Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

07 JULY, 2015

The Invention of Clouds: Goethe’s Poems for the Skies and His Heartfelt Homage to the Young Scientist Who Classified Clouds


“Most pioneers are at the mercy of doubt at the beginning, whether of their worth, of their theories, or of the whole enigmatic field in which they labour.”

If I should ever cease to be amazed and enraptured by the magic of clouds, I should wish myself dead. And I am hardly alone — since the dawn of our species, the water cycle’s most visible expression in the skies has bewitched artists, poets, and scientists like as a beautiful natural metaphor for the philosophy that there in an inherent balance to life, that what we give will soon be replenished. More than two millennia before poet Mark Strand and painter Wendy Mark joined forces on their breathtaking love letter to clouds, before Georgia O’Keeffe extolled the beauty of the Southwest skies, before scientists figured out why cloudy days help us think more clearly, the great ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes wrote: “They are the celestial Clouds, the patron goddesses of the layabout. From them come our intelligence, our dialectic and our reason.” Indeed, there is a singular quality of prayerfulness to clouds — a certain secular reverence undergirding their allure to both art and science.

No poetic titan was more enchanted by the prayerful art-science of clouds than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who wrote:

To find yourself in the infinite,
You must distinguish and then combine;
Therefore my winged song thanks
The man who distinguished cloud from cloud.

By the beginning of the 19th century, Goethe was Europe’s most celebrated intellectual icon and Luke Howard — the man who “distinguished cloud from cloud,” a young amateur meteorologist who pioneered a classification system for humanity’s favorite atmospheric phenomena — was the only Englishman whom Goethe ever addressed as “Master.” The verses the elderly Goethe penned for the young Howard endure as the most beautiful homage ever paid by one extraordinary mind to another — sentiments rendered in words even more moving than Thomas Mann’s tribute to Hermann Hesse and JFK’s eulogy for Robert Frost.

In The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies (public library), English writer and historian Richard Hamblyn chronicles Howard’s journey from a humble young Quaker and insecure chemist to a reluctant scientific celebrity who warranted the ebullient admiration of Goethe and forever changed our relationship with the weather.

Painting by Wendy Mark from '89 Clouds.' Click image for more.

In 1803, Howard self-published and distributed to friends a 32-page pamphlet titled On the Modifications of Clouds, &c — a classification system equal parts poetic and practical. Dusting off his schoolboy Latin, he came up with names for the three main categories of clouds — cumulus, stratus, and cirrus — and their various sub-taxonomies and combinations.

With his earnest enthusiasm for organizing the skies and imposing human order upon their ancient mystery, Howard rather unexpectedly captured the popular imagination — half a century before the telegraph became the first widespread medium of instant communication and long before contemporary social media, his essay, so to speak, went viral: Ardently discussed and passed hand to hand across the scientific and Quaker communities at a speed unprecedented in that era, it soon found its way to the prestigious journal Annual Review.

Soon, Howard was catapulted into the status of a scientific celebrity — but his feelings about fame and success, like Steinbeck’s, were ambivalent: Mired in self-doubt, he was embarrassed by the praise he received but was gladdened to see his labor of love make a lasting imprint on culture. Hamblyn captures the root of this ambivalence:

Most pioneers are at the mercy of doubt at the beginning, whether of their worth, of their theories, or of the whole enigmatic field in which they labour.

Howard was at the mercy of all these pernicious forces — some of his peers criticized his use of Latin words instead of ordinary English language in naming the clouds, while others got busy pirating and plagiarizing his popular essay for profit. But his classification system stuck and took off — two centuries before Kevin Kelly coined his famous 1,000 true fans theory, Howard benefited from precisely this potency of a handful of dedicated supporters, who ensured that his morphology was included in the Encyclopedia Britannica and carried over into other European languages.

But no true fan was more crucial to the success and enduring legacy of Howard’s work than Goethe.

Goethe at age 79 (Oil painting by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1828)

Around the time of Howard’s rise to fame, Goethe had grown increasingly interested in science in general and morphology, the study of forms, in particular — a rigorous fascination that produced, among many other things, his theory of the psychology of color and emotion. But meteorology, perhaps because it was a science of contemplation celebrating the inherent poetics of nature, enchanted the great German philosopher and poet more than any other scientific field.

