Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

06 APRIL, 2015

Richard Feynman on How His Father Taught Him about What Is Most Important

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How to plant the seed for the lifelong pleasure of finding things out.

Theoretical physicist and legendary science communicator Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988) remains known as “The Great Explainer” — a moniker at least as deserved as his Nobel Prize, merited by his enchanting explanations of such seemingly ordinary things as the magic of a flower, how rubber bands work, and why everything is connected to everything else.

In this wonderful short film — the second installment in Blank on Blank’s mini-series celebrating visionary innovators in science, which also gave us Jane Goodall on life — animator Paul Ruttledge brings to life a forgotten 1966 interview, in which The Great Explainer shares the story of how his father planted in him the seed for what would blossom into his life’s work: the art of extracting what is most important in science and translating it into a language at once widely understandable and universally captivating, an art rewarded not by honors and accolades but by “the pleasure of finding things out.”

The thing that was very important about my father was not the facts but the process. How we find out.

How exquisitely Feynman’s father embodies what the great Simone Weil wrote in her notebook in 1933: “The most important part of teaching = to teach what is to know (in the scientific sense).”

Complement with Feynman on the key to science in 63 seconds, his little-known drawings collected by his daughter, the role of scientific culture in modern society, his magnificent 1974 Caltech commencement address on integrity, and his mischievous Nobel Prize wager, then revisit this irresistible graphic-novel biography of The Great Explainer.

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02 APRIL, 2015

Teenage James Joyce’s Beautiful Letter to Ibsen, His Great Hero

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“We always keep the dearest things to ourselves.”

One need only look at the canon of quiet champions behind creative icons to be reminded of how deeply and lastingly a young person setting out on a creative path can be touched by a simple word of encouragement from one of his or her heroes — one of the “spiritual and mental ancestors” we choose for ourselves, which are essential to our identity. Would Whitman be Whitman without Emerson’s generous letter? Would Sendak be Sendak without Ursula Nordstrom’s unflinching support? Would Bukowski have remained a mere postal worker without the patron who helped him quit his soul-sucking day job to be come a full-time writer? Would young Hermann Hesse have sunk into resignation without Thomas Mann’s deeply assuring letters?

Among the beneficiaries of these small yet life-changing kindnesses was teenage James Joyce (February 2, 1882–January 13, 1941).

His first published work — a laudatory review of Henrik Ibsen’s play When We Dead Awaken — appeared in the influential Fortnightly Review in the spring of 1900. Joyce was only eighteen. Ibsen, who had just suffered a series of strokes, was deeply touched by the article’s benevolent sentiment. He wrote to his English translator, the prominent Scottish drama critic William Archer, to express appreciation for Joyce’s review. Archer then wrote to the young author, passing along Ibsen’s words of gratitude.

Joyce, already high on the honor of being published in the prestigious journal, was elevated to absolute elation by the knowledge that not one but two of his literary idols had not only paid attention to his work but had appreciated it. On April 28, five days after receiving Archer’s letter, he sent the following reply, found in Joyce: Selected Letters (public library):

Dear Sir I wish to thank you for your kindness in writing to me. I am a young Irishman, eighteen years old, and the words of Ibsen I shall keep in my heart all my life. Faithfully yours

Jas A. Joyce

But the exchange was no fleeting gratification. Almost a year later, in March of 1901, Joyce sent Ibsen a beautiful letter for the playwright’s seventy-third birthday.

Having just turned nineteen, Joyce writes:

I can hardly tell you how moved I was by your message. I am a young, a very young man, and perhaps the telling of such tricks of the nerves will make you smile. But I am sure if you go back along your own life to the time when you were an undergraduate at the University as I am, and if you think what it would have meant to you to have earned a word from one who held as high a place in your esteem as you hold in mine, you will understand my feeling.

Etching for Ulysses by Italian artist Mimmo Paladino. Click image for more.

And yet Joyce, perhaps gripped with youth’s dual capacity for profound admiration and stubborn pride, is quick to redact any impression of excessive adulation while assuring Ibsen that his veneration comes from a place more sincere than the vanity of superficial idolatry:

Do not think me a hero-worshipper — I am not so. And when I spoke of you in debating societies and so forth, I enforced attention by no futile ranting.

But we always keep the dearest things to ourselves. I did not tell them what bound me closest to you. I did not say how what I could discern dimly of your life was my pride to see, how your battles inspired me — not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead, how your willful resolution to wrest the secret from life gave me heart and how in your absolute indifference to public canons of art, friends and shibboleths you walked in the light of your inward heroism. And this is what I write to you of now.

But for all his precocious mastery of thought and language, Joyce is still very much a teenager — to him, a 73-year-old is so ancient as to be practically dead. In a rather morbid passage, Joyce assumes the role of a mortality-hypnotist and writes:

Your work on earth draws to a close and you are near the silence. It is growing dark for you. Many write of such things, but they do not know. You have only opened the way — though you have gone as far as you could upon it… But I am sure that higher and holier enlightenment lies — onward.

Ibsen lived another five years, but the play young Joyce had reviewed was his last, which renders Joyce’s closing words triply touching:

As one of the young generation for whom you have spoken I give you greeting — not humbly, because I am obscure and you in the glare, not sadly, because you are an old man and I a young man, not presumptuously, nor sentimentally — but joyfully, with hope and with love, I give you greeting. Faithfully yours,

James A. Joyce

Perhaps Ibsen’s assuring words were what gave young Joyce “the faith in the soul” of which he wrote in his magnificent letter to Lady Gregory the following year.

