Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

11 JULY, 2013

Do Scientists Pray? Einstein Answers a Little Girl’s Question about Science vs. Religion

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“Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man.”

Whether in their inadvertently brilliant reflections on gender politics or in their seemingly simple but profound questions about how the world works, kids have a singular way of stripping the most complex of cultural phenomena down to their bare essence, forcing us to reexamine our layers of assumptions. Take, for instance, the age-old tension between science and religion, which has occupied the minds of luminaries from Galileo to Carl Sagan, as well as some of today’s most renowned scientific minds. The enormous cultural baggage of the question didn’t stop a little girl from New York named Phyllis from posing it to none other than the great Albert Einstein in a 1936 letter found in Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children (public library) — the same delightful collection that gave us Einstein’s encouraging words to women in science.

The Riverside Church

January 19, 1936

My dear Dr. Einstein,

We have brought up the question: Do scientists pray? in our Sunday school class. It began by asking whether we could believe in both science and religion. We are writing to scientists and other important men, to try and have our own question answered.

We will feel greatly honored if you will answer our question: Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for?

We are in the sixth grade, Miss Ellis’s class.

Respectfully yours,

Phyllis

Only five days later, Einstein wrote back — isn’t it lovely when cultural giants respond to children’s sincere curiosity? — and his answer speaks to the same spiritual quality of science that Carl Sagan extolled decades later and Ptolemy did millennia earlier. Six years prior, Einstein had explored that very subject, in far more complicated language and mind-bending rhetoric, in his legendary conversation with the Indian philosopher Tagore.

January 24, 1936

Dear Phyllis,

I will attempt to reply to your question as simply as I can. Here is my answer:

Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.

However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains widespread even with the current achievements in science.

But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.

With cordial greetings,

your A. Einstein

Complement this with the difference between curiosity and wonder when it comes to science and scripture and Einstein on the secret to learning anything, then treat yourself to Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children in its heart-warming entirety.

Portrait of Einstein by Yousuf Karsh

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05 JULY, 2013

Do Everything Well: Lord Chesterfield on the Art of Dress

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“Be wiser than other people, if you can; but do not tell them so.”

Lord Chesterfield is best-remembered for his witty and wise epistolary legacy, collected in Lord Chesterfield’s Letters (public library; public domain). The letters, penned mostly to his son and godson, cover everything from politics to literature to love and offer an ever-entertaining blend of timeless wisdom, practical tips, and very questionable moral advice. But if there is one thing for which Chesterfield remains particularly known, it is his exceptional sensitivity to societal customs and his finesse in gracefully navigating them for his benefit.

In this letter to his son from November of 1745, for instance, Lord Chesterfield captures in one short passage the essence of fashion, the enormity of its enduring allure as a form of social currency, and why it mesmerizes us so:

Do everything you do well. There is no one thing so trifling, but which (if it is to be done at all) ought to be done well. … For instance, dress is a very foolish thing; and yet it is a very foolish thing for a man not to be well dressed, according to his rank and way of life; and it is so far from being a disparagement to any man’s understanding, that it is rather a proof of it, to be as well dressed as those whom he lives with: the difference in this case, between a man of sense and a fop, is, that the fop values himself upon his dress; and the man of sense laughs at it, at the same time that he knows he must not neglect it. There are a thousand foolish customs of this kind, which not being criminal must be complied with, and even cheerfully, by men of sense. Diogenes the Cynic was a wise man for despising them; but a fool for showing it. Be wiser than other people, if you can; but do not tell them so.

Complement with this vintage guide to do’s and don’ts in the art of conversation and history’s finest fatherly advice, including Einstein on the secret to learning anything, John Steinbeck on falling in love, and Sherwood Anderson on the creative life.

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01 JULY, 2013

Kids on Gender Politics: Amusing and Poignant Responses from Children in the 1970s-1980s

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Minors counter major hegemony with disarming clarity.