When Howard came under criticism for using Latin rather than the spoken English of the era in his classification system, Goethe penned a passionate defense, insisting that Howard’s Latin cloud names “should be accepted in all languages; they should not be translated, because in that way the first intention of the inventor and founder of them is destroyed.” As Hamblyn points out, Goethe was “an arbiter of cultural and civilized value” and his word “was enough to settle any matter” — and so it did, ensuring Howard’s Latin terms were henceforth the names by which we call the clouds.

But then something even more extraordinary happened — Goethe sent Howard fan mail.

So effusive was the letter, so full of ardent admiration — it even claimed that the cloud classification system had inspired Goethe to write poetry about Howard — that the humble young meteorologist immediately assumed it was a hoax, a cruel joke by one of his critics or a prank by a facetious friend looking to check the scientific starlet’s ego. But it was all true — Goethe was a great admirer of Howard’s work, and had written and published poems inspired by it and even celebrating it directly. Hamblyn explains:

Goethe’s encounter with the classification of clouds … had given him enormous pleasure. For some time he had been speaking of little else, and all in all it seemed as if the old man of letters had been granted a new lease of life.

Eventually, Howard copied Goethe’s words into one of his notebooks — perhaps to assure himself that he hadn’t dreamt the glowing praise, or to immortalize its gladdening effects on the spirit:

How much the Classification of the clouds by Howard has pleased me, how much the disproving of the shapeless, the systematic succession of forms of the unlimited, could not but be desired by me, follows from my whole practice in science and art.

Painting by Wendy Mark from '89 Clouds.' Click image for more.

Hamblyn traces the origin of Goethe’s enchantment with the classification system some years earlier:

Howard’s theories of cloud formation thus enhanced the development of Goethe’s own view of the ‘wholeness’ of nature, the wholeness of its ’mind’, as it were, and in his essay ‘Wolkengestalt nach Howard’ (‘Cloud-shapes According to Howard’) he praised the achievements and evident humanity of the brilliant young English meteorologist. But this was only the beginning. Goethe’s admiration and his sense of indebtedness to Howard’s meteorological theories did not rest there, but led on to one of the most extraordinary personal homages ever paid by one scientific worker to another.

The great German poet set out to adapt Howard’s essay into a series of short musical poems, one for each of the major classes of clouds, together titled Howards Ehrengedächtnis (In Honor of Howard) — a beautiful celebration of the eternal dialogue between art and science in the shared enterprise of illuminating nature’s mystery, and an immensely heartwarming homage from one great illuminator to another.


When o’er the silent bosom of the sea
The cold mist hangs like a stretch’d canopy;
And the moon, mingling there her shadowy beams,
A spirit, fashioning other spirits seems;
We feel, in moments pure and bright as this,
The joy of innocence, the thrill of bliss.
Then towering up in the darkening mountain’s side,
And spreading as it rolls its curtains wide,
It mantles round the mid-way height, and there
It sinks in water-drops, or soars in air.


Still soaring, as if some celestial call
Impell’d it to yon heaven’s sublimest hall;
High as the clouds, in pomp and power arrayed,
Enshrined in strength, in majesty displayed;
All the soul’s secret thoughts it seems to move,
Beneath it trembles, while it frowns above.


And higher, higher yet the vapors roll:
Triumph is the noblest impulse of the soul!
Then like a lamb whose silvery robes are shed,
The fleecy piles dissolved in dew drops spread;
Or gently waft to the realms of rest,
Find a sweet welcome in the Father’s breast.


Now downwards by the world’s attraction driven,
That tends to earth, which had upris’n to heaven;
Threatening in the mad thunder-cloud, as when
Fierce legions clash, and vanish from the plain;
Sad destiny of the troubled world! but see,
The mist is now dispersing gloriously:
And language fails us in its vain endeavour —
The spirit mounts above, and lives forever.

Hamblyn considers what impelled Goethe to transmute Howard’s classification into his high art of poetry:

For Goethe the identification and naming of the clouds had done nothing less than transfigure mankind’s relationship with aerial nature. The clouds had been released into the scientific consciousness, from where they could reach further, into the realm of the pure intellectual spirit, as addressed in the last line of ‘Nimbus.’ The greatness of Howard’s classification, for Goethe, was that it accounted for the material forces of cloud formation while allowing for the immaterial forces of poetic response to be heard. And his poems, like the essay which preceded them, took the form of just such a response. Art could answer science, it could find within it not only a source of subject matter but a source of real inspiration. Goethe’s cloud poems, as reactions to an energizing scientific insight, were heartfelt, joyous and sincere.

