with dark skin and beautiful form, with limitless grace. The black people would also be freed, so beautiful and so brave. (Mexicans and negroes are subjugated for now by capitalist countries above all North America — U.S. and England.) xxxxxxxxxxxx

Illustration by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists project

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01 AUGUST, 2013

Pioneering Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Science and Life: Timeless Wisdom from Her Diaries

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“The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.”

Legendary astronomer and reconstructionist Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) played an enormous and lasting role in paving the way for women in science. The first recognized female astronomer in America and the first woman elected, unanimously, to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, she is also considered the first woman employed for a non-domestic specialized skill by the U.S. federal government. She was paid $300 a year for her job as a “computer of Venus” for the United States Nautical Almanac, a mathematically heavy endeavor requiring that she synthesize complex calculations into charts that predicted Venus’s position in the sky for years ahead –information that sailors all over the world used for critical celestial navigation. A champion of civil rights and women’s education, Mitchell reached worldwide celebrity by the time she was forty. Her brilliant mind and scientific genius were eclipsed only by her enormous kindness and her unrelenting humility.

Culled here from Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library; free download) is Mitchell’s most timeless wisdom on science, society, and life.

Maria Mitchell. Portrait by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists project.

On October 31, 1853, Mitchell writes in her diary:

People have to learn sometimes not only how much the heart, but how much the head, can bear.

(More than half a century later, Zelda Fitzgerald would come to echo the lament in her own private writings.)

A month later, she writes:

There is said to be no up or down in creation, but I think the world must be low, for people who keep themselves constantly before it do a great deal of stooping!

In September of 1854, her journal bespeaks her remarkable work ethic — of which Tchaikovsky and Jack White would be proud, as would Isabel Allende, E. B. White, and Chuck Close — coupled with her keen self-awareness:

I made observations for three hours last night, and am almost ill to-day from fatigue; still I have worked all day, trying to reduce the places, and mean to work hard again to-night.

[…]

The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not.

On October 17, 1854, as she observes the way her computations reveal both how much she knows and how much she has yet to learn, Mitchell marvels:

The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.

Will it really unroll to us at some future time? Aside from the gratification of the affections in another world, that of the intellect must be great if it is enlarged and its desires are the same.

Like Ptolemy, Mitchell finds enormous revelry and transcendence in astronomy — something Carl Sagan would come to echo more than a century later in his meditation on science and spirituality. Mitchell writes:

One gets attached (if the term may be used) to certain midnight apparitions. The Aurora Borealis is always a pleasant companion; a meteor seems to come like a messenger from departed spirits; and the blossoming of trees in the moonlight becomes a sight looked for with pleasure.

Aside from the study of astronomy, there is the same enjoyment in a night upon the housetop, with the stars, as in the midst of other grand scenery; there is the same subdued quiet and grateful seriousness; a calm to the troubled spirit, and a hope to the desponding.

And later:

Nothing comes out more clearly in astronomical observations than the immense activity of the universe. ‘All change, no loss, ’tis revolution all.’

In fact, Mitchell harbored enormous admiration for the early astronomers, framed by her appreciation of how knowledge evolves:

They were wonderful men, the early astronomers. That was a great conception, which now seems to us so simple, that the earth turns upon its axis, and a still greater one that it revolves about the sun (to show this last was worth a man’s lifetime, and it really almost cost the life of Galileo). Somehow we are ready to think that they had a wider field than we for speculation, that truth being all unknown it was easier to take the first step in its paths. But is the region of truth limited? Is it not infinite?… We know a few things which were once hidden, and being known they seem easy; but there are the flashings of the Northern Lights — ‘Across the lift they start and shift;’ there is the conical zodiacal beam seen so beautifully in the early evenings of spring and the early mornings of autumn; there are the startling comets, whose use is all unknown; there are the brightening and flickering variable stars, whose cause is all unknown; and the meteoric showers — and for all of these the reasons are as clear as for the succession of day and night; they lie just beyond the daily mist of our minds, but our eyes have not yet pierced through it.

Mitchell — who, by the end of her life, greatly prided herself on having earned a salary for 50 uninterrupted years — had her first job as a librarian at Nantucket’s legendary Atheneum. There, she further cultivated the love of books amidst which she had grown up. In a diary entry from January of 1855, she captures with remarkable eloquence the greatest — and, today, tragically forgotten — responsibility of the true librarian (or writer, or editor, or curator): To invite people beyond the frontiers of their existing knowledge, to elevate them, to broaden their curiosity rather than catering to their familiar wants:

I do not suppose that such works as those issued by the Smithsonian regents are appreciated by all who turn them over, but the ignorant learn that such things exist; they perceive that a higher cultivation than theirs is in the world, and they are stimulated to strive after greater excellence. So I steadily advocate, in purchasing books for the Atheneum, the lifting of the people. ‘Let us buy, not such books as the people want, but books just above their wants, and they will reach up to take what is put out for them.’

“The most important knowledge is that which guides the way you lead your life,” mused Seneca in Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom, and Mitchell articulates a parallel sentiment in September of 1855:

To know what one ought to do is certainly the hardest thing in life. ‘Doing’ is comparatively easy; but there are no laws for your individual case — yours is one of a myriad.

During her European tour in 1858, Mitchell visits England’s Greenwich Observatory and presages Brian Cox’s recent meditation on science as a prerequisite for democracy and progress, and observes:

It is singular what a quiet motive-power Science is, the breath of a nation’s progress.