“Children help us to mediate between the ideal and the real,” MoMA’s Juliet Kinchin observed in her wonderful design history of childhood. Indeed, children have a singular way of seeing even the most complex of cultural phenomena with disarming clarity. From Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 (public library) — the same wonderful tome that gave us the story of how feminist magazine Ms. sparked the “social media” storm of women’s empowerment and Pete Seeger’s delightful solution to gender politics in language — comes this charming selection of children’s responses to the cultural climate of the second wave of feminism. Amusing, poignant, and infinitely telling, the letters epitomize the signature Ms. “click” moment — a term coined by the magazine to denote an instant feminist insight derived from an anecdote that just “clicks.”

My four-year-old niece was sharing a snack of cheese and crackers with her grandfather. Halfway through the plate he noticed she was gobbling it up at a pace rivaling his own. He proclaimed, “Boy, Erin you’re really a ‘cheeseman’!” Amused at his obvious error she replied, “No, Papa! I’m a cheese ‘person’!”

This wasn’t a statement of the influence of feminism; it was an innocent recognition of an obvious mistake in word usage. At four years old, Erin was aware of someone’s casual denial of her womanhood. Before long she may no longer notice it and begin to accept it …. not if I can prevent it.

Name Withheld
June 24, 1981

I thought you might enjoy hearing a discussion I heard between my son and his neighbor friend. They were playing together and the little boy got the giggles. “Hee-hee-hee-hee,” he giggled, whereupon my son replied in a very condescending tone, “What are you, Danny, some kind of chauvinist? In this house we say “her-her-her-her!”

Her who laughs last,

Name Withheld
August 7, 1975

Recently my nine-year-old son and I were looking around the house for a ruler for his homework assignment. I observed to him that when I was growing up, most rulers had the golden rule printed upon them. “What’s that?” he asked. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” I replied. “Oh,” he said, “I know where you got that. You got that at all those ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] meetings.” Click!

Betsy Brinson
Richmond, Virginia
August 1980 Issue

I offer the following excerpt, taken from a school assignment written by my seven-year-old grandniece, as evidence of the future good health of the feminist movement:

“George Washington’s brother had died. In those days women did not get to own there own home. So George Washington’s sister did not get the house. George got the house. . . . He became the first president. And then he was put on a nickel.”

Name Withheld
March 11, 1979

The analysis of power-preserving notions of behavior based on biological characteristics in Steinem’s article was topical for our family. Only a few weeks ago our three-year-old daughter added to the list of attitudes toward genitalia undocumented in print.

Her behavior occurred in the locker room with her father after a swimming lesson. Observing all the male genitals, she asked if all people grow up to have penises. Her father told her that only men and boys have them. She studied him carefully and consoled him. “Don’t worry, Dad, it’s only a little one.”

Alice Fredricks
Mill Valley, California
September 23, 1978

I was observing in my daughter’s class during a sixth-grade open house when the discussion turned to immigration. Why did people immigrate to America? The teacher and the class discussed pestilence, war, persecution and then addressed famine. “What is famine?” the teacher asked one of the boys in the class.

“Discrimination against women.”

Name Withheld
April 1, 1981

I recently had an experience that I suppose falls into the click category. I was sharing the bathroom with my daughter, who is not yet three. She made an observation and the following conversation ensued:

“You don’t wipe your bottom when you tinkle.”

“No, Kristin, I don’t.”

Reflective pause, then, “Why?”

“Because my tinkle comes out a different place than yours.”

Another reflective pause, then, “Why?”

“Because boys and girls are different.”

Another reflective pause, then with certainty, “No, boys are different.”

My interpretation of this sample event is that she does not see the society or the world in terms of masculine “norm,” with her own status defined only in relation to that “norm.” I hope my interpretation is correct. As parents, we must be doing something right.

Robert J. Shaw, Minister
Tabernacle Christian Church
Franklin, Indiana
July 1981 Issue

Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 is absolutely fantastic — necessary, even — in its entirety, at once timeless and infinitely timely in bespeaking the struggles we still face as a society striving for equality in all dimensions.

Public domain photographs by Nickolas Muray via George Eastman House

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