“Old friends cannot be created out of hand. Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions.”
By Maria Popova
“Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship,” Seneca counseled in considering true and false friendship, “but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul.” To lose a friend who has earned such wholehearted admission into your soul is one of life’s most devastating sorrows. Whatever shape the loss takes — death, distance, the various desertions of loyalty and love that hollow out the heart — it is one of life’s most devastating sorrows. It is also one of life’s most absolute inevitabilities — we will each lose a beloved friend at one point or another, to one cause or another.
No one has articulated the disorientation of that inevitability more beautifully than Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (June 29, 1900–July 31, 1944) in Wind, Sand, and Stars (public library) — that endlessly rewarding collection of his autobiographical vignettes, philosophical inquiries, and poetic reflections on the nature of existence, published just as WWII was breaking out and four years before The Little Prince, which Saint-Exupéry would dedicate to his best friend in what remains perhaps the most beautiful book dedication ever composed.
With an eye to his life as a pilot, Saint-Exupéry considers with unsentimental sweetness the common experience of losing fellow pilots to accident or war. In a passage that radiates universal insight into the loss of a friend, whatever the circumstance, he writes:
Bit by bit… it comes over us that we shall never again hear the laughter of our friend, that this one garden is forever locked against us. And at that moment begins our true mourning, which, though it may not be rending, is yet a little bitter. For nothing, in truth, can replace that companion. Old friends cannot be created out of hand. Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions. It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak.
So life goes on. For years we plant the seed, we feel ourselves rich; and then come other years when time does its work and our plantation is made sparse and thin. One by one, our comrades slip away, deprive us of their shade.
Three years later, Saint-Exupéry would offer the most poetic consolation there is, only consolation there is for this existential sorrow, in the final pages of The Little Prince — a book very much about reconciling the great unbidden gift of loving a friend with the inevitability of losing that friend. In the closing scene, the little prince, about to depart for his home planet, tells the heartsick pilot unwilling to lose him and his golden laugh:
All men have the stars… but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travelers, the stars are guides. For other they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems. For my businessman they were wealth. But all these stars are silent. You — you alone — will have the stars as no one else has them… In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night… And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content to have known me. You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometimes open your window, so, for that pleasure… And your friends will be properly astonished to see you laughing as you look up at the sky!
Months later, much to the sorrow of his own friends and the millions of strangers who had come to love him through his books, Saint-Exupéry himself would become one of the lost pilots, vanishing over the Mediterranean Sea on a reconnaissance mission, his stardust silently returned to the stars that made him.
“There is scarcely any well-informed person, who, if he has but the will, has not also the power to add something essential to the general stock of knowledge.”
By Maria Popova
“It is always difficult to teach the man of the people that natural phenomena belong as much to him as to scientific people,” the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote as she led the first-ever professional female eclipse expedition in 1878. The sentiment presages the importance of what we today call “citizen science,” radical and countercultural in an era when science was enshrined in the pompous pantheon of the academy, whose gates were shut and padlocked to “the man of the people,” to women, and to all but privileged white men.
Two decades earlier, Mitchell had traveled to Europe as America’s first true scientific celebrity to meet, among other dignitaries of the Old World, one such man — but one of far-reaching vision and kindness, who used his privilege to broaden the spectrum of possibility for the less privileged: the polymathic astronomer John Herschel (March 7, 1792–May 11, 1871), co-founder of the venerable Royal Astronomical Society, son of Uranus discoverer William Herschel, and nephew of Caroline Herschel, the world’s first professional woman astronomer, who had introduced him to astronomy as a boy.
Several years before he coined the word photography, Herschel became the first prominent scientist to argue in a public forum that the lifeblood of science — data collection and the systematic observation of natural phenomena — should be the welcome task of ordinary people from all walks of life, united by a passionate curiosity about how the universe works.
In 1831, the newly knighted Herschel published A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy as part of the fourteenth volume of the bestselling Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopædia (large chunks of which were composed by Frankenstein author Mary Shelley). Later cited in Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck’s altogether excellent book Histories of Scientific Observation (public library), it was a visionary work, outlining the methods of scientific investigation by clarifying the relationship between theory and observation. But perhaps its most visionary aspect was Herschel’s insistence that observation should be a network triumph belonging to all of humanity — a pioneering case for the value of citizen science. He writes:
To avail ourselves as far as possible of the advantages which a division of labour may afford for the collection of facts, by the industry and activity which the general diffusion of information, in the present age, brings into exercise, is an object of great importance. There is scarcely any well-informed person, who, if he has but the will, has not also the power to add something essential to the general stock of knowledge, if he will only observe regularly and methodically some particular class of facts which may most excite his attention, or which his situation may best enable him to study with effect.
