Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

12 JUNE, 2015

June 12, 1918: Einstein’s Divorce Agreement and the Messiness of the Human Heart

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“In the case of a divorce, I would grant you significant pecuniary advantages through particularly generous concessions.”

It is always astounding to observe the readiness with which posterity comments on the private lives of public figures — the more prominent the latter, the more cynical the former. Couple that with our lamentable but all too human tendency to appease our own insecurities about imperfection by pointing out the flaws — perceived flaws, rather, based on alleged and unscrutinized “facts” — of others, and you get one of the saddest sports in our culture: poking holes in genius through hubristic commentary on the flawed intimate relationships of luminaries. Couples like John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald are frequent fare for the simplistic opinions of cynics — people who never met the couple in question, much less were present at their kitchen table or in their bedroom.

The truth, of course, is that nobody really knows exactly what transpires between two hearts — including, more often than we like to admit, the two people in whose chests they beat. But one can get a far more accurate and nuanced impression of a relationship’s complexities by engaging with the first-hand realities of those involved, through their letters and journals and memoirs, than by simply borrowing the opinions of posterity’s self-appointed pundits.

Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić

Nowhere is this truer than in the life of “the quintessential modern genius” and thus the most alluring target for that cultural sport: Albert Einstein’s relationship with his first wife, the Serbian physicist Mileva Marić, is mired in various allegations that boil down to some version of Einstein as a selfish egomaniac. But reading their prolific correspondence, which includes a great many beautiful love letters early on and deeply sorrowful exchanges as their love begins, or even seeing the Alan Alda play based on that correspondence, leaves one acutely aware of how much more nuance and dimension there is to their relationship, as to any relationship.

Even then, we’ve hardly glimpsed a fragment of the couple’s private truth. But there emerges a distinct sense that the unraveling of their love was the case of two strong-willed, ambitious individuals, both of enormous intellect and emotional capacity, who in growing up together — they had met when Albert was seventeen and Mileva twenty-one — simply grew apart.

Wedding photograph of Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić, January 6, 1903

By 1912, the relationship was strained beyond repair. They separated in 1914, after eleven years of marriage and twenty-eight as a couple. Soon, Einstein grew an epistolary romance and fell in love with Elsa Löwenthal, his cousin. (This was far from uncommon in that era.) In 1916, he suggested a formal divorce, but after Mileva developed a heart condition and began suffering from fever attacks, he retracted the idea. “From now on, I’ll not trouble her any more with the divorce,” he wrote to a friend.

But tensions continued to rise and as Mileva’s condition improved, Einstein proposed divorce for the second time in January of 1918, in a letter found in Princeton University’s newly released digital archive of Einstein’s papers — which also gave us Einstein on the fickle nature of fame — and included in The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Volume 8: The Berlin Years: Correspondence, 1914–1918 (public library). What is most extraordinary is not only that he beseeches his wife for a divorce with such desperation as to practically bribe her, not only that he so readily offers his Nobel Prize money as part of the bribe, but that he does so three whole years before he actually got the Nobel Prize.

Dear Mileva,

The endeavor finally to put my private affairs in some state of order prompts me to suggest the divorce to you for the second time. I am firmly resolved to do everything to make this step possible. In the case of a divorce, I would grant you significant pecuniary advantages through particularly generous concessions.

  1. 9,000 M [$1,560 then, $26,000 now] instead of 6,000 M, with the provision that 2,000 of it be deposited annually for the benefit of the children.
  2. The Nobel Prize — in the event of the divorce and in the event that it is bestowed upon me — would be ceded to you in full a priori. Disposal of the interest would be left entirely to your discretion. The capital would be despited in Switzerland and placed in safe-keeping for the children. My payments named under (1) would then fall away and be replaced by an annual payment which together with that interest totals 8,000 M. In this case you would have 8,000 M at your free disposition.
  3. The widow’s pension would be promised to you in the case of a divorce.

Naturally, I would make such huge sacrifices only in the case of a voluntary divorce. If you do not consent to the divorce, from now on, not a cent about 6,000 M per year will be sent to Switzerland. Now I request being informed whether you agree and are prepared to file a divorce claim against me. I would take care of everything here, so you would have neither trouble nor any inconveniences whatsoever.

Einstein ends with an endearing note about his elder son, Hans Albert, with whom he corresponded a great deal and once offered the secret to learning anything in a different letter. After a few well-wishing remarks about Mileva’s health, he writes:

Albert’s letters delight me exceedingly; fro them I see how well the boy is developing intellectually and in character… Kisses to the children.

