Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

24 SEPTEMBER, 2013

The Beautiful and Frightening Experience of How Science Is Done: Richard Feynman’s Letter to James Watson about The Double Helix

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A manifesto for messiness and the value of the subjective in the advancement of knowledge.

In February of 1967, Richard Feynmanchampion of scientific culture, graphic novel hero, crusader for integrity, existential sage, secret artist — visited the University of Chicago and ran into DNA godfather James Watson, also visiting at the time. Watson, who had met Feynman while guest-lecturing on the structure of DNA at Caltech, gave him the manuscript to what would become The Double Helix — one of the most influential books in the history of modern science. A couple of weeks later, Feynman sent Watson a poignant letter, included in Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman (public library) — the fantastic anthology that also gave us The Great Explainer’s irreverent Nobel wager — addressing Watson’s fears about the book and the controversy he knew it would generate by virtue of its subjective point of view.

Feynman’s letter doesn’t just address the specific subject directly — like all of his meditations, it touches on timeless, timelier than ever points about the value of the subjective, the caveats of criticism, and above all that science is often intuitive, messy, and full of ego-transcendence. He begins by reminding us of what should be a cardinal rule of the internet:

Don’t let anybody criticize that book who hasn’t read it thru to the end. Its apparent minor faults and petty gossipy incidents fall into place as deeply meaningful and vitally necessary to your work (the book — the literary work I mean) as one comes to the end. From the irregular trivia of ordinary life mixed with a bit of scientific doodling and failure, to the intense dramatic concentration as one closes in on the truth and the final elation (plus with gradually decreasing frequency, the sudden sharp pangs of doubt) — that is how science is done. I recognize my own experiences with discovery beautifully (and perhaps for the first time!) described as the book nears its close. There it is utterly accurate.

And the entire ‘novel’ has a master plot and a deep unanswered human question at the end: Is the sudden transformation of all the relevant scientific characters from petty people to great and selfless men because they see together a beautiful corner of nature unveiled and forget themselves in the presence of the wonder? Or is it because our writer suddenly sees all his characters in a new and generous light because he has achieved success and confidence in his work, and himself? Don’t try to resolve it. Leave it that way. Publish with as little change as possible. The people who say “that is not how science is done” are wrong. In the early parts you describe the impression by one nervous young man imputing motives (possibly entirely erroneous) on how the science is done by the men around him. (I myself have not had the kind of experiences with my colleagues to lead me to think their motives were often like those you describe — I think you may be wrong — but I don’t know the individuals you knew — but no matter, you describe your impressions as a young man.) But when you describe what went on in your head as the truth haltingly staggers upon you and passes on, finally fully recognized, you are describing how science is done. I know, for I have had the same beautiful and frightening experience.

If you were really serious about wanting something on the flyleaf, tell me and we can work something out.

Feynman made good on his word: When the first hardcover edition of The Double Helix was published, it featured the following blurb from Feynman on the dust jacket: “He has described admirably how it feels to have that frightening and beautiful experience of making a great scientific discovery.”

Complement with Feynman on the meaning life, the role of scientific culture in modern society, and the universal responsibility of scientists.

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23 SEPTEMBER, 2013

What George Eliot Teaches Us about the Life-Cycle of Happiness and the Science of Why We’re Happier When We’re Older

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“One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy.”

Much like creativity is a skill rather than a gift and genius the product of work ethic rather than inspiration, happiness, too, is a practice rather than a state, one that necessitates both learning and constant maintenance. Long before the findings of modern psychology and cognitive science, beloved author George Eliot arrived at this insight one spring Sunday in 1844. Writing in a letter to her dear friend Sara Hennell, found in George Eliot’s Life, as Related in her Letters and Journals (public library; public domain), 25-year-old Eliot reflects on the life-cycle of happiness, defying the romantic myth of the idyllic childhood and insisting instead that our capacity for happiness swells with age:

One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy. I am just beginning to make some progress in the science, and I hope to disprove Young’s theory that “as soon as we have found the key of life it opes the gates of death.” Every year strips us of at least one vain expectation, and teaches us to reckon some solid good in its stead. I never will believe that our youngest days are our happiest. What a miserable augury for the progress of the race and the destination of the individual if the more matured and enlightened state is the less happy one! Childhood is only the beautiful and happy time in contemplation and retrospect: to the child it is full of deep sorrows, the meaning of which is unknown. Witness colic and whooping-cough and dread of ghosts, to say nothing of hell and Satan, and an offended Deity in the sky, who was angry when I wanted too much plumcake. Then the sorrows of older persons, which children see but cannot understand, are worse than all. All this to prove that we are happier than when we were seven years old, and that we shall be happier when we are forty than we are now, which I call a comfortable doctrine, and one worth trying to believe!

