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Posts Tagged ‘diaries’

01 NOVEMBER, 2013

How to Watch the Un-sunlike Sun: Solar Eclipse Tips from Pioneering Astronomer Maria Mitchell

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“It is always difficult to teach the man of the people that natural phenomena belong as much to him as to scientific people.”

Rarely does the dated phrase “heavenly bodies” come more vibrantly alive than in the event of a solar eclipse, when the Moon passes in front of the Sun from the vantage point of our planet and leaves our earthy hearts astir with awe for a few fleeting moments of transcendent presence with “the heavens” and their majestic motion. But to observe a solar eclipse is itself an art, one to which pioneering astronomer and reconstructionist Maria Mitchell was particularly privy.

In Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library; free download) — which also gave us the her timeless insight on science and life, the story of her seminal comet discovery, and her reflections on education and women in science — Mitchell recounts with her characteristic blend of good-natured wit and wisdom her experience of observing the 1878 solar eclipse, for which she traveled to Denver along with several of her former female students:

In the eclipse of this year, the dark shadow fell first on the United States thirty-eight degrees west of Washington, and moved towards the south-east, a circle of darkness one hundred and sixteen miles in diameter; circle overlapping circle of darkness until it could be mapped down like a belt.

[…]

Looking along this dark strip on the map, each astronomer selected his bit of darkness on which to locate the light of science.

But for the distance from the large cities of the country, Colorado seemed to be a most favorable part of the shadow; it was little subject to storms, and reputed to be enjoyable in climate and abundant in hospitality.

My party chose Denver, Col. I had a friend who lived in Denver, and she was visiting me. I sought her at once, and with fear and trembling asked, ‘Have you a bit of land behind your house in Denver where I could put up a small telescope?’ ‘Six hundred miles,’ was the laconic reply!

I felt that the hospitality of the Rocky mountains was at my feet. Space and time are so unconnected! For an observation which would last two minutes forty seconds, I was offered six hundred miles, after a journey of thousands.

Mitchell goes on to extract from the experience some practical advice on the art-science of such heavenly observation:

Persons who observe an eclipse of the sun always try to do the impossible. They seem to consider it a solemn duty to see the first contact of sun and moon. The moon, when seen in the daytime, looks like a small faint cloud; as it approaches the sun it becomes wholly unseen; and an observer tries to see when this unseen object touches the glowing disc of the sun.

When we look at any other object than the sun, we stimulate our vision. A good observer will remain in the dark for a short time before he makes a delicate observation on a faint star, and will then throw a cap over his head to keep out strong lights.

When we look at the sun, we at once try to deaden its light. We protect our eyes by dark glasses—the less of sunlight we can get the better. We calculate exactly at what point the moon will touch the sun, and we watch that point only. The exact second by the chronometer when the figure of the moon touches that of the sun, is always noted. It is not only valuable for the determination of longitude, but it is a check on our knowledge of the moon’s motions. Therefore, we try for the impossible.

She goes on to describe the specific process of her team’s observation — one made all the more impressive by the fact that these were all women scientists in an age when the science education of girls was practically nonexistent:

One of our party, a young lady from California, was placed at the chronometer. She was to count aloud the seconds, to which the three others were to listen. Two others, one a young woman from Missouri, who brought with her a fine telescope, and another from Ohio, besides myself, stood at the three telescopes. A fourth, from Illinois, was stationed to watch general effects, and one special artist, pencil in hand, to sketch views.

Absolute silence was imposed upon the whole party a few minutes before each phenomenon.

Of course we began full a minute too soon, and the constrained position was irksome enough, for even time is relative, and the minute of suspense is longer than the hour of satisfaction. [Footnote: As the computed time for the first contact drew near, the breath of the counter grew short, and the seconds were almost gasped and threatened to become inaudible, when Miss Mitchell, without moving her eye from the tube of the telescope, took up the counting, and continued until the young lady recovered herself, which she did immediately.]

What followed was a singular blend of rigorous precision and the kind of transcendence in which Carl Sagan found the spirituality of science. Mitchell writes:

The moon, so white in the sky, becomes densely black when it is closely ranging with the sun, and it shows itself as a black notch on the burning disc when the eclipse begins.

[…]

As totality approached, all again took their positions. The corona, which is the ‘glory’ seen around the sun, was visible at least thirteen minutes before totality; each of the party took a look at this, and then all was silent, only the count, on and on, of the young woman at the chronometer. When totality came, even that ceased.

How still it was!