Illustration from 'On a Beam of Light,' a children's book about Einstein's life. Click image for more.

Two months later, Einstein wrote to his Swiss friend Heinrich Zangger, perhaps his closest confidante at the time:

My wife and I now have quite a satisfactory relationship, despite my wanting to divorce… There is a lively exchange of letters between me and her; and now I believe that it works best if I discuss all matters openly with her.

On June 12, 1918, a divorce agreement was finally laid out, translating Einstein’s promise into legalese. The hypothetical but confidently awaited Nobel Prize money remains a centerpiece of the agreement, which includes the following clause:

Prof. Einstein shall instruct, in the event of a divorce and in case he receives the Nobel Prize, the [award money] to become the property of Mrs. Mileva Einstein and shall deposit this capital in trust at a Swiss bank.

He goes on to stipulate that in the event of Mileva’s death or remarriage, the award money should be transferred to their two sons instead.

Einstein in 1921

Mileva agreed and they divorced in 1919. In 1921, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize “for his services to Theoretical Physics,” which were instrumental in catalyzing the rise of quantum physics. He received his prize money a year later and, being a man of his word, promptly transferred the funds to Mileva. Some years later, when their younger son was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Einstein’s Nobel Prize paid for the young man’s towering and otherwise prohibitively expensive treatment.

Complement with Einstein on why we are alive, his legendary conversation with the Indian philosopher and fellow Nobel laureate Tagore, his little-known correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois on race and racial justice, and his answer to a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray.

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10 JUNE, 2015

The Blue Whale: A Loving Science Lullaby for Our Planet’s Largest-Hearted Creature

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An affectionate tour of an alternate universe right here on earth, where it’s possible to grow by nine pounds an hour and never sleep.

“The world is blue at its edges and in its depths,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her beautiful meditation on the color of distance and desire. No creature compresses the edgeless grandeur of our Pale Blue Dot into a single body as perfectly as the blue whale — an animal absolutely awesome in the true sense of the word. That awe-striking being is what London-based illustrator Jenni Desmond celebrates in the marvelous nonfiction children’s book The Blue Whale (public library) — a loving science lullaby about our planet’s biggest creature, and a beautiful addition to the finest children’s books celebrating science.

Alongside Desmond’s immeasurably warm and largehearted illustrations is her simply worded, deeply intelligent synthesis of what marine biologists know about this extraordinary mammal — in fact, she worked closely with Diane Gendron, a marine biologist who studies blue whales. At the heart of the book is a compassionate curiosity about the beings with whom we share this world, effecting what the great Mary Oliver called a “sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world.”

Indeed, despite the gaping disparity of scales, we have more in common with this gentle giant of the ocean than we realize — the blue whale, like us, is a highly intelligent mammal and one of the few creatures with a lifespan comparable to our own.

There is a charming meta touch to the story — the protagonist, a little boy with a crown that evokes Maurice Sendak’s Max, is learning and dreaming about blue whales by reading this very book, which he is seen holding in a number of the scenes.

Although the whaling industry of yore may have inspired some legendary art, more than 360,000 blue whales were killed in the first half of the twentieth century as these magnificent creatures were being reduced to oil, blubber, baleen, and meat. A global ban on whale hunting made them a protected species in 1966, but other forms of our arrogant anthropocentrism are putting them in danger anew as our our commercial fishing entangles them in its indiscriminate nets, our passenger ships pollute their habitats, and our general human activity continues to raise ocean temperatures.

And yet it isn’t with alarmism or bitter lamentation but with love befitting this largest-hearted of earthly creatures — its heart alone weighs around 1,300 pounds — that Desmond invites us into the world of the blue whale. She writes in the preface:

Blue whales are magnificent and intelligent creatures, and like all of the natural world they deserve our admiration and care. It is only then that they will flourish and multiply in their native ocean home.

And so it is with admiration and care that Desmond opens our eyes to the glory of this beautiful and intelligent creature — a creature whose own eye measures only six inches wide.

Next to its gargantuan weight of 160 tons, “about the same as a heap of 55 hippopotami,” and size of up to 100 feet, “the same length as a truck, a digger, a boat, a car, a bicycle, a motorcycle, a van, and a tractor — all lined up,” this minuscule eye devoid of tear glands and eyelashes makes for terribly poor eyesight.

But for this handicap of sensorial proportion the blue whale makes up in its astounding skin sensitivity and hearing — its ears, tiny holes located next to its minuscule eyes, can hear other whales’ songs up to 1,000 miles away. Because whales navigate the expanse of the ocean by sound, the noise of human-made vessels can disorient them, traumatize them, and even precipitate the kinds of mental illness Laurel Braitman explores in her excellent Animal Madness.

