Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

10 DECEMBER, 2013

Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer, on Science and Religion

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“Everything is naturally related and interconnected.”

Science and religion have long been pitted as diametric opposites, and yet some of humanity’s greatest minds have found in science itself a rich source of spirituality — there’s Albert Einstein’s meditation on whether scientists pray, Richard Feynman’s ode to the universe, Carl Sagan on the reverence of science, Bucky Fuller’s scientific rendition of The Lord’s Prayer, Richard Dawkins on the magic of reality, and Isaac Asimov on science and spirituality. But one of history’s most poignant meditations on the subject comes from the English mathematician and writer Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (December 10, 1815–November 27, 1852), better-known as Ada Lovelace — the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron and commonly considered the world’s first computer programmer.

Portrait of Ada Lovelace by Lisa Congdon for our Reconstructionists project. Click image for details.

In a 1844 letter to her Somerset neighbor, the experimenter in electricity Andrew Crosse, found in Betty A. Toole’s altogether fantastic Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers: A Selection from the Letters of Lord Byron’s Daughter and Her Description of the First Computer (public library), Lovelace — the child of an era still characterized by extreme, all-permeating religiosity that governed nearly all aspects of public and private life — considers the spiritual quality of science, inseparable from the teaching of (at that time, religious) philosophy.

I am more than ever now the bride of science. Religion to me is science, and science is religion. In that deeply-felt truth lies the secret of my intense devotion to the reading of God’s natural works… And when I behold the scientific and so-called philosophers full of selfish feelings, and of a tendency to war against circumstances and Providence, I say to myself: They are not true priests, they are but half prophets — if not absolutely false ones. They have read the great page simply with the physical eye, and with none of the spirit within. The intellectual, the moral, the religious seem to me all naturally bound up and interlinked together in one great and harmonious whole… There is too much tendency to making separate and independent bundles of both the physical and the moral facts of the universe.

Whereas, all and everything is naturally related and interconnected. A volume could I write on this subject…

Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers is an altogether illuminating read, shedding light on the life and mind of one of history’s most deserving yet unsung pioneers of the technologies that shape our lives today.

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04 DECEMBER, 2013

Hemingway on Not Writing for Free and How to Run a First-Rate Publication

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Find the best writers, pay them to write, and avoid typos at all costs.

Recent discussions of why writing for free commodifies creative work reminded me of an old letter Ernest Hemingway sent to his friends Ernest Walsh and Ethel Moorhead when they were about to launch This Quarter — the influential experimental Paris-based literary journal that would go on to publish work by such greats as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Kay Boyle, William Carlos Williams, Marcel Duchamp, Rainer Maria Rilke, Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, and Hemingway himself over the course of its run between 1925 and 1932.

Dated January 7, 1925 and found in The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 2, 1923–1925 (public library) — the impressive sequel to the first volume, which also gave us young Papa’s thoughts on how New York can drive you to insanity — the letter rings with remarkable prescience in today’s publishing microcosm where major publications expect writers to work for free in exchange for “exposure.” The result, unsurprisingly, is mediocre writing at best — not because good writing is motivated by money, but because nothing demotivates a writer more than feeling like her writing is vacant filler for pages meant not to delight or enrich the reader but to sell advertising.

Hemingway counsels Walsh and Moorhead:

One of the most important things I believe is to get the very best work that people are doing so you do not make the mistake the Double Dealer and such magazine made of printing 2nd rate stuff by 1st rate writers.

I see by your prospectus that you are paying for [manuscripts] on acceptance and think that is the absolute secret of getting the first rate stuff. It is not a question of competing with the big money advertizing magazines but of giving the artist a definite return for his work. For his best work can never get into the purely commercially run magazines anyway but he will always hold on to it hoping to get something for it and will only give away stuff that has no value to any magazine or review.

Before closing the letter, he adds a timeless admonition that, despite his own meta-violation, stands all the timelier in today’s age of rapid-fire publishing:

And watch proof reading and typography — there is nothing can spoil a persons appreciation of good stuff like typographical errors.

The Letters of Ernest Hemingway is full of such evergreen wisdom from one of the most celebrated writers in modern history. Complement it with Hemingway on how to become a good writer and his pithy Nobel Prize acceptance speech, then revisit the collected advice of great writers.

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27 NOVEMBER, 2013

Einstein on Why We Are Alive

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The meaning of human existence in five lines.

Given my soft spot for big thinkers’ answers to young people’s questions about life, I was thrilled when reader Dave Anderson shared the story of his mother’s exchange with none other than Albert Einstein. When Marion Block Anderson, an altogether exceptional woman, was a freshman at Oberlin College in 1951, she reached out to “the quintessential modern genius” and asked him, “Why are we alive?” She later told Dave about the impetus for her letter:

We were having one war after another — first we had the First World War, then we had the Second World War and I just couldn’t see any point to the whole thing. So I wrote him a letter and I said, “What’s the point of living with what we’re going through here — having one war after another?”

Lo and behold, Einstein wrote back. While short, his letter extends with exquisite precision both the answer to the question about the meaning of life and his views on religion:

Einstein, in fact, had the admirable habit of actually responding to many of the letters he received from his young admirers, the best of which are collected in Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children (public library) — the same compendium that gave us Einstein’s heartening response to a little girl who wanted to be a scientist and his timeless answer to a child who wanted to know whether scientists pray.

Also see Einstein’s little-known correspondence with Freud on war and human nature and his remarkable conversation with Indian philosopher Tagore on truth, beauty, science, and spirituality.

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