In yet another testament to the power of creative culture’s unsung sidekicks, the four cloud poems Goethe wrote in 1817 would have remained little more than a private delight for the German luminary — were it not for a young translator at London’s Foreign Office who was so captivated by the poems that he took it upon himself to translate them into English and give them a wider audience. That young clerk, Johann Christian Hüttner, was the one who translated and transmitted Goethe’s admiration to Howard himself — a dedicated cross-pollinator of greatness.

But Hüttner’s vision extended beyond the mere translation of the verses — feeling that the poems would greatly benefit from a richer context for readers who may not have encountered Howard’s original essay, he convinced Goethe to write a few introductory remarks about Howard and his work. The poet was happy to oblige and penned the following verse in just a few days:

When Camarupa, wavering on high,
Lightly and slowly travels o’er the sky,
Now closely draws her veil, now spreads it wide,
And joys to see the changing figures glide,
Now firmly stands, now like a vision flies,
We pause in wonder, and mistrust our eyes.

Then boldly stirs imagination’s power,
And shapes there formless masses of the hour;
Here lions threat, there elephants will range,
And camel-necks to vapoury dragons change;
An army moves, but not in victory proud,
Its might is broken on a rock of cloud;
E’en the cloud messenger in air expires,
Ere reach’d the distance fancy yet desires.

But Howard gives us with his clearer mind
The gain of lessons new to all mankind;
That which no hand can reach, no hand can clasp,
He first has gain’d, first held with mental grasp.
Defin’d the doubtful, fix’d its limit-line,
And named it fitly. — Be the honour thine!
As clouds ascend, are folded, scatter, fall,
Let the world think of thee who taught it all.

It was an astonishing gesture of intellectual generosity and remains among history’s most touching intersections of notable lives. So intensely interested was Goethe in the mind behind the cloud classification system that, with Hüttner’s help, he soon convinced Howard to write a short memoir chronicling the development of his scientific ideas and the circumstances of his life that fertilized the soil for his invention. Howard sent back an earnest text of irrepressible humility, in which he wrote:

I am a man of domestic habits and very happy in my family and a few friends, whose company I quit with reluctance to join other circles.

This made Goethe all the more enamored with the young meteorologist’s sincerity of spirit. Well into his seventies, he wrote in a letter to Hüttner:

For a long time nothing has given me so much pleasure as the autobiography of Mr. Howard, which I received yesterday and have been thinking of ever since. In truth nothing more pleasant could have happened to me than to see the tender religious soul of such an excellent man opened out to me in such a way that he has been able to lay bare for me the story of his destiny and development as well as his innermost convictions.

How Howard developed his sensitive soul and how it sprouted his trailblazing scientific contribution is what Hamblyn explores in the remainder in the beautifully written, rigorously researched, wholly fascinating The Invention of Clouds. Complement it with the very differently but equally bewitching 89 Clouds and the science of how clouds actually stay up in the sky, then revisit Goethe’s taxonomy of color and emotion.

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06 JULY, 2015

The Art of Biophilia: Extraordinary Mosaics Incorporating Earth’s Most Colorful Creatures


A mesmerizing celebration of “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive.”

In his 1973 book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm popularized the word biophilia as a term for a positive psychological state of being. Literally translated as “love of life,” it is more vibrantly captured in Fromm’s own translation as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive… the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea, or a social group.” Many decades later, the great Mary Oliver — whose poetry is among humanity’s highest celebrations of biophilia — would come to call this feeling the “sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world.”

That passionate love of aliveness and that exulted awareness of the citizenry of all beings is what artist, designer, and photographer Christopher Marley captures in Biophilia (public library) — an exquisite collection of his artwork incorporating various life-forms, from insects to reptiles to marine creatures. A modern-day Ernst Haeckel of photographic art, Marley painstakingly arranges his specimens into mesmerizing patterns and stages them for individual portraits that reveal the dazzling grandeur of these humble creatures, from butterflies that would’ve made Nabokov proud to fish that outshine the greatest natural history illustrations.