Complement Joyce: Selected Letters, which is a treasure trove in its hefty totality, with Isaac Asimov’s heartwarming fan mail to young Carl Sagan and Charles Dickens’s wonderful letter to George Eliot.

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25 MARCH, 2015

Viva Frida: A Beautiful and Unusual Children’s Book Celebrating Frida Kahlo’s Story and Spirit

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The story of creative culture’s most uncommon Alice in a luminous Wonderland of her own making.

Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907–July 13, 1954) was a woman of vibrantly tenacious spirit who overcame an unfair share of adversity to become one of humanity’s most remarkable artists and a wholehearted human being out of whom poured passionate love letters and compassionate friend-letters.

The polio she contracted as a child left her right leg underdeveloped — an imperfection she’d later come to disguise with her famous colorful skirts. As a teenager, having just become one of only thirty-five female students at Mexico’s prestigious Preparatoria school, Kahlo was in a serious traffic accident that sent an iron rod through her stomach and uterus. She spent three months in a full-body cast and even though the doctors didn’t believe it possible, she willed her way to walking again. Although the remainder of her life was strewn with relapses of extreme pain, frequent hospital visits, and more than thirty operations, that initial recovery period was a crucial part of her creative journey.

True to Roald Dahl’s conviction that illness emboldens creativity, Kahlo made her first strides in painting while bedridden, as a way of occupying herself, painting mostly her own image. Today, she remains best-known for her vibrant self-portraits, which comprise more than a third of her paintings, blending motifs from traditional Mexican art with a surrealist aesthetic. Above all, she became a testament to the notion that we can transcend external limitations to define our scope of possibility.

Kahlo’s singular spirit and story spring to life in the immeasurably wonderful Viva Frida (public library) by writer/illustrator Yuyi Morales and photographer Tim O’Meara.

In simple, lyrical words and enchanting photo-illustrations, this dreamlike bilingual beauty tells the story of an uncommon Alice in a luminous Wonderland of her own making.

Morales, who painstakingly handcrafted all the figurines and props and staged each vignette, writes in the afterword:

When I think of Frida Kahlo, I think of orgullo, pride. Growing up in Mexico, I wanted to know more about this woman with her mustache and unibrow. Who was this artist who had unapologetically filled her paintings with old and new symbols of Mexican culture in order to tell her own story?

I wasn’t always so taken by Frida. When I was younger, I often found her paintings tortuous and difficult to understand. The more I learned about Frida’s life, the more her paintings began to take on new light for me. I finally saw that what had terrified me about Frida’s images was actually her way of expressing the things she felt, feared, and wanted.

[…]

Her work was proud and unafraid and introduced the world to a side of Mexican culture that had been hidden from view.

As a child, while learning to draw, I would often study my own reflection in the mirror and think about Frida. Did she know how many artists she influenced with her courage and her ability to overcome her own limitations?

Here is a behind-the-scenes look at Morales’s process that only intensifies the project’s magic:

Viva Frida, which is immensely beautiful from cover to cover, joins the canon of inspired picture-book biographies of cultural icons like Jane Goodall, Henri Matisse, Pablo Neruda, Henri Rousseau, Julia Child, Albert Einstein, Ibn Sina, and Maria Merian.

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20 MARCH, 2015

The Illustrated Story of Persian Polymath Ibn Sina and How He Shaped the Course of Medicine

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How a voraciously curious little boy became one of the world’s greatest healers.

Humanity’s millennia-old quest to understand the human body is strewn with medical history milestones, but few individual figures merit as much credit as Persian prodigy-turned-polymath Ibn Sina (c. 980 CE–1037 AD), commonly known in the West as Avicenna — one of the most influential thinkers in our civilization’s unfolding story. He authored 450 known works spanning physics, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, logic, poetry, and medicine, including the seminal encyclopedia The Canon of Medicine, which forever changed our understanding of the human body and its inner workings. This masterwork of science and philosophy — or metaphysics, as it was then called — remained in use as a centerpiece of medieval medical education until six hundred years after Ibn Sina’s death.

As a lover of children’s books that celebrate the life-stories of influential and inspiring luminaries — including those of Jane Goodall, Henri Matisse, Pablo Neruda, Henri Rousseau, Julia Child, Albert Einstein, and Maria Merian — I was delighted to come upon The Amazing Discoveries of Ibn Sina (public library) by Lebanese writer Fatima Sharafeddine and Iran-based Iraqi illustrator Intelaq Mohammed Ali, a fine addition to these favorite children’s books celebrating science.

In stunning illustrations reminiscent of ancient Islamic manuscript paintings, this lyrical first-person biography traces Ibn Sina’s life from his childhood as a voracious reader to his numerous scientific discoveries to his lifelong project of advancing the art of healing.

A universal celebration of curiosity and the unrelenting pursuit of knowledge, the story is doubly delightful for adding a sorely needed touch of diversity to the homogenous landscape of both science history and contemporary children’s books — here are two Middle Eastern women, telling the story of a pioneering scientist from the Islamic Golden Age.

The Amazing Discoveries of Ibn Sina comes from Canadian indie powerhouse Groundwood Books, who have also given us such treasures as a wordless illustrated celebration of the art of noticing, a tender love letter to winter, and a heartening celebration of gender diversity.

Illustrations courtesy of Groundwood Books; photographs my own.

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