As the last rays of sunlight disappeared, the corona burst out all around the sun, so intensely bright near the sun that the eye could scarcely bear it; extending less dazzlingly bright around the sun for the space of about half the sun’s diameter, and in some directions sending off streamers for millions of miles.

It was now quick work. Each observer at the telescopes gave a furtive glance at the un-sunlike sun, moved the dark eye-piece from the instrument, replaced it by a more powerful white glass, and prepared to see all that could be seen in two minutes forty seconds. They must note the shape of the corona, its color, its seeming substance, and they must look all around the sun for the ‘interior planet.’

But Mitchell’s most prescient and timeless reflection in observing the eclipse speaks poetically to the spirit of today’s “citizen science”:

It is always difficult to teach the man of the people that natural phenomena belong as much to him as to scientific people.

Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals remains a fantastic read and is available as a free Kindle download, as well as in other free digital formats on Project Gutenberg.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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29 OCTOBER, 2013

A Very Large Head: The Phrenology of George Eliot

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“She is extremely feminine & gentle; & the great strength of her intellect combined with this quality renders her very interesting.”

“One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy,” Mary Ann Evans, better-known as George Eliot, wrote in a letter to a friend in 1844. Learning how to be happy, of course, is predicated on first learning how to be — a journey of self-knowledge and self-awareness that is sometimes disorienting, frequently uncertain, and always evolving. In our chronic discomfort with ambiguity and with the fluid nature of our character, we often yearn to anchor ourselves in something concretizing by seeking out answers from outside ourselves to tell us who we are. Eliot, despite her undeniable intellect, was no exception to this frailty of the human condition.

In George Eliot: Interviews and Recollections (public library), the famed British ribbon manufacturer and social reformer Charles Bray reflects on his nine years of close friendship with George Eliot, in whom he saw the same kind of generosity of spirit that Susan Sontag did in Borges. Bray writes:

I consider her the most delightful companion I have ever known: she knew everything. She had little self-assertion; her aim was always to show her friends off to the best advantage — not herself. She would polish up their witticisms, and give the credit to them.

But one particularly unusual thing brought Bray and Eliot together: Their shared interest in phrenology. Yes, phrenology — the same 19th-century pseudoscience that gave rise to the “high-brow” vs. “low-brow” mythology of popular culture and has since been relegated to fodder for pop-culture caricature and derision — the epitome of grasping for easy, tangible, and invariably misleading answers to the intangible complexity of the human soul. To know that even Eliot was susceptible to this is oddly assuring, as well as a testament to the fact that we’re all, at least to some degree, a product of our time with all its singular irrationalities and biases.

In 1844, Eliot went as far as having a cast taken of her head by the leading British phrenologist James De Ville, who had also cast the heads of such luminaries as William Blake, Richard Dale Owen, and Prince Albert. It was then used for the “diagnosis” of her character by the Scotsman George Combe, the leader of the phrenology movement. Bray recounts:

Miss Evans’s head is a very large one, 22¼ inches round; George Combe, on first seeing the cast, took it for a man’s.* The temperament, nervous lymphatic, that is, active without endurance, and her working hours were never more than from 9 a.m. till 1 p.m. … In her brain development the Intellect greatly predominates; it is very large, more in length than in its peripheral surface. In the Feelings, the Animal and the Moral regions are about equal; the moral being quite sufficient to keep the animal in order and in due subservience, but would not be spontaneously active. The social feelings were very active, particularly the adhesiveness. She was of a most affectionate disposition, always requiring some one to lean upon, preferring what has hitherto been considered the stronger sex, to the other and more impressible. She was not fitted to stand alone. Her sense of Character — of men and things, is a predominantingly intellectual one, with which the Feelings have little to do, and the exceeding fairness for which she is noted, towards all parties, towards all sects of denominations, is probably owing to her little feeling on the subject, — at least not enough to interfere with her judgment. She saw all sides, and they are always many, clearly, and without prejudice.

To be sure, Eliot didn’t take it all without a grain of salt. Two years earlier, she had written in a letter:

I am pronounced to possess a large organ of “adhesiveness,” a still larger one of “firmness,” and a large of conscientiousness. Hence if I should turn out a very weather cock and a most pitiful truckler you will have data for the exercise of faith maugre [notwithstanding] common sense, common justice, and the testimony of your eyes and ears.