As is often the case with history’s greatest luminaries, Eliot intuited something profound that has since been confirmed and quantified by modern science. In her book on optimism bias and the life-cycle of happiness, neuroscientist Tali Sharot shares some data consistent with Eliot’s sentiment. This is the pattern of a typical person’s happiness over the course of a lifetime — a pattern that persists even when controlled for variables like marital status, health, and cultural climate:

The data comes from behavioral economist Andrew Oswald’s research, which Sharot synthesizes:

Happiness and the ability to learn from bad news alter with age in reverse patterns. The latter follows an inverse U shape, while the former a more traditional U shape. The behavioral economist Andrew Oswald found that from about the time we are teenagers, our sense of happiness starts to decline, hitting rock bottom in our mid-40s (middle-age crisis, anyone?). Then our sense of happiness miraculously starts to go up again rapidly as we grow older. This finding contradicts the common assumption that people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s are less happy and satisfied than people in their 30s and 40s.

[…]

All in all, Oswald tested a half million people in 72 countries, in both developing and developed nations. He observed the same pattern across all parts of the globe and across sexes. From Switzerland to Ecuador, from Romania to Singapore, Slovakia, Israel, Spain, Australia, and China. Happiness diminishes as we transition from childhood to adulthood and then starts rising as we grow wrinkles and acquire gray hair. And it’s not only we humans who slump in the middle and feel sunnier toward the end. Just recently, Oswald and colleagues demonstrated that even chimpanzees and orangutans appear to experience a similar pattern of midlife malaise.

The increase of happiness with age might have to do with the notion that attention, like a muscle, grows with training. Since happiness is so heavily anchored to our capacity for presence and so diminished by our mind-wandering, the ability to truly see when we look at the world — something that takes time, practice, and awareness that youth rarely affords — is central to our sense of well-being. But if happiness is a habit to be cultivated, so is its opposite: Lest we forget, 40-year-old Eliot reminds us in The Mill on the Floss that “one gets a bad habit of being unhappy.” Fortunately, Eliot did grow her own capacity for contentment with age.

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04 SEPTEMBER, 2013

James Joyce’s Humorous Morphology of the Many Outrageous Myths about Him

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How the celebrated author earned a reputation as a lazy coke-head movie mogul with a peculiar clock habit.

While inhabiting all our contradictory selves may be the key to true happiness, when it comes to those in the public eye, such manufactured and often conflicting mythologies of self are often projected onto them by way of popular legend. This is especially true of those most reclusive and reticent about offering direct glimpses of the private persona beneath the public figure, thus enveloping the observed in alluring ambiguity which the observers readily fill with fanciful hypotheses and contemporary folklore.

From the ceaselessly entertaining Funny Letters from Famous People (public library) — which also gave us the best resignation letter ever written, courtesy of Sherwood Anderson, and Lewis Carroll’s hilarious letter of apology for standing a friend up — comes this letter James Joyce wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver on June 24, 1921, mere months before Ulysses was published by Sylvia Beach. The celebrated author lays out a characteristically long-winded and uncharacteristically humorous morphology of the outrageous myths and legends about him, while managing to slip in a dual jab at psychiatry frenemies Jung and Freud — an aside especially gratifying in its symmetry, given how meticulously Freud engineered his own myth.

James Joyce by Berenice Abbott

A nice collection could be made of legends about me. Here are some. My family in Dublin believe that I enriched myself in Switzerland during the war by espionage work for one or both combatants. Triestines, seeing me emerge from my relative’s house occupied by my furniture for about twenty minutes every day and walk to the same point, the G.P.O., and back (I was writing Nausikaa and The Oxen of the Sun [for Ulysses] in a dreadful atmosphere) circulated the rumour, now firmly believed, that I am a cocaine victim. The general rumour in Dublin was (till the prospectus of Ulysses stopped it) that I could write no more, had broken down, and was dying in New York. A man from Liverpool told me he had heard that I was the owner of several cinema theaters all over Switzerland. In America there appear to have been two versions: one that I was almost blind, emaciated and consumptive, the other that I am an austere mixture of the Dalai Lama and sir Rabindranath Tagore. Mr. Pound described me as a dour Aberdeen minister. Mr. [Wyndham] Lewis told me he was told I was a crazy fellow who always carried four watches and rarely spoke except to ask my neighbor what o’clock it was. Mr. Yeats seemed to have described me to Mr. Pound as a kind of Dick Swiveller. What the numerous (and useless) people to whom I have been introduced here think I don’t know. My habit of addressing people I have just met for the first time as “Monsieur” earned for me the reputation of a tout petit bourgeois while others consider what I intend for politeness as most offensive. . . . One woman here originated the rumour that I am extremely lazy and will never do or finish anything. (I calculate that I must have spent nearly 20,000 hours in writing Ulysses.) A batch of people in Zurich persuaded themselves that I was gradually going mad and actually endeavoured to induce me to enter a sanatorium where a certain Doctor Jung (the Swiss Tweedledum who is not to be confused with the Viennese Twiddledee, Dr. Freud) amuses himself at the expense (in every sense of the word) of ladies and gentlemen who are troubled with bees in their bonnets.

I mention all these views not to speak about myself or my critics but to show you how conflicting they all are. The truth probably is that I am a quite commonplace person undeserving of so much imaginative painting.

Funny Letters from Famous People is a treasure trove of delight, featuring similarly amusing epistles by such luminaries as E. B. White, Julia Child, Ernest Hemingway, Isaac Asimov, and dozens more.

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