Pointing to meteorology and geology as the sciences best poised to benefit from distributed data collection by citizen scientists, Herschel adds:
There is no branch of science whatever in which, at least, if useful and sensible queries were distinctly proposed, an immense mass of valuable information might not be collected from those who, in their various lines of life, at home or abroad, stationary or in travel, would gladly avail themselves of opportunities of being useful.
Herschel goes on to outline the process by which such citizen science would be conducted: “skeleton forms” of survey questions circulated far and wide, asking “distinct and pertinent questions, admitting of short and definite answers,” then transmitted to “a common centre” for processing — a sort of human internet feeding into a paper-stack server. (Lest we forget, Maria Mitchell herself was employed as a “computer” — the term we used to use for the humans who performed the work now performed by machines we have named after them.)
A dual serenade to being and non-being, composed in glass, metal, and stardust.
By Maria Popova
This essay is excerpted and adapted from Figuring.
In 1847, the Harvard College Observatory acquired a colossal telescope dubbed the Great Refractor. It would remain the most powerful in America for twenty years. Enraptured by the imaging potential of the mighty instrument, observatory director William Bond befriended the daguerreotypist John Adams Whipple (September 10, 1822–April 10, 1891). Whipple thought of photography as a figurative art rather than a technical craft, but he applied it to the advancement of science. The two men began a series of collaborations that lit the dawn of astrophotography.
Four years into it, the thirty-year-old Whipple would awe the world with his stunning photographs of celestial objects — particularly his photographs of the Moon. Louis Daguerre himself had taken the first lunar photograph on January 2, 1839 — five days before announcing his invention, which marked the birth of photography — but his studio and his entire archive were destroyed by a fire two months later. Whipple’s remains the earliest known surviving photograph of the Moon — an image that continues to stun with its simple visual poetics even as technology has far eclipsed the primitive equipment of its photographer.
Whipple’s collaboration with Bond was the beginning of what would become the world’s largest collection of astrophotography plates at the Harvard College Observatory. From this vast visual library, a team of women known as the Harvard Computers would wrest pioneering insight into the nature of the universe, patiently analyzing and annotating the glass plates that today number half a million.
A year before his Moon photograph, Whipple had used the Great Refractor to make the first daguerreotype of a star: Vega, the second-brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere, object of one of Galileo’s most ingenious experiments supporting his proof of heliocentricity. An emissary of spacetime, Vega’s light reached the telescope’s lens from twenty-five light-years away to deliver an image of the star as it had been a quarter century earlier.
When the pioneering astrophotographers of Whipple’s generation began pointing one end of the telescope at the cosmos and affixing the other to the camera, we could behold for the first time images of stars that lived billions of light-years away, billions of years ago, long dead by the time their light — the universe’s merchant of time and conquistador of space — reached the lens. Against the backdrop of the newly and barely comprehensible sense of deep time, the blink of any human lifetime suddenly stung with its brevity of being, islanded in the cosmic river of chaos and entropy, drifting, always drifting, toward nonbeing.
We say that photographs “immortalize,” and yet they do the very opposite. Every photograph razes us on our ephemeral temporality by forcing us to contemplate a moment — an unrepeatable fragment of existence — that once was and never again will be. To look at a daguerreotype is to confront the fact of your own mortality in the countenance of a person long dead, a person who once inhabited a fleeting moment — alive with dreams and desperations — just as you now inhabit this one. Rather than bringing us closer to immortality, photography humbled us before our mortal finitude. Florence Nightingale resisted it. “I wish to be forgotten,” she wrote, and consented to being photographed only when Queen Victoria insisted.
I wonder about this as I stand amid the stacks of the Harvard College Observatory surrounded by half a million glass plates meticulously annotated by the hands of women long returned to stardust. I imagine the flesh of steady fingers, atoms spun into molecules throbbing with life, carefully slipping a glass plate from its paper sleeve to examine it. In a museum jar across the Atlantic, Galileo’s finger, which once pointed to the Moon with flesh just as alive, shrivels like all of our certitudes.
Pinned above the main desk area at the observatory is an archival photograph of Annie Jump Cannon — the deaf computer who catalogued more than 20,000 variable stars in a short period after joining the observatory — examining one of the photographic plates with a magnifying glass. I take out my smartphone — a disembodied computer of Venus, mundane proof of Einstein’s relativity, instant access to more knowledge than Newton ever knew — and take a photograph of a photograph of a photograph.
The half million glass plates surrounding me are about to be scraped of the computers’ handwriting — the last physical trace of the women’s corporeality — in order to reveal the clear images that, a century and a half later, provide invaluable astronomical information about the evolution of the universe. There are no overtones of sentimentality in entropy’s unceasing serenade to the cosmos.
