Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

19 FEBRUARY, 2013

Cosmic Pastoral: Diane Ackerman’s Poems for the Planets, Which Carl Sagan Sent Timothy Leary in Prison

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“I’m stricken by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else.”

On February 19, 1974, shortly before visiting Timothy Leary in prison, Carl Sagan sent the psychedelic pioneer a letter discussing evolution, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and the details of the upcoming visit. The postscript read:

P.S. The enclosed poem, ‘The Other Night’ by Dianne Ackermann [sic] of Cornell, is something I think we both resonate to. It’s unfinished so it shouldn’t yet be quoted publically.

But the poem was eventually finished and, along with fourteen others, included in Diane Ackerman’s 1976 poetry anthology The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral (public library) — a whimsical and wonderful ode to the universe, celebrating its phenomena and featuring a poem for each planet in the Solar System, as well as one specifically dedicated to Carl Sagan.

From “Venus”:

Low-keyed and perpetual,
a whirling sylph
whose white robe stripes
around her; taffeta
wimpled like a nun’s headcloth;
a buxom floozy with a pink boa;
mummy, whose black
sediment desiccates within; wasp-star
to Mayan Galileos;
an outpatient
wrapped in post-operative gauze;
Cleopatra in high August–
her flesh curling
in a heat mirage
lightyears
from Alexandria;
tacky white pulp
spigoted
through the belly of a larva;
the perfect courtesan:
obliging, thick-skinned,
and pleated with riddles,

Venus quietly mutates
in her ivory tower.

Deep within that
libidinous albedo
temperatures are hot enough
to boil lead,
pressures
90 times more unyielding
than Earth’s.
And though layered cloud-decks
and haze strata
seem to breathe
like a giant bellows,
heaving and sighing
every 4 days,
the Venerean cocoon
is no cheery chrysalis
brewing a damselfly
or coaxing life
into a reticent grub,
but a sniffling atmosphere
40 miles thick
of sulphuric, hydrochloric,
and hydrofluoric acids
all sweating
like a global terrarium,
cutthroat, tart, and self-absorbed.
No sphagnum moss
or polypody fern here,
where blistering vapors
and rosy bile
hint at the arson
with which the Universe began.

Hubble Space Telescope photograph taken within minutes of Mars' closest approach to Earth in 60,000 years, on Aug. 27, 2003. Click images for more

From “Mars”:

The quickest route
from Candor to Chaos
follows Coprates
(the much-travelled
Shit River), through
da Vinci and Galileo
bypassing Bliss,
many moons from Tranquility.
But, Romantics, take heart:
you can breakfast
in Syria, lunch in Sinai,
track the Nile
to its source (Nilokeras)
before dinner, and there,
making ablutions to Osiris,
win a boon to Eden,
where all four rivers
of Paradise converge,
then spend the night
in Pandora, or with Ulysses,
Proteus, or even Noah,
in the Land of Gold (Chryse)
or by the Leek-green Sea.

From “The Other Night (Comet Kohoutek)”:

Last night, while
cabbage stuffed with
brown sugar, meat and
raisins was baking in the
oven, and my potted holly,
dying leafmeal from red-spider,
basked in its antidote malathion,
I stepped outside to watch Kohoutek
passing its dromedary core through the
eye of a galaxy. But only found a white
blur cat-napping under Venus: gauzy, dis-
solute, and bobtailed as a Manx.

Pent-up in that endless coliseum of stars,
the moon was fuller than any Protestant
had a right to be. And I said: Moon,
if you’ve got any pull up there, bring me
a sun-grazing comet, its long hair swept
back by the solar wind, in its mouth a dollop
of primordial sputum. A dozing iceberg,
in whose coma ur-elements collide. Bring me
a mojo that’s both relict and reliquary.
Give me a thrill from that petrified seed.

Mars was a stoplight in the north sky,
the only real meat on the night’s black
bones. And I said: Mars, why be parsimonious?
You’ve got a million tricks stashed
in your orbital backhills: chicory suns
bobbing in viridian lagoons; quasars dwindling
near the speed of light; pinwheel, dumbbell,
and impacted galaxies; epileptic nuclei
a mile long; vampiric moons; dicotyledon suns;
whorling dustbowls of umbilical snow; milky ways
that, on the slant, look like freshly fed pythons.

From “Diffraction (for Carl Sagan)”:

When Carl tells me it’s Rayleigh scattering
that makes blue light, canting off molecular

grit, go slowgait through the airy jell, subdued,
and outlying mountains look swarthy, or wheat

blaze tawny-rose in the 8:00 sun, how I envy
his light touch on Earth’s magnetic bridle.

Knee-deep in the cosmic overwhelm, I’m stricken
by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain

everythingness of everything, in cahoots
with the everythingness of everything else.

Echoing Richard Feynman’s views on science and mystery, Ackerman writes of her poetry:

I’ve always been baffled by people who write about nature only in terms of, say, junipers and cornfields, eschewing all things so-called ‘scientific,’ as if science were, per se, the spoil-sport of feeling. So wonderless a view of nature really doesn’t appeal to me; I don’t see the Universe divided up that way, into ‘The Junipers’ on the one hand and ‘The Amino Acids’ on the other.