Desmond writes that no terrestrial animal can be nearly as big as the blue whale, for it would be impossible for a skeleton to support this much weight out of the water — the blue whale’s tongue alone weighs three tons “and its mouth is so big that 50 people can stand inside it.” This number, in fact, is a testament to what a whimsical cross-pollination of art, science, and sheer imagination this project is — Gendron manually measured how many people could stand in a boat the size of a blue whale’s mouth. (Fifty. Check.)

We learn, too, that while adult blue whales eat tiny shrimp-like creatures called krill, baby whales — being mammals — eat not krill but their mother’s milk for the first eight months of life, consuming nearly 50 gallons of milk every day and growing by as much as nine pounds an hour.

But the most astounding fact about the blue whale are its sleep habits, which make even the most irregular human sleepers look like professional slumberers. Desmond explains:

Blue whales sleep by taking very short naps while slowly swimming close to the ocean’s surface. This is called logging. They sleeping this way because they have to remember to open their blowhole in order to breathe. Blue whales can never completely lose consciousness, not even in sleep, otherwise they would drown.

Unlike blue whales, people can drift into sleep without having to remember to breathe and keep themselves float, so we can fall asleep over a favorite book and begin to dream…

The Blue Whale, endlessly wonderful from cover to cover, comes from Brooklyn-based independent picture-book powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books, publisher of some of the finest children’s books of our time — including an uncommonly tender Japanese take on The Velveteen Rabbit, the repeatedly rewarding The Lion and the Bird, and the illustrated biography of E.E. Cummings.

Complement it with an equally wonderful fictional counterpart, Benji Davies’s The Storm Whale, then dive into the grownup mesmerism of marine life with this fantastic On Being conversation with legendary oceanographer Sylvia “Her Deepness” Earle.

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08 JUNE, 2015

The Beauty of Uncertainty: How Heisenberg Invented Quantum Mechanics, Told in Jazz

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Quantum mechanics and the combinatorial nature of creativity, set to song.

Seven decades after Henry David Thoreau explored the limits of knowledge and the value of “useful ignorance,” a very different intellectual titan, in a very different era, applied this philosophy to a very different field: In 1927, the German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg (December 5, 1901–February 1, 1976) formulated the tenet for which his name is best known today — Heinsenberg’s uncertainty principle, which points out the limits of our knowledge by stating that the more precisely we know the position of a given particle, the less precise our measurement of its momentum, and vice versa.

This principle was the natural progression of a groundbreaking paper Heisenberg had published two years earlier, which paved the way for the field that would eventually titillate the popular imagination more strongly than any other branch of science: quantum mechanics. Indeed, Heisenberg received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1932 “for the creation of quantum mechanics” and his work went on to influence generations of scientists.

Heisenberg’s legacy comes to life in a most unusual and wonderful celebration by Portland-based jazz pianist, songwriter, and children’s music maverick Lori Henriques in her song “Heisenberg’s Aha!” — a kind of musical counterpart to the most intelligent and imaginative children’s books celebrating great artists and scientists. It is found on her altogether infectious record How Great Can This Day Be (iTunes).

Beyond Heinsenberg contribution to quantum mechanics and the field’s general mesmerism, Henriques — who has previously celebrated Jane Goodall — explores broader themes bridging science and philosophy, from the importance of embracing the unknown to the combinatorial nature of creativity and the notion that all discovery builds on what came before, complete with a a delicious allusion to Richard Feynman’s famous insistence on the value of uncertainty.

Electrons are highly mysterious,
this topic indeed is quite serious
It’s starting to feel so imperious,
I think I’m becoming delirious.
I wanted to finally grasp
The quantum mechanics at last.
I stayed up for half the night reading
and by morning I felt like retreating.

I hardly could see how this thing could be
a concept I could comprehend.
It’s as if I’d come to the point I was numb,
all the way to my mind’s bitter end.
After all those hours of thinking,
just as I felt I was sinking,
I was saying things like “Aye yigh yigh yeynman”
when I heard the voice of Dr. Feynman.

He gave some advice that sounded quite nice —
he talked about imagination:
We must “stretch it out to the utmost,”
a companion to our concentration.
When we open our minds and calmly let go
of needing things to be familiar,
we can then head on face them and gladly embrace them
and celebrate how they’re peculiar.

An electron looks like a particle,
and it also acts like a wave,
and once I began to accept this
that electron began to behave.