“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself… You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow…”
By Maria Popova
In the final years of his long life, which encompassed world wars and assassinations and numerous terrors, the great cellist and human rights advocate Pablo Casals urged humanity to “make this world worthy of its children.” Today, as we face a world that treats its children as worthless, we are challenged like we have never been challenged to consider the deepest existential calculus of bringing new life into a troubled world — what is the worth of children, what are our responsibilities to them (when we do choose to have them, for it is also an act of courage and responsibility to choose not to), and what does it mean to raise a child with the dignity of being an unrepeatable miracle of atoms that have never before constellated and will never again constellate in that exact way?
When a young mother with a newborn baby at her breast asks for advice on children and parenting, Gibran’s poetic prophet responds:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
“Our inability to read dogs’ emotions well probably begins with our inability to understand our own emotions well.”
By Maria Popova
That humans love their dogs is a fundamental fact of our animal heart, as indisputable and irrepealable as gravity — just look at Lord Byron’s leaden eulogy for his beloved dog. But whether our dogs “love” us and what that really means is a question that hurls the human heart into perennial restlessness, oscillating between absolute, arrogant certainty and endless, insecure doubt. Its answer hints at the elemental nature of all emotion, at the central puzzlement of consciousness, at the very meaning of love, and at the unnerving fact that we can never fully know the inner life of another, be they human or other animal.
Horowitz notes that, both in her lab and while observing dogs in the urban wild, she constantly sees behaviors from which we instinctively infer human-like emotions — curiosity when a dog faces a dancing robot, surprise when a hidden researcher emerges from behind a door — and yet she is frequently asked whether dogs are really capable of the most sweeping human emotions: love, anger, ennui. Are we right to imagine “If I could I would bite every sorrow until it fled” into a beloved dog’s mental monologue? Framing these questions as “a testament to both the ardor of our interest in our dogs, and our uncertainty about the dog’s experience,” Horowitz writes:
As our own days may be colored with anxiety, anticipation, or foreboding — are dogs’ days so colored? As we respond to events and people with empathy, sarcasm, or incredulity — do dogs tend toward such sentiments?
Many of these questions boil down to whether dogs have feelings or emotions at all. But of course they do. Look at it adaptively: emotions are messaging to the muscles and response system to circumvent the closed-door discussions between the sensory organs and brain. I see a tiger; I know that tigers are predators and this one is coming toward me . . . and Hey!, chimes the brain emotively, Be afraid! Run!
Look at it neurologically: the areas of human brains that are active when we feel, sigh, yearn, and despair are also found in dogs’ brains.
Look at it behaviorally: though we are not always great at naming which behavior indicates what emotion (as we will shortly see), the wide array of different behaviors and postures of dogs tells us about their internal states.
Look at it sensibly. The alternative to having emotions — having undifferentiated experience — defies reason, defies Darwin, defies continuity. Human emotions did not emerge mysteriously and fully formed out of unfeeling automata. Keep in mind that the last popular advocate of the latter belief, Descartes, lived in a time when bloodletting was still considered salubrious.
But while the question of whether dogs feel is a fossil of hubristic medievalism, the question of what and how dogs feel remains just on the cusp of our ability to answer — for our answers are mired in our own projections. After all, the qualia of any conscious experience is singular to the consciousness having it and impenetrable to other consciousnesses — Nina Simone serenaded the impossibility of precisely knowing the qualia of another human animal when she sang “I wish you could know what it means to be me,” let alone the qualia of a non-human animal.
And yet we presume to easily read a dog’s feeling states. A century and a half after Darwin wrote that “man himself cannot express love and humility by external signs, so plainly as does a dog, when with drooping ears, hanging lips, flexuous body, and wagging tail, he meets his beloved master,” Horowitz pulls into question the plainness of emotional inferences drawn from behavioral cues. Having previously written beautifully about how a walk with her own dog ignited an awareness of the myriad different ways of experiencing the same reality, she considers the difference between description and emotional diagnosis:
As shorthand, it makes good sense to me to use emotional terms to describe what I’m seeing. In the lab, I would more likely say, The dog’s head extends forward, leading the body by an extra half-step; the ears are perked into their full height (read: curiosity). A dog jumps back, preparing the body for escape; a “rurf” sound slips out (surprise). Retreating, the dog’s body shrinks down and back (anxiety); on approach, a dog pulls away her head, lifts her paw, curls her lip (disgust); with a high, loosely wagging tail, the dog leaps with two or four legs and attempts to lick every nearby face, dog or human (delight).
I don’t use those shorthand words as my first descriptions of what they are doing — because I hesitate to assume that a dog’s experience of what looks like curiosity or delight is precisely like mine. While the similarities across mammalian brains make it highly likely that all mammals have diverse emotional experiences, we all also have very different lived experiences, based on, for humans, our cultures, where we live, and the people we meet. So, too, for dogs. My own guess is that, planted into a dog’s body, we wouldn’t recognize the feelings we’re flooded with as being just like our own. But that there are feelings, I’ve no doubt.
