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Posts Tagged ‘science’

01 OCTOBER, 2013

October 1, 1847: Miss Mitchell’s Comet and How Scientists Stand in Solidarity

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A heartening story of misfortune made right by the collective integrity of the scientific community.

Maria Mitchell was the first recognized female astronomer in America and is considered the very first woman employed for a non-domestic specialized skill by the U.S. federal government. A champion of women’s education and civil rights, she reached worldwide celebrity by the time she was forty. What catapulted her into scientific fame, however, was her discovery of the comet C/1847 T1, known today as Miss Mitchell’s Comet. Its story, a heartening tale of misfortune made right, is relayed in Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library; free download) — the wonderful tome that gave us Mitchell’s timeless wisdom on science and life and the inspiring record of how she pioneered women’s education.

In 1831, when Mitchell was still a curious girl of thirteen, the King of Denmark had offered a gold medal valued at 20 ducats — a fortune by today’s standards — to the first person to discover a telescopic comet. By the time one was at last discovered on October 3, 1847 by the famed Italian astronomer Francesco de Vico, the king was dead — but his son, though uninterested in science, had resolved to make good on his father’s promise. But just as the new king was readying to grant de Vico the prized medal, it turned out that Maria Mitchell — a young woman on the small island of Nantucket across the Atlantic — had discovered the same comet two days earlier, on October 1.

That fateful October evening, Mitchell’s parents were hosting a party. When darkness fell, Maria slipped out, as she did every night, and ran to her tiny telescope to gaze at the cosmos. Before long, she ran back to the parlor in cautious excitement and told her father, who had gotten Maria interested in astronomy, that she thought she’d seen a comet. He rushed upstairs, stationed himself at the telescope, and soon declared that the object his daughter had seen was indeed a comet. Maria, with her characteristic caution, thought it best not to announce the discovery until they had observed the object longer in order to be absolutely certain — but her father intuited the importance of the occasion and immediately wrote to the head of the Harvard observatory. The weather, however, played a cruel joke — storms delayed the departure of the mail until October 3. That day, on the other side of the Atlantic, de Vico had claimed the discovery and, along with it, the gold medal.

But in a testament to the collective integrity of the scientific community, as soon as the letter arrived on October 7, Edward Everett, the president of Harvard, took it upon himself to right the injustice, urging the Chargé d’Affaires of the United States at Copenhagen that “it would be a pity that she should lose the medal on a mere technical punctilio.” (Ironically, twenty years later another Harvard leader would tell Mitchell that the university was decades away from accepting women.) Soon, news spread across Europe and Mitchell’s priority of discovery was widely welcomed, with even de Vico himself acknowledging it. The King of Denmark eventually reversed his ruling and awarded the medal to Mitchell instead. The following year, she became the first woman elected, unanimously, to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Portrait of Maria Mitchell by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists project. Click for details.

But Mitchell, as celebrated for her scientific genius as for kindness and reflective wisdom, didn’t rest on her laurels. Instead of reveling in her accomplishments, she reveled in the beauty of not-knowing, that eternal driver of curiosity that propels all science. Writing in her diary seven years later, she beautifully articulates the notion that science is driven by ignorance, which is a source of infinite wonder rather than a deficiency:

I have just gone over my comet computations again, and it is humiliating to perceive how very little more I know than I did seven years ago when I first did this kind of work. To be sure, I have only once in the time computed a parabolic orbit; but it seems to me that I know no more in general. I think I am a little better thinker, that I take things less upon trust, but at the same time I trust myself much less. The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.

Complement with this celebration of Mitchell’s life and legacy in science and education.

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30 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Brave Genius: How the Unlikely Friendship of Scientist Jacques Monod and Philosopher Albert Camus Shaped Modern Culture

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“Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum.”