In August of 1851, Eliot and a small group of friends visited with George Combe himself — the reigning godfather of phrenology for more than twenty years, and a great admirer of Eliot’s work. The evening of the visit, he revisited the subject of her head in his journal, after remarking that she was “the most extraordinary person in the party.”** Peeking from underneath the pseudoscience, however, is a very real observation about what lent Eliot her mesmerism — and what makes a person compelling in general:

She has a very large brain, the anterior lobe is remarkable for length, breadth, & height, the coronal region is large, the front rather predominating; the base is broad at Destruct[iveness]: but moderate at Aliment[iveness] & the portion behind the ear is rather small in the regions of Comb[ativeness], Amat[iveness] & Philopro[gentiveness]. Love of approb. and Concentrativeness are large. Her tempera[ment] is nervous lymphatic. She is rather tall, near 40 apparently,*** pale & in delicate health. She is an excellent musician. … She [showed] great analytic power & an instinctive soundness of judgment. … She is extremely feminine & gentle; & the great strength of her intellect combined with this quality renders her very interesting.

George Eliot: Interviews and Recollections is full of such unexpected curiosities shedding light on one of the most enigmatic and enthralling personae in literary history. Complement it with what Eliot teaches us about the life-cycle of happiness.

* In another recollection from the book, a woman named Susanna Chapman, the wife of publisher John Chapman, describes meeting Eliot for the first time and remarks, with rather ungenerous anatomical bluntness, on her head size: “She had such fine eyes, and the upper part of her face was so good, that it quite redeemed the lower part, which was large for a woman, and heavy set. I remember being struck to find how short she was when she rose from the tea-table.”

** Even Combe was cognizant of the limitations of his “science.” Three years later, upon finding out that Eliot had eloped to Germany with the married George Henry Lewes, with whom she went on to live for 20 years, Combe’s high opinion of her sound judgment and gentleness crumbled, and he even revisited this journal entry to add the following note: “This was written from eye-observation. She has gone off as the mistress of Mr. Lewes, a married man with 6 children.”

*** She was 31.

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28 OCTOBER, 2013

Thoreau on Not Finding a Publisher and What Success Really Means

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“Sitting beside the inert mass of my works, I take up my pen to-night to record what thought or experience I may have had, with as much satisfaction as ever.”

A century before Anaïs Nin’s prescient discontent about the state of publishing and 160 years before our present-day grumblings, Henry David Thoreau — one of the most celebrated minds in the history of letters, who penned some of the most enduring and influential texts in Western literature — confronted the tribulations of publishing as he completed A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, his moving elegy for his brother John. Unable to find a publisher for the book, he paid out-of-pocket for a print run of 1,000 copies — but only 300 were sold. True to his belief that success comes from within rather than without, the legendary poet, philosopher, and abolitionist considers the experience in this funny and poignant diary entry from October 28, 1853, found in The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861 (public library) — the same timelessly fantastic tome that gave us Thoreau on why not to quote Thoreau and his irresistibly quotable wisdom on friendship and sympathy.

Rain in the night and this morning, preparing for winter.

For a year or two past, my publisher, falsely so called, has been writing from time to time to ask what disposition should be made of the copies of “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” still on hand, and at last suggesting that he had use for the room they occupied in his cellar. So I had them all sent to me here, and they have arrived to-day by express, filling the man’s wagon, — 706 copies out of an edition of 1000 which I bought of Munroe four years ago and have been ever since paying for, and have not quite paid for yet. The wares are sent to me at last, and I have an opportunity to examine my purchase. They are something more substantial than fame, as my back knows, which has borne them up two flights of stairs to a place similar to that to which they trace their origin. Of the remaining two hundred and ninety and odd, seventy-five were given away, the rest sold. I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself. Is it not well that the author should behold the fruits of his labor? My works are piled up on one side of my chamber half as high as my head, my opera omnia. This is authorship; these are the work of my brain. There was just one piece of good luck in the venture. The unbound were tied up by the printer four years ago in stout paper wrappers, and inscribed, —

H.D. Thoreau’s
Concord River
50 cops.

So Munroe had only to cross out “River” and write “Mass.” and deliver them to the expressman at once. I can see now what I write for, the result of my labors.

Nevertheless, in spite of this result, sitting beside the inert mass of my works, I take up my pen to-night to record what thought or experience I may have had, with as much satisfaction as ever. Indeed, I believe that this result is more inspiring and better for me than if a thousand had bought my wares. It affects my privacy less and leaves me freer.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861 remains one of the history’s most rewarding and notable diaries. Complement it with Thoreau’s philosophy adapted in a picture book and his ever-timely reminder of what success really means.

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