This is called complementarity
when a concept that seems a disparity
is the very best way we can show
how a set of phenomena go.

He went on to say how he learned this one day
while studying dear Werner Heisenberg,
who walked after dark to his neighborhood park
just to keep his blood pressure from risin'(berg)

As he walked on in his torment,
questioning waves versus particles,
he encountered his own aha moment,
which is now found in hundreds of articles.

More than eighty years ago,
Werner Heisenberg managed to show
probability and uncertainty
both exist, we must agree.
The future’s unpredictable
no matter how well we see.
Dear Heisenberg embraced this,
the beauty of uncertainty.

You can either know where the electron is,
or where the electron is going —
but you can’t know both at the very same time
’cause the measuring affects what you’re knowing.

Again, it’s called complementarity
when a concept that seems a disparity
is the very best way we can show
how a set of phenomena go.
The very act of observing
changes an electron’s location.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say this
was a bit of a collaboration.
The ideas that all came together
for Heisenberg to have his zinger
were inspired by studies before
that came from Niels Bohr and Schrödinger.

And, indeed, Schrödinger and Bohr
were inspired by who came before
like Pascal and Coulomb and Newton
and Maxwell and Einstein and more.
There’s a path from all of this knowledge
and it’s leading directly to you
to pick-up where others left off
and discover a concept that’s new.

And remember your imagination
is a voice inside that can help you
to understand quantum mechanics
and so many more things about you.

These particle waves are so active,
in each atom they’re racing around;
they’re all taking up so much room
and they really and truly astound.
The vast spaces where electrons roam
mean we’re not as solid as we thought —
so, actually, when you sit down to tea
you’re levitating on the spot!

The wilder the concept the more fun it is
I feel scientifically brave
And thanks to dear Heisenberg’s aha we know
an electron is both a particle and a wave!

How Great Can This Day Be comes on the heels of Henriques’s previous record, The World Is a Curious Place to Live — seventeen marvelous jazz odes to various branches of science, from mathematics to linguistics, including a particularly delightful astronomy mashup of “Saint James Infirmary.” Complement her celebration of Heisenberg with Alice in Quantumland, a marvelous allegory for quantum mechanics inspired by the Lewis Carroll classic.

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03 JUNE, 2015

I, Pencil: An Ingenious Vintage Allegory for the Invisible Hand and How Everything Is Connected

By:

“If you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing.”

For an object this seemingly simple, the pencil is not only an artifact with a remarkably fascinating history but also an enduring staple of creative culture — from John Steinbeck, who kept exactly twelve sharpened pencils on his desk at all times, to David Byrne, who captured the human condition in pencil diagrams. But although it is one of humanity’s humble masterpieces of design and ingenuity, we continue to underappreciate the pencil’s genius.

In 1958, libertarian writer and Foundation for Economic Education founder Leonard Read (September 26, 1898–May 14, 1983) set out to remedy this civilizational injustice in a marvelous essay titled “I, Pencil,” published in Essays on Liberty (public library). In a clever allegory, Read delivers his enduring point about the power of free market economy. Casting the pencil as a first-person narrator, he illustrates its astounding complexity to reveal the web of dependencies and vital interconnectedness upon which humanity’s needs and knowledge are based, concluding with a clarion call for protecting the creative freedom making this possible.

Drawing by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

Read begins:

I am a lead pencil — the ordinary wooden pencil familiar to all boys and girls and adults who can read and write.

Writing is both my vocation and my avocation; that’s all I do.

You may wonder why I should write a genealogy. Well, to begin with, my story is interesting. And, next, I am a mystery—more so than a tree or a sunset or even a flash of lightning. But, sadly, I am taken for granted by those who use me, as if I were a mere incident and without background. This supercilious attitude relegates me to the level of the commonplace. This is a species of the grievous error in which mankind cannot too long persist without peril. For, as a wise man observed, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.”

Half a century before Thomas Thwaites set out to illustrate the complex interdependencies of what we call civilization by making a toaster from scratch, Read writes:

I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me — no, that’s too much to ask of anyone — if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because — well, because I am seemingly so simple.

Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.