So how did Sagan know of Ackerman? Most likely, through his second wife — the author photograph on the back of The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral was taken by artist and writer Linda Salzman Sagan, whom Carl married in 1968. The two divorced in 1981, after Sir Sagan fell in love with Annie Druyan in the course of creating the Voyager Golden Record, which Linda co-produced. Cosmic love, it seems, is always a little more complicated than the poets might wish us to believe.

Complement with the first poem published in a scientific journal, which actually turned out not to be the first.

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19 FEBRUARY, 2013

The Feminine Mystique Half a Century Later

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How Betty Friedan “pulled the trigger on history” and awakened women to the freedom to question what it means to live a full life.

In 1957, turning the corner on her own 15th college reunion, reconstructionist Betty Friedan set out to survey university graduates about their education, life after college, and general life-satisfaction. Wading through the responses, she noticed an odd, discernible undercurrent — a kind of quiet but intense unhappiness described by women in the golden age of the housewife, which Friedan termed “the problem that has no name.” On February 19, 1963, she gave shape to the problem with the landmark publication of The Feminine Mystique (public library) — a centerpiece of modern gender politics, which sparked the second wave of the feminist movement, taught generations how to be a woman, and went on to become one of the most important and influential social critiques in contemporary history. In an age when women were reduced to a fertile uterus armed with lipstick and an oven mit, it championed women’s reproductive rights, called for better education, criticized workplace laws and cultural attitudes towards childcare responsibilities and, above all, advocated for women’s right to freely explore the fundamental question of what it means to live a full life. Though many of Friedan’s ideas may appear tired and painfully familiar today, that’s precisely the point: Like every cornerstone of social science, the true feat of The Feminine Mystique was identifying, articulating, and speaking up against the problem long before the problem had permeated the awareness of our collective conscience.

Today, some dismiss the spirit of feminism as a thing of the past, a social crutch we’ve outgrown and left behind — after all, in the decades since Friedan’s landmark manifesto, the world has seen its first female president, first woman in space, first female Secretary of State, and first woman to win an Academy Award as best director. And yet, even half a century later, we still witness gobsmacking gender generalizations, gaping gender gaps in education, egregiously unequal media coverage and profiling, and enduring bias in the scientific academy. The problem, it seems, has long been named — but it is yet to be solved.

In her excellent exploration of Friedan’s legacy, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (public library), historian Stephanie Coontz puts things in no uncertain terms:

The Feminine Mystique has been credited — or blamed — for destroying, single-handedly and almost overnight, the 1950s consensus that women’s place was in the home. Friedan’s book ‘pulled the trigger on history,’ in the words of Future Shock author Alvin Toffler.

Coontz sets out to tell the story of the women directly impacted by the iconic book through the countless, fervent letters they sent Friedan, seeking to understand why these women, despite the comforts and privileges of their material circumstances, felt “so anxious about their femininity and so guilty about their aspirations.” Coontz frames the necessity for such an approach, contextualizing Friedan’s work:

Many books have been written and movies made about ‘the greatest generation.’ But the subjects of these stories are almost invariably men — the army, navy, and air force men of WWII (only 2 percent of the military in that era were female); the ‘Mad Men’ of Madison Avenue who pioneered America’s mass consumer culture in the days of Eisenhower and Kennedy; the ordinary husbands and fathers who created a middle-class life for their families after the privations of the Depression and the war.

What do we know about these men’s wives and daughters? As their husbands and fathers moved into a new era, many women felt suspended between the constraints of the old sphere of female existence and the promise of a future whose outline they could barely make out. They were, as one of the women I interviewed told me, ‘a generation of intelligent women, sidelined from the world.’ Some were content to provide love and comfort when the men came home. But others felt that something was missing from their lives, though they could seldom put their finger on it.

These women — mostly white, mostly middle class — were at the eye of a hurricane. They knew that powerful new forces were gathering all around them, but they felt strangely, uneasily becalmed. …

To modern generations, these women’s lives seem as outmoded as the white gloves and pert hats they wore when they left the shelter of their homes. Yet even today, their experiences and anxieties shape the choices modern women debate and the way feminism has been defined by both its supporters and its opponents.

Friedan pulled into question the core tenets of The Century of the (male) Self and the ideals of suburban utopia:

Friedan told these women that their inability to imagine a fuller, more complete life was the product of a repressive postwar campaign to wipe out the memory of past feminist activism and to drive women back into the home. As a historian, I knew her argument ignored the challenges to the feminine mystique that already existed in the 1950s. But as I interviewed women for this book and read more about the cultural climate of the era, I came to believe that Friedan was correct in suggesting that there was something especially disorienting — ‘something paralyzing,’ as one of the women I interviewed put it — about the situation confronting women at the dawn of the 1960s. Freudian pronouncements about the natural dependence and passivity of females and the ‘sickness’ of women who are attracted to careers maybe have coexisted with sympathetic assurances that women were in fact capable and deserve equality. But such assurances only made it harder for women to figure out whether anyone besides themselves was to blame for their feelings of inadequacy.