In this way, I inhabit the territory between the presumptive granting of subjective experience just like humans — and complete denial of any experience. Not presuming to know the dog’s subjective experience is not at all the same as denying them any experience at all.
Paradoxically, she points out, denial has been the crucible of the scientific study of animal consciousness — with strikingly cruel consequences that gnaw at the foundations of morality:
Without definitive evidence of an animal’s fear of pain, researchers say, how can we be sure that the animal feels fear — or pain — at all?
Weirdly, most of the history of medical and psychiatric research has also seemed not to doubt the reality of animals’ feelings. In fact, it presumes feelings in its very premise. To prove the efficacy of an anti-anxiety drug for humans, the drug first has to be roundly vetted on an “animal model”: essentially, lab animals have to be made anxious, then given the test, and have their anxiety dissipate (while no other ill effects arise). A history of this kind of thinking is written between the lines of every medical study using animals: they are so similar to us, thus they are a good model for humans.
Should someone make the claim to me that a dog definitely can’t be “depressed,” or benefit from anti-depression medication, I’ll take their hand and walk them back in time. Several decades ago, depression research took a step forward with the development of the “learned helplessness” model, made famous by Martin Seligman. He and his colleague came up with a scheme to see if helplessness could be induced by circumstance. Brace yourself: it involved dogs.
In a passage difficult to read without growing heavy-hearted and fiery with anger, Horowitz goes on to summarize the classic behavioral psychology study — an experiment that involved thirty-two “adult mongrel dogs” who never smelled the outdoor air and lived enslaved in the lab, where they were strapped down and assaulted by electric shocks and 70-decibel noise until they “learned” that they were utterly helpless. Horowitz confesses in a footnote that she had to read the study in three harrowing sittings, punctuated by slamming her computer shut and leaving the room. (Her own lab keeps no live animals, though there are two stuffed toy-dogs, both affectionately named by the researchers. Volunteer subjects come from the “real” world, including one human-canine duo who traveled 210 miles to participate in a 30-minute study.) She reflects on the grim morale of Seligman’s study:
Dogs were shocked, driven to depression and passivity and impotence, to prove that we could feel passivity and impotent in depression. Dogs are still widely used in medical research, make no mistake: this is happening now. Also now. And again.
To watch struggling animals without working to relieve their struggle demonstrates the great dissociation we condone with animals. Our society’s attitude toward animals is thus mismatched. We grant them feelings when it suits our testing needs, but grant them no feelings when it would not suit our testing needs. The human behavior in these test settings — electrocuting; near-drowning — is considered animal cruelty anywhere outside of the test setting.
So why is the question of animal emotions still posed? We are trapped on the far reaches of the pendulum’s swing: either assuming dogs are entirely unlike us or assuming dogs are just like us. As wrongheaded as it is to presume dogs to be unfeeling, it is no more correct to presumptively grant them a humanlike emotional life. (Nor must it be somewhere in-between: for all we know, dogs’ emotional experience is far more elaborate than ours.) We glance at dogs and conclude we know what they’re feeling, but our haste to make such conjecture on little evidence — and inability to read a dog’s emotions when they are displayed — is profound.
Curiously, while we are poor readers of a dog’s emotions, dogs seem to be excellent readers of ours. One of the fascinating findings of Horowitz’s lab is that the familiar “guilty look” we so often perceive in dogs — tail tucked, head lowered, eyebrows slightly knit — is not an indication of a dog’s guilt over a misbehavior but of having registered that the owner is angry or about to get angry, independent of whether or not the dog has done something guilt-worthy. Similarly, Horowitz’s lab found that what classic behavioral studies of fairness perception — one dog is given more treats, another fewer — have interpreted as “jealousy” is simply a dog’s “reasonable refusal to work for nothing.” Her experiment also illuminates the lovely eternal optimism of the dog’s nature:
Against expectation, they preferred to hang out with the unfair person. Again, it seems like they are motivated less by the kinds of feelings of unfairness or jealousy that humans have than by pure optimism that maybe this time, some of those treats will be tossed their way…
Lurking beneath all the ambiguity, affect-blindness, and projection is a testament to the great Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s assertion that “understanding is love’s other name.” Horowitz considers the intimate crux of our difficulty in discerning dogs’ emotions:
Our inability to read dogs’ emotions well probably begins with our inability to understand our own emotions well. Though perfectly accessible to us — and only to us, truly — our society is constantly putting us to work to “get in touch with” our emotions. And that’s when they are right there for the touching. Given our difficulty, it’s no wonder we are ill-equipped to figure out the emotions of the four-legged creature beside us. So we default to granting dogs emotions, but of the most human sort. We assume dogs are not only in the room with us, but sharing a kind of hive mind with humans.
Does your dog love you? Watch them, and you tell me.