What makes a good life, a meaningful life, a life of purpose? And how can one live it amidst pain and destruction; how can the human spirit soar in the face of crushing adversity? The meaning of life resides in the answers to these questions, which countless luminaries have been asking since the dawn of recorded time, and which an unlikely duo of Nobel-laureate friends — revered writer, journalist and philosopher Albert Camus and pioneering biologist Jacques Monod — set out to answer during one of the darkest periods of human history, the peak of World War II. In Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize (public library), molecular biology and genetics professor Sean B. Carroll — not to be confused with the cosmologist Sean Carroll, who also authors fascinating works, but of a rather different nature — tells the story of how each of these extraordinary men lived through the terrifying reality of the war and emerged as an exceptional mind of creative brilliance and humanistic genius, a story of “the transformation of ordinary lives into exceptional lives by extraordinary events — of courage in the face of overwhelming adversity, the flowering of creative genius, deep friendship, and of profound concern for and insight into the human condition.”

It was the Occupation of Paris that served, as Carroll poignantly puts it, as the “perverse catalyst” that sparked each man’s genius and propelled them into intersecting trajectories of greatness as they entered each other’s lives.

Jacques Monod’s identity card for the French Forces of the Interior (FFI), in his nom de guerre ‘Malivert.’ (Courtesy of Olivier Monod)

Camus, an aspiring 26-year-old writer working as a newspaper layout designer, and Monod, an “underachieving and, at age thirty, relatively old doctoral student in zoology,” met at a human rights event in 1939. Both had to contort their lives to avoid death — Camus by disguising his identity for security reasons with a false ID under the assumed name of Albert Mathé, and Monod by sending his Jewish wife to safety outside of Paris, also equipped with a fake ID that Aryanized her maiden name; both men joined the Resistance against the Germans, each contributing in his own way — Camus through the power of the written word in his moving editorials for the underground Resistance newspaper Combat, and Monod by joining the French armed forces, where he excelled as an officer and went on to lead the coordination of Resistance activities in the latter stage of the Occupation.

Albert Camus’s false identity card, in the name of Albert Mathé, writer. All of the information on the card -- birthdate, place, parents -- is false. (Courtesy of Collection Catherine et Jean Camus, Fonds Camus, Bibliothèque Méjanes, Aix-en-Provence, France)

Odette Monod’s false identification card. Odette changed the spelling of her maiden name, Bruhl, to ‘Brulle’ to conceal her Jewish identity. (Courtesy of Olivier Monod)

But they otherwise had little in common by way of upbringing or professional background. Still, they instantly hit it off and found a kindred spirit in the other. More than that, the friendship sparked an uncommon and boundlessly fruitful cross-pollination of intellectual curiosities, which would come to shape each man’s work and impact on the world. Carroll writes of their special connection:

Francis Crick described Monod in terms that applied equally well to his new friend Camus: “Never lacking in courage, he combined a debonair manner and an impish sense of humor with a deep moral commitment to any issue he regarded as fundamental.” In addition to the special bond of former resistants, Monod and Camus discovered they shared many similar concerns. Over the course of their friendship, those concerns would encompass a broad spectrum of humanitarian issues, including the state of affairs in the USSR, human rights in Eastern bloc countries, and capital punishment in France. Monod gave Camus further ammunition for his indictment of the Soviet Union, an indictment that terminated many of Camus’s friendships with left-wing peers.

Camus gave Monod access to his world of literature and philosophy.

Most impressive of all, however, was the enormity of literary and philosophical works Camus managed to publish during the Occupation, underpinned not by the desperation of a war-torn world and a lamentation of evil but, like Viktor Frankl’s timeless treatise from the same era, by a profound faith in the human spirit and our shared capacity for goodness. Carroll writes:

The terror and cruelty of the Occupation, the slaughter of tens of millions in the war (the second such war in a generation), and the horrors of the Holocaust that were coming to light had made many despair and abandon any hope for the future of humanity. Denial of any meaning or purpose in life — nihilism — was a widespread response.