Friedan captured a paradox that many women struggle with today. The elimination of the most blatant denials of one’s rights can be very disorienting if you don’ have the ability to exercise one right without giving up another.

Betty Friedan in junior high school

Image: Schlesinger Library, Harvard University

Still, Princeton professor and former State Department policy planning director Anne-Marie Slaughter observed in brushing up against a “rude epiphany” that feminists might have sold young women an impossible ideal and much has to change if we are, indeed, to have equal opportunity in every aspect of life. In Slaughter’s own brave and eloquent words:

A rude epiphany hit me soon after I got there. When people asked why I had left government, I explained that I’d come home not only because of Princeton’s rules (after two years of leave, you lose your tenure), but also because of my desire to be with my family and my conclusion that juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible. I have not exactly left the ranks of full-time career women: I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book. But I routinely got reactions from other women my age or older that ranged from disappointed (‘It’s such a pity that you had to leave Washington’) to condescending (‘I wouldn’t generalize from your experience. I’ve never had to compromise, and my kids turned out great’).

The first set of reactions, with the underlying assumption that my choice was somehow sad or unfortunate, was irksome enough. But it was the second set of reactions — those implying that my parenting and/or my commitment to my profession were somehow substandard—that triggered a blind fury. Suddenly, finally, the penny dropped. All my life, I’d been on the other side of this exchange. I’d been the woman smiling the faintly superior smile while another woman told me she had decided to take some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so that she could spend more time with her family. I’d been the woman congratulating herself on her unswerving commitment to the feminist cause, chatting smugly with her dwindling number of college or law-school friends who had reached and maintained their place on the highest rungs of their profession. I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).

But, ultimately, at the heart of Friedan’s message with The Feminine Mystique lies a tireless insistence on the freedom to find one’s purpose and do meaningful work as the bedrock of what it means to be human:

The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own.

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18 FEBRUARY, 2013

Our Friend the Atom: Disney’s 1956 Illustrated Propaganda for Nuclear Energy

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“Atomic science began as positive, creative thought.”

Walt Disney was no stranger to propaganda, from his wartime anti-Nazi animations to his 1955 eulogy for space exploration, and even his internal company culture. In 1956, just over a decade after the atomic bomb showed the world the devastating power of nuclear weapons, Disney partnered with German physicist Heinz Haber, a professor at USC and personal science consultant to the legendary animator, to produce Our Friend the Atom (public library) — a gloriously illustrated 165-page tome extolling the promise of atomic power as a generative rather than destructive force. The illustrations, representing twenty-two Disney artists — twenty-one men and one woman — with a vibrant mid-century aesthetic somewhere between Saul Bass’s posters, The Provensens’ children’s books, and the anatomical illustrations of The Human Body, cover everything from the Ancient Greeks’ philosophies of matter to Curie and Einstein to the splitting of the atom and its promise for the future.

Walt himself writes in the foreword, with a nod to how science fiction pioneer Jules Verne presaged modern technology and the gender-biased pronouns typical of the era:

Fiction often has a strange way of becoming fact. Not long ago we produced a motion picture based on the immortal tale 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, featuring the famous submarine ‘Nautilus.’ According to that story the craft was powered by a magic force.

Today the tale has come true. A modern namesake of the old fairy ship — the submarine ‘Nautilus’ of the United States Navy — has become the world’s first atom-powered ship. It is proof of the useful power of the atom that will drive the machines of our atomic age.

The atom is our future. It is a subject everyone wants to understand, and so we long had plans to tell the story of the atom. In fact, we considered it so important that we embarked on several atomic projects. … Of course, we don’t pretend to be scientists — we are story tellers. But we combine the tools of our trade with the knowledge of experts.

[…]

The story of the atom is a fascinating tale of human quest for knowledge, a story of scientific adventure and success. Atomic science has borne many fruits, and the harnessing of the atom’s power is only the spectacular end result. It acme about through the work of many inspired men whose ideas formed a kind of chain reaction of thoughts. These men came from all civilized nations, and from centuries as far back as 400 B.C.

Atomic science began as positive, creative thought. It has created modern science with its many benefits for mankind. In this sense our book tries to make it clear to you that we can indeed look upon the atom as our friend.

The prologue sets the stage for the duality of atomic energy and the book’s choice to focus on the positive:

Deep in the tiny atom lies hidden a tremendous force. This force has entered the scene of our modern world as a most frightening power of destruction, more fearful and devastating than man ever thought possible.

We all know of the story of the military atom, and we all wish that it weren’t true. For many obvious reasons it would be better if it weren’t real, but just a rousing tale. It does have all the earmarks of a drama: a frightful terror, which everyone knows exists, a sinister threat, mystery and secrecy. It’s a perfect tale of horror!

But, fortunately, the story is not yet finished. So far, the atom is a superb villain. Its power of destruction is foremost in our minds. But the same power can be put to use for creation, for the welfare of all mankind.

Complement Our Friend the Atom with these wonderful vintage science ads from the same era.

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