Chrysina Prism (France, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Honduras, Australia, Tanzania, Borneo)

Cerulean Butterflies (Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Irian, Sulawesi, France)

Urchin Spheres (Thailand, Philippines, United States, Mexico)

Tropical Fish Mosaic (Worldwide)

Marley, a self-described “chronically afflicted biophiliac,” writes:

It is our biophilia that causes us to find so much beauty and satisfaction in nature. We do not love nature because it is beautiful; we find beauty in nature because we are a part of it, and it is a part of us.


It is a symbiotic relationship. The more we grow in understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the more we invest in it, the greater the peace, satisfaction, and joy we receive from our association in return, just as we involuntarily develop love for those people we truly understand and serve. As with all ordained goodness, the more we give, the more we receive.

That goodness permeates Marley’s work. After growing up in a family of hunters, he developed an aversion to killing any creature — even an insect — and spent years developing ethical, sustainable ways of collecting and preserving the specimens he uses in his artwork, working with a worldwide network of researchers, citizen scientists, and institutions.

Aesthetica Sphere (Worldwide species)

A century and a half after Emerson contemplated how beauty bewitches the human spirit, asserting that “the secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting,” Marley makes infinitely interesting — or, rather, illuminates the inherent interestingness of — various species with which we share our shimmering world but which we, blinded by the momentum of our prejudices and phobias, ordinarily consider ugly or unremarkable. He uses beauty — “the form under which the intellect prefers to study the world,” per Emerson — as a tool of translation, shifting our frame of reference from one of antipathy or apprehension to one of appreciation and even affection.

Marley writes:

I have found that when my subjects are meticulously composed, it makes the translation more intelligible for the public at large, just as random music notes, once properly orchestrated, can enter the heart and sway it almost against our volition. Once an appreciation for the aesthetics of insects is born, it is amazing how quickly old prejudiced and stereotypes fall away. When people begin to see beauty where they had previously known only a mundane, distasteful, or even frightening world of arcane organisms, positive changes in their perceptions of arthropods as a whole are sure to follow.


If the work I do provides no other benefit than to kindle a new appreciation of insects (and any other creatures that evoke trepidation in the human heart), that is enough for me. It is the primary reason why I do what I do: because it brings people — myself and others — joy.

The joy his work brings is of the most colorful, ebullient kind — the kind that emanates an exuberant celebration of biodiversity and an invitation for us to belong to this world more fully, calling to mind Mary Oliver’s unforgettable verse: “I know, you never intended to be in this world. / But you’re in it all the same. / So why not get started immediately. / I mean, belonging to it. / There is so much to admire, to weep over.”

Fulgens Prism (Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan)

Urchin Spheres Mosaic (Philippines, Thailand, Mexico, United States)

Feather Mosaic (Worldwide)

Cretaceous Ammonite Study (Madagascar)

Green Tree Python (Australia)

Preserved Octopus (Atlantic Ocean)

Elegans Prism (Thailand, Indonesia, Cameroon, Malaysia)

Complement Biophilia with Susan Middleton’s breathtaking photographs of marine invertebrates, then revisit the curious cultural history of thinking with animals.

All images: © 2015 Christopher Marley courtesy of Abrams Books

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03 JULY, 2015

The Central Mystery of Quantum Mechanics, Animated


How a lineage of scientists pieced together the puzzle revealing the dual nature of the universe.

Ever since Heisenberg stood on the shoulders of giants to pave the way for quantum mechanics, this captivating branch of science and its central fact — that light can behave both as a particle and as a wave — has challenged us to grapple with the perplexing duality of the universe, inspiring everything from critical questions about the future of science to mind-bending meditations at the intersection of theology and astrophysics to philosophical children’s books.

That central mystery of quantum mechanics is what particle physicist Chad Orzel, author of the illuminating and intelligently entertaining How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog (public library), explores in this animated primer from TED Ed.

Orzel writes in the book:

Classical physics is the physics of everyday objects — tennis balls and squeaky toys, stoves and ice cubes, magnets and electrical wiring… Modern physics describes the stranger world that we see when we go beyond the everyday… Modern physics is divided into two parts, each representing a radical departure from classical rules. One part, relativity, deals with objects that move very fast, or are in the presence of strong gravitational forces… The other part of modern physics is what I talk to my dog about.