But Camus vehemently rejected nihilism and took an entirely different path. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus addressed what he contended was the fundamental issue of philosophy — “judging whether life is or is not worth living.” To Camus, the crux of the matter of life was the certainty of death. The practical question that certainty prompted was: How could one live a meaningful life in full knowledge of the inevitability of death?

Camus asserted that by recognizing the reality of the physical limits of one’s life, one attained the clarity and freedom to make the most of life as it is. He reasoned that the logical response to the certainty of death was a revolt against death — a revolt that took the form of living life passionately and to the fullest: “Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum.”

Camus’s recipe for living life to the fullest was to do nothing in hope of an afterlife, and to rely on courage and reasoning: “The first teaches him to live without appeal [to religion] and to get along with what he has; the second informs him of his limits. Assured of his temporally limited freedom … and of his mortal consciousness, he lives out his adventure within the span of his lifetime.”

For Camus, even Sisyphus — condemned as he was to rolling his rock uphill each day, only to have it roll back down and to begin again — was master of his own fate. Sisyphus created meaning in his own life by deciding that “the struggle towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” Camus concluded the essay, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

This “reasoned optimism,” as Carroll puts it, resonated with readers in France as they struggled to heal from the psychological atrocities of the war. Camus, whom his close friend Jean-Paul Sartre described as “an admirable conjunction of a person, an action, and a work,” offered hope amidst hopelessness:

Camus once wrote, “In the depths of winter, I discovered that there lay within me an invincible summer.” Readers in France, and then as his works were translated, millions more readers around the world, responded to that invincible summer. Camus offered a practical philosophy for living without succumbing to nihilism or appealing to religion. In the aftermath of the great calamity, Camus offered the masses a picture of a brighter future for France and the world, an alternative to the cycle of war that had darkened a half century, and that threatened to continue. He offered a choice, as he put it, “between hell and reason.”

While Camus was contemplating the philosophical foundations of life, Monod was shedding new light on the biological. During the 1940s, before the discovery of DNA as the basic building block of life, biology was a budding science propelled by, as Carroll elegantly puts it, “simple but fundamental questions.” Enthralled by the mystery of how cells grow, Monod and his collaborator François Jacob, a nineteen-year-old second-year medical student en route to becoming a surgeon, laid the foundations for our understanding of how a single fertilized egg could blossom into a complex creature — and they did it with extraordinary taste, a concept seemingly counterintuitive and belonging more to the literary world than the scientific, but in fact essential for scientific discovery.

Like Camus, Monod also transcended the boundaries of his discipline to effect broader cultural and political awareness. After the liberation of Paris — the momentous triumph that marked the beginning of the end of WWII, which both Anaïs Nin and Ernest Hemingway recorded with exuberant relief — weapons were replaced by dueling dogmas. Carroll contextualizes the climate:

Soon after the end of World War II, a new war emerged — of ideologies. It was a war between capitalism and socialism, between democracy and Communism, and the beginning of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. In France, those along the entire spectrum of political ideologies from the far left to the far right vied for power and influence. The Communist Party enjoyed strong support, particularly among the intelligentsia and workers, many of whom looked to the Soviet Union as a model of where socialism in France should be heading.

In the summer of 1948, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, the Soviet head of agriculture appointed by Joseph Stalin, launched a concentrated attack on the science of genetics, pushing for geneticists to be purged from Soviet biology — a kind of “ideological terrorism” that flew in the face of what science knew to be true, propagated by France’s communist-owned newspapers. Appalled and infuriated, Monod eviscerated Lysenko’s arguments in an op-ed that ran on the front page of Combat — the same Resistance newspaper in which Camus had given hope and sanity a voice. Stirred by the incident, Monod was moved to “make his life’s goal a crusade against antiscientific, religious metaphysics, whether it be from Church or State.”

