Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

10 APRIL, 2012

C. S. Lewis’s Advice to Children on Duty and the Three Kinds of Things Anyone Need Ever Do

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“Most of us need the crutch at times; but of course it’s idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs can do the journey on their own!”

As if one needed another reason to have a soft spot for beloved writer C. S. Lewis: He received many fan letters from children, mostly after the publication of The Chronicles of Narnia, and answered many of them. In fact, he didn’t just answer them; his correspondence with young readers, collected in C. S. Lewis: Letters to Children, was full of tremendous generosity, compassion, and wholeheartedness — and subtle, timeless wisdom.

In a letter to a girl named Sarah, dated April 3, 1949, Lewis writes:

Remember that there are only three kinds of things anyone need ever do. (1) Things we ought to do (2) Things we’ve got to do (3) Things we like doing. I say this because some people seem to spend so much of their time doing things for none of the three reasons, things like reading books they don’t like because other people read them. Things you ought to do are things like doing one’s school work or being nice to people. Things one has got to do are things like dressing and undressing, or household shopping. Things one likes doing — but of course I don’t know what you like. Perhaps you’ll write and tell me one day.

Nearly a decade later, in a letter dated July 18, 1957, Lewis revisit the subject of duty’s false deities with another little girl, Joan:

A perfect man wd. never act from a sense of duty; he’d always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and of other people), like a crutch, which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need the crutch at times; but of course it’s idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs (or own loves, tastes, habits etc) can do the journey on their own!

(It must be the week for sage advice to little girls from cultural icons.)

This caution against duty eclipsing your authentic drives is a fine addition to the discussion of how to find your purpose and do what you love.

Also in C. S. Lewis: Letters to Children you’ll find Lewis’s 5 tips on writing, originally intended for little ones, but surprisingly useful — needed, even — reminders for any grown-up writer.

Letters of Note

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10 APRIL, 2012

A Glorious Enterprise: The Making of American Science

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The institution is conceived for the purposes of rational, free, literary and scientific conversation… We meet also to compare the advances of the sciences in the rest of the world with our own… We are lovers of science.

So began the story of a small group of amateur scientists, who gathered in an equally small apartment on the corner of Second and Market streets in Philadelphia one chilly Saturday evening on January 25, 1812, several blocks away from a rival group — the American Philosophical Society, founded by Benjamin Franklin some seventy years prior. Our heroes had been excluded from APS for “social reasons” — immigrants and self-made men, they had been shunned by the APS, a place for the socially prominent American gentry. But, passionate in their love for science and natural history, they remained undeterred and on March 21 of the same year they named their gathering the “Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia,” which stands today as the oldest natural history museum in the Western Hemisphere.

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Academy, University of Pennsylvania Press at my alma mater has published A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the Making of American Science (public library) — a magnificent, epic tome that tells in 464 lavishly illustrated pages, weighing in at nearly 10 pounds and over a foot tall, the story of the Academy and its quest to acquire and disseminate knowledge of the natural world.

And what a story it is — from how Ernest Hemingway shaped the field of ichthyology to what Edgar Allan Poe was doing in the oldest-known photograph taken inside a museum, it’s a story brimming with rare glimpses of strange specimens and obscure images, laced with tales of scientific rivalry, boundless inspiration, ruthless pursuits of scientific immortality, and perseverance in the face of terrible odds, with cameos by Thomas Jefferson and James Bond, among other unlikely heroes.

Edgar Allan Poe (right), who spent time at the Academy doing research on mollusks; Joseph Leidy, a young medical student (center); and Samuel George Morton (left in top hat) were photographed in the Academy's new building at Board and Sansom Streets during the winter of 1842-43. This daguerrotype, possibly by Paul Beck Goddard, is the oldest-known photograph of an American museum interior.

'Leaf insects' (a lineage of tropical walking sticks). These remarkable Phasmida are found in rainforest canopies of tropical Asia. Included in this group are many newly described specimens from the Philippines. The others are from New Guinea and the Seychelles.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) admires a catch aboard the Pilar, 1934. His understanding of the game fishes of the Atlantic, communicated through the Academy, made significant contributions to the field of ichthyology.

American Flamingo by John James Audubon, hand-colored engraving by Robert Havell Jr. for The Birds of America (1827-38)

Skulls of the American flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) presented to the Academy by Thomas B. Wilson in 1846

Kirtland's owl (Saw-whet owl), hand-colored lithograph by George White for John Cassin's Illustrations of the Birds of California, Teas, Oregon, British and Russian America (1856)

Members of the American Entomological Society on a collecting trip circa 1900

Coconut crabs (Birgus latro) collected on Flint Island (an uninhabited coral atoll four hundred nautical miles northwest of Tahiti in the Central Pacific) by C. D. Voy in 1875

Shed snake skins collected by George M. Feirer in 1942

The skull of 'Pierce', the cannibalistic Englishman from Australia

Agricultural seed samples collected by Charles F. Kuenne, 1948

Joseph Leidy's original drawings of rhizopods (protozoans). Leidy was 22 years old when he became a member of the Academy in 1845.

Magnificent in both its scope and its ambitious physicality, A Glorious Enterprise is a fascinating miniature museum in and of itself, exploring the cultural history of natural history with equal parts rigor and romanticism — the hallmark of great science.

Science Times; some images courtesy of University of Pennsylvania Press / ANSP and Rosamond Purcell

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09 APRIL, 2012

Women in Science: Einstein’s Advice to a Little Girl Who Wants to Be a Scientist

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On what matters and what doesn’t.

Earlier today, we witnessed the gender imbalance in philosophy — an imbalance arguably more pronounced in science than in any other field. It’s a systemic problem solved not simply by putting more women in the Science section of the bookstore or on the TED stage or on the science faculties of higher education, but by encouraging more little girls to become scientists in the first place. But, how?

From the delightful Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children (public library) comes the following exchange between Einstein and a bright, witty South African girl named Tyfanny, who reminded Einstein of his own granddaughter and with whom he exchanged several letters despite being at the height of his career and cultural prominence.

In a letter dated September 19, 1946, Tyfanny writes:

I forgot to tell you, in my last letter, that I was a girl. I mean I am a girl. I have always regretted this a great deal, but by now I have become more or less resigned to the fact. Anyway, I hate dresses and dances and all the kind of rot girls usually like. I much prefer horses and riding. Long ago, before I wanted to become a scientist, I wanted to b e a jockey and ride horses in races. But that was ages ago, now. I hope you will not think any the less of me for being a girl!

Sometime between September and October 1946 — a snappy response time by the day’s standards — Einstein replies:

I do not mind that you are a girl, but the main thing is that you yourself do not mind. There is no reason for it.

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