He points out that quantum mechanics is woven into the very fabric of modern life:

Without an understanding of the quantum nature of the electron, it would be impossible to make the semiconductor chips that run our computers. Without an understanding of the quantum nature of light and atoms, it would be impossible to make the lasers we use to send messages over fiber-optic communication lines.

Quantum theory’s effect on science goes beyond the merely practical — it forces physicists to grapple with issues of philosophy. Quantum physics places limits on what we can know about the universe and the properties of objects in it. Quantum mechanics even changes our understanding of what it means to make a measurement. It requires a complete rethinking of the nature of reality at the most fundamental level.

Quantum mechanics describes an utterly bizarre world, where nothing is certain and objects don’t have definite properties until you measure them. It’s a world where distant objects are connected in strange ways, where there are entire universes with different histories right next to our own, and where “virtual particles” pop in and out of existence in otherwise empty space.

Quantum physics may sound like the stuff of fantasy fiction, but it’s science. The world described in quantum theory is our world, at a microscopic scale. The strange effects predicted by quantum physics are real, with real consequences and applications.

Those consequences and applications are what Orzel goes on to explore in the wholly fascinating How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog. Complement it with Alice in Quantumland, an allegorical explanation of quantum mechanics inspired by Lewis Carroll, then revisit TED Ed’s stimulating animated primers on what makes a hero, how you know you exist, why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity, how melancholy enhances creativity, why bees build perfect hexagons, and Plato’s parable for the nature of reality.

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24 JUNE, 2015

Simone Weil on Science, Quantum Theory, and Our Spiritual Values


“When someone exposes himself as a slave in the market place, what wonder if he finds a master?”

Many decades before Rebecca Goldstein, one of the most compelling philosophers and scientific thinkers of our time, examined how Einstein and Gödel’s work on relativity rattled our understanding of existence, her twentieth-century counterpart — the brilliant French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) — probed the subject with extraordinary intellectual elegance in an invigorating essay titled “Reflections on Quantum Theory.” Originally written the year before Weil’s death and later included in the out-of-print posthumous 1968 collection On Science, Necessity and the Love of God (public library), the essay considers how the advent of two theories — relativity (“a very simple theory, so long as one does not try to understand it”) and quantum mechanics — ripped our understanding of the world asunder, opening up a massive abyss between “science as it had been understood ever since ancient Greece” and modern science.

After a swift primer on the evolution of science from Galileo and Newton to Einstein and Planck, Weil turns to the key culprit in this major rift between classical and contemporary science — our increasing and, she admonishes, increasingly dangerous reliance on mathematical expression as the most accurate expression of reality, flattening and making artificially linear the dimensional and messy relationships of which reality itself is woven:

What makes the abyss between twentieth-century science and that of previous centuries is the different role of algebra. In physics algebra was at first simply a process for summarizing the relations, established by reasoning based on experiment, between the ideas of physics; an extremely convenient process for the numerical calculations necessary for their verification and application. But its role has continually increased in importance until finally, whereas algebra was once the auxiliary language and words the essential one, it is now exactly the other way round. There are even some physicists who tend to make algebra the sole language, or almost, so that in the end, an unattainable end of course, there would be nothing except figures derived form experimental measurements, and letters, combined in formulae. Now, ordinary language and algebraic language are not subject to the same logical requirement; relations between ideas are not fully represented by relations between letters; and, in particular, incompatible assertions may have equational equivalents which are by no means incompatible. When some relations between ideas have been translated into algebra and the formulae have been manipulated solely according to the numerical data of the experiment and the laws proper to algebra, results may be obtained which, when retranslated into spoken language, are a violent contradiction of common sense.

Weil argues that this creates an incomplete and, in its incompleteness, illusory representation of reality — even when it bisects the planes of mathematical data and common sense, such science leaves out the unquantifiable layer of meaning:

If the algebra of physicists gives the impression of profundity it is because it is entirely flat; the third dimension of thought is missing.

That third dimension is that of meaning — one concerned with notions like “the human soul, freedom, consciousness, the reality of the external world.” (Three decades later, Hannah Arendt — another of the twentieth century’s most piercing and significant minds — would memorably contemplate the crucial difference between truth and meaning, the former being the material of science and the latter of philosophy.)

