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“Humans of New York” Creator Brandon Stanton Reads John Updike’s Playful and Profound Ode to the Neutrino

A celebration of the imperceptible that governs the universe on the most fundamental level.

“Humans of New York” Creator Brandon Stanton Reads John Updike’s Playful and Profound Ode to the Neutrino

“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead,” John Updike (March 18, 1932–January 27, 2009) wrote. “So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” There is a loveliness to this perspective, almost the opposite of nihilism in its untroubled acceptance of existence on its own terms — an acceptance that can’t be unrelated to Updike’s lifelong love of science and his fascination with the laws that govern the universe.

Although best known as a novelist and short story writer, Updike was a lifelong poet and belongs to the small cabal of poets in whose body of work science occupies a significant portion. In 1985, he published Facing Nature (public library) — an entire collection of his poems celebrating science, among which is a short, charming ode to one of the most bewitching discoveries in physics.

John Updike (Photograph: Ulf Andersen)

In 1930, fifteen years before Wolfgang Pauli received the Nobel Prize in Physics on Einstein’s nomination and nearly two decades before he co-invented synchronicity with Carl Jung, the Austrian-Swiss physicist envisioned a solution to a great enigma: When a neutron transforms into a proton and an electron in a reaction, some of its energy and angular momentum — or spin — seemed to mysteriously disappear. Pauli proposed a new kind of particle, which was soon christened neutrino — a tiny, massless catchall for the missing energy and momentum. It took twenty-six years for experimentalists to detect the particle Pauli had theorized. (This may seem like a long time, but it is dwarfed by the heroic century-long quest to detect the gravitational waves Einstein theorized, which resulted in the most significant astrophysical discovery since Galileo first pointed his crude telescope at the sky.)

Three decades after the detection of this ghostly particle, which defies every human intuition and yet is part and parcel of the most fundamental nature of reality, Updike eulogized the neutrino in a poem titled “Cosmic Gall,” which the largehearted and endlessly funny Humans of New York creator Brandon Stanton read at the inaugural 2017 edition of The Universe in Verse, taking the stage after poet Elizabeth Alexander’s magnificent performance. Please enjoy:


Every second, hundreds of billions of these neutrinos pass through each square inch of our bodies, coming from above during the day and from below at night, when the sun is shining on the other side of the earth!

— From “An Explanatory Statement on Elementary Particle Physics,” by M.A. Ruderman and A.H. Rosenfeld, in American Scientist

Neutrinos they are very small.
    They have no charge and have no mass
And do not interact at all.
The earth is just a silly ball
    To them, through which they simply pass,
Like dustmaids down a drafty hall
    Or photons through a sheet of glass.
    They snub the most exquisite gas,
Ignore the most substantial wall,
    Cold-shoulder steel and sounding brass,
Insult the stallion in his stall,
    And, scorning barriers of class,
Infiltrate you and me! Like tall
And painless guillotines, they fall
    Down through our heads into the grass.
At night, they enter at Nepal
    And pierce the lover and his lass
From underneath the bed — you call
    It wonderful; I call it crass.

The Universe in Verse — a celebration of science through poetry, which I am hosting in collaboration with astrophysicist Janna Levin and The Academy of American Poets — returns in April of 2018. For more highlights from the 2017 edition, savor Amanda Palmer’s reading of Neil Gaiman’s feminist poem about science, Janna Levin’s reading of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy, Tracy K. Smith’s ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, Rosanne Cash’s reading of Adrienne Rich’s homage to Marie Curie, Diane Ackerman’s poem about our search for extraterrestrial life, playwright Sarah Jones’s chorus-of-humanity tribute to Jane Goodall, and my reading of Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska’s ode to the number pi, then watch the complete show for a two-hour poetic serenade to science.


Stephen Hawking on the Meaning of the Universe

A rare existential reflection from the man who set out to devise a theory of everything.

Stephen Hawking on the Meaning of the Universe

At twenty-two, Stephen Hawking (January 8, 1942–March 14, 2018) was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — a rare motor disease — and given a few years to live. He lived for more than half a century thereafter. Despite the increasing bodily limitations inflicted by the incurable disease, he went on to soar with a limitless mind that has impacted the course of modern physics perhaps more profoundly than any scientist since Albert Einstein. His theory of what is now known as Hawking radiation — the thermal electromagnetic radiation which quantum phenomena on the event horizon cause a black hole to emit — revolutionized our understanding of the most powerful objects in the known universe and, in consequence, of the universe itself. His pursuit of a “theory of everything” adrenalized the scientific community and his landmark 1988 book A Brief History of Time awakened generations of lay readers to the splendor of physics, welding science to the rest of culture.

Stephen Hawking (Photograph: Gemma Levine)

A different, complementary, more existential side of Hawking comes alive in an interview conducted shortly after the release of A Brief History of Time and found in the out-of-print treasure Origins: The Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists (public library) — the 1990 collection of interviews by Alan Lightman and Roberta Brawer, exploring “the ways in which personal, philosophical, and social factors enter the scientific process,” which also gave us pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin on women in science, dark matter, and our never-ending quest to know the universe.

When asked how he would design the universe if he could design it any way he wanted, Hawking, beloved for his dry humor, answers:

It is like the anthropic argument: If I had designed it differently, it wouldn’t have produced me. So that is a meaningless question. I’m prepared to make do with the universe we have, and try to find out what it is like.

Turning over the question of meaning to Nobel-winning physicist Steven Weinberg’s famous assertion that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless,” Hawking offers a laconic yet spirited counterpoint:

I don’t feel like that. I think that human intellectual history is a record of how we have come nearer and nearer to an understanding of the order in the universe. I’m proud of our achievement.