September 15, 1948, issue of Combat featuring Jacques Monod’s critique of Soviet biologist T. D. Lysenko and Soviet science. (Archives of the Pasteur Institute)

Unsurprisingly, given their bond and enormous overlap of convictions, Camus’s influence had a profound impact on Monod, who integrated philosophical inquiry into his biological pursuits. Carroll writes:

After receiving his Nobel Prize, Monod turned to consider the implications of the discoveries of modern biology — how the answers to Schrödinger’s question “What is life?” bore on the question of the meaning of life. He explained his impulse in Camusian terms: “The urge, the anguish to understand the meaning of his own existence, the demand to rationalize and justify it within some consistent framework has been, and still is, one of the most powerful motivations of the human mind.” The opening epigraph of Monod’s resulting, widely acclaimed, bestselling book, Chance and Necessity, was the closing passage from his friend’s The Myth of Sisyphus.

Indeed, receiving the Nobel Prize — Camus in 1957 and Monod in 1965 — while equally deserved, produced radically different responses in the two friends. When news of the philosopher’s award broke, Monod immediately sent his friend a letter of warm congratulation:

My dear Camus,

My emotion and my joy are profound. There were many times when I felt like thanking you for your friendship, for what you are, for what you managed to express with such purity and strength, and that I had likewise experienced. I wish that this dazzling honor would also appear to you, in some small part, as a token of friendship and of personal, intimate recognition. I would not dare coming to see you right now, but I embrace you fraternally.

Jacques Monod

But Camus, who feared such public attention would fuel his critics and indicate that his body of work were complete rather than ever-evolving, met the news of the prize with mixed emotions, oscillating between pride and panic. (A reaction not wholly unsurprising given the conflicted story of the Nobel Prize’s very conception.) In his journals, he noted “a strange feeling of overwhelming pressure and melancholy.” Despite his friendships with such intellectual and creative icons as Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, and George Orwell, he chose to share his feelings only with Monod, responding in a letter:

My dear Monod.

I have put aside for a while the noise of these recent times in order to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your warm letter. The unexpected prize has left me with more doubt than certainty. At least I have friendship to help me face it. I, who feel solidarity with many men, feel friendship with only a few. You are one of these, my dear Monod, with a constancy and sincerity that I must tell you at least once. Our work, our busy lives separate us, but we are reunited again, in one same adventure. That does not prevent us to reunite, from time to time, at least for a drink of friendship! See you soon and fraternally yours.

Albert Camus

But beneath the warm professional support of their friendship, there was a deeper bond that held them together, one of shared purpose. Carroll writes:

Both men were deeply engaged with timeless questions about finding meaningful experiences in life. They were forced to ask, by virtue of the experiences into which they were plunged, the most fundamental questions of all: What is worth dying for? And what is worth living for? Once free, they were compelled to ask: What is worth spending one’s life pursuing?

Brave Genius is scintillating in its entirety, reminding us that even in a time of profound adversity, it is genius, not misery, that loves — longs for, necessitates, thrives on — company.

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25 SEPTEMBER, 2013

How the Universe Works: Stephen Hawking’s Theory of Everything, Animated in 150 Seconds

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A Brief History of Time in no time at all.

Legendary theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking is among the greatest scientific minds in human history. In this charming animation for The Guardian’s MadeSimple series, UK-based animation studio Scriberia — who also made the wonderful trailer for Oliver Burkeman’s Antidote — condenses Hawking’s expansive, mind-bending theories down to 150 seconds. Reminiscent in spirit of the RSA animations, though much better-executed creatively, the short video is the visual equivalent of the art of the soundbite.

Though undeniably delightful, I can’t help but wonder whether such quick visual syntheses of the life’s work of boundless genius might be our era’s version of the aphorisms that Susan Sontag worried commodify wisdom. But let’s go with optimism and hope that, rather than exercises in reductionism, formats like this are, as Neil deGrasse Tyson said of the soundbite, triggers for interest which “set a learning path into motion that becomes self-driven.” In other words, let’s hope this gets more people to read A Brief History of Time, one of these seven timeless reads about time.

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