Illustration from 'Alice in Quantumland' by Robert Gilbert, an allegorical primer on quantum mechanics inspired by 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

But most perilous of all, Weil argues, is our tendency to mistake the findings of science for objectivity and capital-T Truth, forgetting that it is scientists who make science — and scientists are human, a product of their time, beholden to their era’s values and to their own subjective impressions of truth. She cautions:

Scientific theories pass away as men’s fashions did in the seventeenth century; the Louis XIII style of dress disappeared when the last of the old men who had been young during Louis XIII’s reign were dead… Science is voiceless; it is the scientists who talk. And what they say is certainly not independent of time.

Weil argues that much of the subjectivity, which robs science of the necessary largeness in explaining the world in its full dimensions, is due to a certain scientific tribalism — scientists’ tendency to confine themselves to small groups that study only small subsets of the larger whole, with little or no cross-pollination between these tribes:

The villagers seldom leave the village; many scientists have limited and poorly cultivated minds apart from their specialty or, if a scientist is interested in something outside his specific work, it is very unusual for him to relate that interest, in his mind, with his interest in science. The inhabitants of the village are studious, brilliant, exceptionally gifted; but all the same, up to an age when mind and character are for the most part already formed, they are lycée students among the other and are taught from mediocre textbooks. No one has ever been particularly concerned to develop their critical spirit. At no point in their lives are they specifically trained to put the pure love of truth above other motives… Among the inhabitants of the village, as among all men, this love is to be found, mixed in varying proportions with the other motives — among them the taste for precision and work properly done, and the desire to be talked about, and greed for money, consideration, fame, honors, titles, and also antipathies and jealousies and friendships. This village, like all other villages, is composed of average humanity, with a few excesses above and below.

Thus, Weil argues, the capital-T truth science purports to produce is merely the average of the various subjectivities of the villagers:

As elsewhere, the strife of generations and individuals results at any given moment in an average opinion. The state of science at a given moment is nothing else but this; it is the average opinion of the village of scientists… As for the scientists themselves, they are naturally the first to pass of their own opinions as if they were deliverances of an oracle, for which they have no responsibility and cannot be called to account. This pretension is intolerable, because it is not legitimate. There is no oracle, but only the opinions of scientists, who are men. They affirm what they believe they ought to affirm, and they are right to do so; but they themselves are the responsible authors of all their affirmations and are accountable for them.

Art adapted from Alice and Martin Provensen's vintage pop-up book about the life of Leonardo. Click image for more.

What modern scientists are most accountable for, Weil argues, is the rupture with classical science, which was better integrated with philosophy:

What is disastrous is not the rejection of classical science but the way in which it has been rejected. It wrongly believed it could progress indefinitely, and it ran into a dead end about the year 1900; but scientists failed to stop at the same time in order to contemplate and reflect upon the barrier, they did not try to describe and define it and, having taken it into account, to draw some general conclusions form it; instead, they rushed violently past it, leaving classical science behind them. And why should we be surprised at this? For are they not paid to forge continually ahead? Nobody advances in his career, or in reputation, or gets a Nobel Prize, by standing still. To cease voluntarily from forging ahead, any brilliantly gifted scientist would need to be a sort of saint or hero, and why should he be a saint or hero?

What Weil is essentially championing is a necessary balance between progress and pause for reflection — something John Dewey had memorably advocated decades earlier. Having forgone that, she argues, modern scientists removed themselves from the big-picture questions of meaning by gradually fragmenting science into smaller and smaller units of measurable truth.

For a contemporary parallel, we need not look further than journalism and the media industry, which in their insatiable hunger for progress along flawed metrics like pageviews have reduced the profession’s true social currency — substantive writing that elucidates meaning — to “content,” which implies the very thing thing it purveys: meaningless filler material to stick between advertising. In her eternal prescience, Susan Sontag — who famously wrote that “anything from Simone Weil’s pen is worth reading” — presaged this modern epidemic half a century ago, writing in 1964: “Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art… Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.” Where modern scientists erred, Weil argues, is in lurching forward with the content of science without stepping back to see the thing at all — the thing being the ultimate subject of their study, the nature of reality itself.