To be sure, Mitchell’s interests — as is typical of most great scientists — spanned well beyond science. She had a profound appreciation for beauty, poetry, and art. As this charming gripe from a diary entry during the same visit indicates, she was also a budding book design critic and indignant defender of literature’s sanctity:

I was vexed when I saw some of our most miserable novels, bound in showy yellow and red, exposed for sale. A friend told me that they had copied from the cheap publications of America. It may be so, but they have outdone us in the cheapness of the material and the showy covers. I never saw yellow and red together on any American book.

Indeed, she saw the appreciation of art as a kind of mental discipline and spiritual hygiene:

Health of body is not only an accompaniment of health of mind, but is the cause; the converse may be true, — that health of mind causes health of body; but we all know that intellectual cheer and vivacity act upon the mind. If the gymnastic exercise helps the mind, the concert or the theatre improves the health of the body.

Mitchell was also a keen observer of human nature. In visiting with a revered elderly Cambridge astronomer who was unable to articulate what steps precipitated his discovery of a new planet, Mitchell observes:

It is always so — you cannot get a man of genius to explain steps, he leaps.

In another journal entry, she considers what modern psychology has since demonstrated and Anaïs Nin has eloquently echoed — the notion that our character and sense of self is a constantly evolving mosaic rather than a static sculpture:

The same individual is not the same at all times; so that between two individuals there is a mean or middle individual, and each individual has a mean or middle self, which is not the man of to-day, nor the man of yesterday, nor the man of to-morrow; but a middle man among these different selves….

In visiting Italy and reflecting on Galileo’s legacy, Mitchell considers the friction between science and religion — a friction bemoaned before her by Galileo himself and after her by Neil deGrasee Tyson and countless contemporary thinkers:

I know of no picture in the history of religion more weakly pitiable than that of the Holy Church trembling before Galileo, and denouncing him because he found in the Book of Nature truths not stated in their own Book of God — forgetting that the Book of Nature is also a Book of God.

It seems to be difficult for any one to take in the idea that two truths cannot conflict.

Mitchell herself found enormous beauty and revelry in her science. In an entry from February of 1853, she writes:

I am just learning to notice the different colors of the stars, and already begin to have a new enjoyment. Betelgeuse is strikingly red, while Rigel is yellow. There is something of the same pleasure in noticing the hues that there is in looking at a collection of precious stones, or at a flower-garden in autumn. Blue stars I do not yet see, and but little lilac except through the telescope.

Two years later, she returns to this sacred source of colorful awe:

I swept around for comets about an hour, and then I amused myself with noticing the varieties of color. I wonder that I have so long been insensible to this charm in the skies, the tints of the different stars are so delicate in their variety. … What a pity that some of our manufacturers shouldn’t be able to steal the secret of dyestuffs from the stars, and astonish the feminine taste by new brilliancy in fashion.

Still, Mitchell’s loyalties remained unflinchingly rooted in the heart of science. Another journal entry:

All their book learning in astronomy should be mathematical. The astronomy which is not mathematical is what is so ludicrously called “Geography of the Heavens” — is not astronomy at all.

After the Civil War, Mitchell was invited to teach at the prestigious new Vassar College, where she was the only woman on the faculty. Frustrated with the conservative mindset of even an institution as liberal as Vassar, Mitchell writes in her diary on October 31, 1866:

We wait and ask for precedent. If the earth had waited for a precedent, it never would have turned on its axis!

Mitchell laments in a diary entry from 1866:

The phrase ‘popular science’ has in itself a touch of absurdity. That knowledge which is popular is not scientific.

She later adds:

One of the unfavorable results of the attempt to popularize science is this: the reader of popular scientific books is very likely to think that he understands the science itself, when he merely understands what some writer says about science.

(How proud and thrilled she would’ve been to see the work of such revered science-popularizers as Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Brian Cox, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.)

In a sentiment Feynman himself would come to echo in his meditation on the role of scientific culture in modern society, Mitchell laments:

This ignorance of the masses leads to a misconception in two ways; the little that a scientist can do, they do not understand, — they suppose him to be godlike in his capacity, and they do not see results; they overrate him and they underrate him — they underrate his work.

And yet Mitchell did very much believe in inviting “the masses” into the whimsy of science:

It is always difficult to teach the man of the people that natural phenomena belong as much to him as to scientific people.

But perhaps she saw the challenge of engaging with science as one of will, not acumen — in another diary entry, she writes:

Great is the self-denial of those who follow science.

In 1871, she extols the critical role of imagination in science:

We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.

Mitchell brings her generosity of spirit, her humility, and optimistic curiosity to her travels, debunking the American-abroad stereotype. Visiting Prussia, she writes:

I try, when I am abroad, to see in what they are superior to us, — not in what they are inferior.

Our great idea is, of course, freedom and self-government; probably in that we are ahead of the rest of the world, although we are certainly not so much in advance as we suppose; but we are sufficiently inflated with our own greatness to let that subject take care of itself when we travel. We travel to learn; and I have never been in any country where they did not do something better than we do it, think some thoughts better than we think, catch some inspiration from heights above our own — as in the art of Italy, the learning of England, and the philosophy of Germany.

In her typical fashion of observing a small circumstance and extrapolating from it a grand truth about life, Mitchell writes while encountering travel difficulties due to two warring railroads in Russia:

War, no matter where or when it occurs, means ignorance and stupidity.

And yet Mitchell was a relentless optimist when it came to the capacity of the human mind and spirit. In a diary entry, chronicling her observation of the Denver solar eclipse in 1878, she writes:

We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire; the more we see, the more are we capable of seeing.

Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals is absolutely fantastic in its entirety, a remarkable glimpse of a remarkable mind that shaped modern society in ways we’re only just beginning to fully realize. Do yourself a favor and grab the free download.

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