Tracing the pencil’s journey from raw material — “a cedar of straight grain that grows in Northern California and Oregon” — to the hands of “all the persons and the numberless skills” involved in its fabrication, Read considers the rich cultural and practical substrata of all these skills and production mechanisms:

Consider the millwork in San Leandro. The cedar logs are cut into small, pencil-length slats less than one-fourth of an inch in thickness. These are kiln dried and then tinted for the same reason women put rouge on their faces. People prefer that I look pretty, not a pallid white. The slats are waxed and kiln dried again. How many skills went into the making of the tint and the kilns, into supplying the heat, the light and power, the belts, motors, and all the other things a mill requires? Sweepers in the mill among my ancestors? Yes, and included are the men who poured the concrete for the dam of a Pacific Gas & Electric Company hydroplant which supplies the mill’s power!

Don’t overlook the ancestors present and distant who have a hand in transporting sixty carloads of slats across the nation from California to Wilkes-Barre!

He goes on to delineate the global reaches of the production process — from the pencil’s lead derived from graphite mined in Ceylon to Mexican candelilla wax used used to increase its strength and smoothness to the rapeseed oil Dutch East Indies involved in the creation of its “crowning glory,” the eraser — ultimately pointing to the pencil as a supreme example of Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” at work:

Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others… There isn’t a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how. From the standpoint of know-how the only difference between the miner of graphite in Ceylon and the logger in Oregon is in the type of know-how. Neither the miner nor the logger can be dispensed with, any more than can the chemist at the factory or the worker in the oil field — paraffin being a by-product of petroleum.

Here is an astounding fact: Neither the worker in the oil field nor the chemist nor the digger of graphite or clay nor any who mans or makes the ships or trains or trucks nor the one who runs the machine that does the knurling on my bit of metal nor the president of the company performs his singular task because he wants me. Each one wants me less, perhaps, than does a child in the first grade. Indeed, there are some among this vast multitude who never saw a pencil nor would they know how to use one. Their motivation is other than me. Perhaps it is something like this: Each of these millions sees that he can thus exchange his tiny know-how for the goods and services he needs or wants. I may or may not be among these items.

Above all, Read suggests, the pencil attests to the godliness of the human capacity for connected imagination. In a sardonic dual jab at religious creationism and excessive government control, Read summons the last line from Joyce Kilmer’s 1918 poem “Trees” and writes:

It has been said that “only God can make a tree.” Why do we agree with this? Isn’t it because we realize that we ourselves could not make one? Indeed, can we even describe a tree? We cannot, except in superficial terms. We can say, for instance, that a certain molecular configuration manifests itself as a tree. But what mind is there among men that could even record, let alone direct, the constant changes in molecules that transpire in the life span of a tree? Such a feat is utterly unthinkable!

I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies — millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human master-minding! Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.

The above is what I meant when writing, “If you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing.” For, if one is aware that these know-hows will naturally, yes, automatically, arrange themselves into creative and productive patterns in response to human necessity and demand — that is, in the absence of governmental or any other coercive master-minding — then one will possess an absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: a faith in free men. Freedom is impossible without this faith.

Just a few years earlier, pencil-lover Steinbeck had written in East of Eden: “The free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world.” Whether Read read Steinbeck and succumbed to cryptomnesia or arrived at this strikingly similar sentiment independently is only cause for speculation, but his larger point — one as pertinent to public policy as it is to the private creative endeavor — is what endures with its own timeless miraculousness:

If I, Pencil, were the only item that could offer testimony on what men can accomplish when free to try, then those with little faith would have a fair case. However, there is testimony galore; it’s all about us and on every hand. Mail delivery is exceedingly simple when compared, for instance, to the making of an automobile or a calculating machine or a grain combine or a milling machine or to tens of thousands of other things. Delivery? Why, in this area where men have been left free to try, they deliver the human voice around the world in less than one second; they deliver an event visually and in motion to any person’s home when it is happening; they deliver 150 passengers from Seattle to Baltimore in less than four hours; they deliver gas from Texas to one’s range or furnace in New York at unbelievably low rates and without subsidy; they deliver each four pounds of oil from the Persian Gulf to our Eastern Seaboard — half-way around the world — for less money than the government charges for delivering a one-ounce letter across the street!

The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited. Merely organize society to act in harmony with this lesson. Let society’s legal apparatus remove all obstacles the best it can. Permit these creative know-hows freely to flow. Have faith that free men will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed. I, Pencil, seemingly simple though I am, offer the miracle of my creation as testimony that this is a practical faith, as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, the good earth.

Half a century after Read penned his brilliant essay, it was adapted into an animated film illustrating how the same “complex combination of miracles” plays out on various scales in our modern lives:

For an equally pause-giving contemporary counterpart, see The Toaster Project.

Perhaps Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer — and what, if not computing, is the height of Read’s miraculous web of know-hows? — put it best when she wrote that “everything is naturally related and interconnected.”

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