But make no mistake — severe as Weil’s critique may be, it is the opposite of anti-scientific: At its heart is not an assault on science but a passionate plea for protecting its integrity and ensuring its survival for generations to come. She considers the root of the problem:

Science, like every effort of thought, consists in interpreting experience… It is a mistake to think that experiment is of any use for this purpose, because all human thought, including beliefs which appear completely absurd, is experimental and claims to be based on and confirmed by experience… All thought is an effort of interpretation of experience, and experience provides neither model nor rule nor criterion for the interpretation; it provides the data of problems but not a way of solving or even of formulating them. This effort requires, like all other efforts, to be oriented towards something; all human effort is oriented and when man is not going in any direction he remains motionless. He cannot do without values. For all theoretical study the name of value is truth. It is impossible, no doubt, for men of flesh and blood in this world to have any representation of truth which is not defective; but they must have on — an imperfect image of the non-representable truth which we once saw, as Plato says, beyond the sky.

Illustration from Ralph Steadman's 'I, Leonardo.' Click image for more.

Classical scientists, Weil argues, had an imperfect representation of scientific truth — but they had one. She proposes a somewhat improbable and, in its imaginative improbability, a rather poetic solution — a mandatory period of pause for reflection amid science’s galloping progress:

A compulsory halt would … force scientists to try to recapitulate and revise… to make an honest survey of axioms, postulates, definitions, hypotheses, and principles, without omitting those which are implied in experimental technique itself, such as the use of the balance. Such a work would perhaps make science a field of knowledge, by revealing clearly the difficulties, contradictions, and impossibilities which today are hurriedly concealed under solutions behind which the intelligence can discern nothing. But it is a work which should be begun soon. Otherwise the arrest of science might lead, not to a renewal but to the disappearance of the scientific spirit throughout the whole world for several centuries, as happened after the Roman Empire had killed the science of Greece.

Weil argues that this compulsive concealment of the difficulties inherent to science, coupled with increasing specialization of the different villages, has ensured that “the layman cannot understand anything about science and that scientists themselves are laymen outside their own special departments.” Granted, with the hindsight of more than seven decades, we can perhaps exhale with a certain grateful awareness that this is no longer the case — if anything, we can even wonder whether the greatest scientific development of the twentieth century isn’t any particular theory or branch of science but the rise of science communication, which continues to popularize science among said “laymen,” increasingly inviting all of us to understand — and, in the case of citizen science, to contribute to — the conquest of truth.

And yet such cultural developments notwithstanding, Weil’s central charge rings just as true today:

In the present crisis there is something compromised which is infinitely more precious even than science; it is the idea of truth… So soon as truth disappears, utility at once takes its place, because man always directs his effort toward some good or other. Thus utility becomes something which the intelligence is no longer entitled to define or to judge, but only to serve. From being the arbiter, intelligence becomes the servant, and it gets its orders from the desires. And, further, public opinion then replaces conscience as sovereign mistress of thoughts, because man always submits his thoughts to some higher control, which is superior either in value or else in power. That is where we are today. Everything is oriented towards utility, which nobody thinks of defining; public opinion reigns supreme, in the village of scientists as in the great nations. It is as though we had returned to the age of Protagoras and the Sophists, the age when the art of persuasion — whose modern equivalent is advertising slogans, publicity, propaganda meetings, the press, the cinema, the radio — took the place of thought.


The official guardians of spiritual values have allowed them to decay… In the period of sorrow and humiliation which we have already entered and which will perhaps be a very long one, our only hope of recovering some day what we lack is to feel with our whole soul how well-merited our misfortune is… When someone exposes himself as a slave in the market place, what wonder if he finds a master?

How very pregnant with poignancy this final remark is, for in the decades since Weil penned her lament, culture has become even more subservient to commerce. In fact, this very book — a packet of some of the most luminous, intellectually exhilarating, and spiritually stimulating thinking of the past century — is deeply out of print, presumably because at some point publishers determined there wasn’t enough of a “market” for these ideas outside the few of us willing to pay exorbitant prices for the handful of surviving copies.

Should you be so lucky as to find one such precious copy of On Science, Necessity and the Love of God — your local library might help — you will find yourself at once infinitely gladdened by Weil’s enduring ideas and infinitely saddened by the self-fulfilling prophecy embedded in this particular one. Complement it with Weil on how to make use of our suffering and how to be a complete human being.

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