Complement with Errol Morris’s documentary about Hawking’s life, Hawking’s “theory of everything” animated in 150 seconds, and his lovely children’s book about time travel, co-written with his own daughter, then revisit another culture-shifting, Nobel-winning physicist — Richard Feynman — on the meaning of life.


The Hidden Lives of Owls

A sixty-seven-million-year odyssey of science and myth.

The Hidden Lives of Owls

“Sunlight, moonlight, twilight, starlight — gloaming at the close of day, and an owl calling,” Walter de la Mare wrote in his “Dream Song”. “When shadows cool and owls call,” Nikki Giovanni writes a century later, “how can there be no Heaven.”

Owls have haunted the human mind for as long as we have shared land and sky with them. They have done for our terrestrial and aerial imagination what the octopus has done for the aquatic — no other feathered creature has inspired our poetic reverie, our myth-making, and our scientific curiosity in equal measure. That sundry enchantment is what scientist and nature writer Leigh Calvez explores in The Hidden Lives of Owls: The Science and Spirit of Nature’s Most Elusive Birds (public library).

Illustration from Beastly Verse by JooHee Yoon

Calvez maps the cultural stature of owls in a global atlas of mythology:

The owl’s long association with the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena, gave rise to the Burrowing Owl’s scientific name, Athene cunicularia. For centuries, the Ainu people of northeastern Japan have revered the Blakiston’s Fish Owl, the heaviest owls in the world weighing as much as ten pounds, as “the Emperor of the Night” or “the God That Protects the Village.” The Mayans wore owl amulets upside down so that the protective owl spirit could look up at the person it was protecting. In Kazakhstan, there exists a mountain range where only female shamans go to connect with the spirit of the owl. The Scandinavian Sami people believe that owls are good luck. And the Native American Navajo believe owl and coyote hold the balance of day and night.

Art from Bear and Wolf by Daniel Salmieri

As alchemy gave rise to chemistry, superstition is often the gateway through which an object of curiosity enters the domain of science. Calvez complements the cultural history of owl mythology with the evolutionary history and taxonomy of these strange and wondrous birds:

For more than sixty-seven million years, owls have roamed the earth, flying, hunting, and raising their families in the dark. As the taxonomic order Strigiformes, owls split from the evolutionary branch of the raptors and evolved to not only survive in but thrive in nearly every habitat on the planet, from extreme polar regions to high desert steppe and from deep primeval forests to the farms and neighborhoods associated with human civilization. Owls are divided into two families: Tytonidae, barn owls, the oldest owl species with a heart-shaped face, and Strigidae, typical or true owls, with a round face.

Snowy owl and Lapp owl from The Royal Natural History (1893) by Richard Lydekker

The features that lend owls their singular allure, Calvez points out, are the result of the unique evolutionary adaptations, millennia in the making, that coronated them kings of the night — the large, yellow, forward-facing eyes, tubular and immovable, that made it necessary for the owl’s head to rotate 270 degrees; the nocturnal vision honed into a German Expressionist masterpiece of evolution by eyes endowed with more black-and-white detecting rods than color ones; the facial feathers fanned into a sonic satellite dish dispersing sound to the unlevel ears, one positioned higher than the other to help the owl locate its prey in three dimensions; the pivoting fourth talon, a kind of opposable thumb that can point both backward and forward to ensure the deadliest grip.

In the remainder of The Hidden Lives of Owls, Calvez explores the particular marvels of each of the major owl species — from how the local lemming population determines the number of eggs Snowy Owls lay each mating season to the communal roosting practices of Long- and Short-eared Owls to the astonishing feather mechanics of their silent flight. Complement it with these gorgeous nineteenth-century drawings of owls, then soar into the world of another fascinating raptor: the hawk.


How New York Breaks Your Heart: A Photographic Elegy for the City of Electric Beauty with an Edge of Sorrow

“First, it lets you fall in love with it…”

How New York Breaks Your Heart: A Photographic Elegy for the City of Electric Beauty with an Edge of Sorrow

“A poem,” E.B. White wrote in his timeless 1949 love letter to New York, “compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry.” The poetics of any city, but especially of this city, springs from its glorious, unmetered humanity. The New York poem is sometimes a serenade to loneliness, sometimes an ode to unsung heroes, and always an elegy in the classic poetic sense of celebration and lamentation welded together. That electric beauty with an edge of sorrow comes alive in How New York Breaks Your Heart (public library) by Bill Hayes.

After his stirring memoir of Oliver Sacks and New York, Hayes — himself an elegant science writer as well as a photographer — turns his sensitive, sympathetic lens to the human poetics coursing through the streets of the iconic city at all hours of the day and night, across every social stratum, every age, every feeling-tone. From the hipsters and the homeless and the protesters and the lovers — oh so many lovers — emerges a chorus of humanity singing the siren song of New York.

Accompanying Hayes’s expressive photographs are his minimalist words — a kind of spare, lovely prose poem, nestling into the larger portrait of this tessellated city his own story of love and heartbreak.

First, it lets you fall in love with it.

And lets you think it loves you back.

You begin to forget the sorrow that brought you to New York in the first place and the love you feel for the city becomes the love you feel for another man.

But then, when he is taken from you late one summer night,
there is New York — right there, outside your window.

Complement How New York Breaks Your Heart with Hayes’s splendid prose counterpart, Insomniac City, then revisit Walt Whitman’s sensual ode to New York.

Photographs courtesy of Bill Hayes


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