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“Little Prince” Author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on Losing a Friend

“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.”

“Little Prince” Author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on Losing a Friend

“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.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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.

One of Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince.

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.

Couple with trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell on how we co-create one another and re-create ourselves through friendship, then revisit Saint-Exupéry on love and mortality, what the desert taught him about the meaning of life, and how a simple human smile saved his life during the war.

BP

Chaos, Time, and the Origin of Everything: Stephen Fry on How Ancient Greek Mythology and Modern Science Meet to Illuminate the Cradle of Being

Inside the “grand cosmic yawn” that gave us everything we’ve ever known (including the word “cosmos” itself).

Chaos, Time, and the Origin of Everything: Stephen Fry on How Ancient Greek Mythology and Modern Science Meet to Illuminate the Cradle of Being

“Time is the substance I am made of,” Borges wrote in his sublime meditation on the most elemental and paradoxical dimension of existence. But what was there before there was time, before there was substance? Before, in the lovely words of the poet Marie Howe, “the singularity we once were” — “when sky was earth, and animal was energy, and rock was liquid and stars were space and space was not at all”?

Since the dawn of human consciousness, this question has gnawed at the insouciance of our species and animated the most restless recesses of our imagination. It is the foundation of our most ancient origin myths and the springboard for our most ambitious science. It is also — curiously, thrillingly — where these two seemingly irreconcilable strains of our hunger for truth and meaning entwine.

So argues Stephen Fry in the opening of Mythos (public library) — his gloriously imaginative, erudite, warmhearted, and subversively funny retelling of the classic Greek myths.

“Chaos” by George Frederic Watts, circa 1875. (Tate Museum)

Millennia before James Gleick wrested chaos theory from the obscure annals of meteorology to make it a locus of magnetic allure for modern science and a fixture of the popular imagination, the ancient Greeks placed chaos at the center of their cosmogony. (So enduring and far-reaching is their civilizational sway that we owe even the word cosmogony to them, from kosmos, Greek for “world” or “order,” and their suffix -gonia, “-begetting.”) Fry writes:

Was Chaos a god — a divine being — or simply a state of nothingness? Or was Chaos, just as we would use the word today, a kind of terrible mess, like a teenager’s bedroom only worse?

Think of Chaos perhaps as a kind of grand cosmic yawn.

As in a yawning chasm or a yawning void.

Whether Chaos brought life and substance out of nothing or whether Chaos yawned life up or dreamed it up, or conjured it up in some other way, I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Nor were you. And yet in a way we were, because all the bits that make us were there. It is enough to say that the Greeks thought it was Chaos who, with a massive heave, or a great shrug, or hiccup, vomit, or cough, began the long chain of creation that has ended with pelicans and penicillin and toadstools and toads, sea lions, seals, lions, human beings, and daffodils and murder and art and love and confusion and death and madness and biscuits.

Whatever the truth, science today agrees that everything is destined to return to Chaos. It calls this inevitable fate entropy: part of the great cycle from Chaos to order and back again to Chaos. Your trousers began as chaotic atoms that somehow coalesced into matter that ordered itself over eons into a living substance that slowly evolved into a cotton plant that was woven into the handsome stuff that sheathes your lovely legs. In time you will abandon your trousers — not now, I hope — and they will rot down in a landfill or be burned. In either case their matter will at length be set free to become part of the atmosphere of the planet. And when the sun explodes and takes every particle of this world with it, including the ingredients of your trousers, all the constituent atoms will return to cold Chaos. And what is true for your trousers is of course true for you.

So the Chaos that began everything is also the Chaos that will end everything.

There is, of course, the favorite question, that eternal fulcrum of human restlessness: What was there before the beginning? Before the Big Bang, before Chaos, before the everythingness of being? In consonance with Stephen Hawking’s wryly phrased and elegantly argued observation that “the universe is the ultimate free lunch,” Fry reminds us that before there was everything, there was, simply, nothing — not even the Borgesian substance we are made of:

We have to accept that there was no “before,” because there was no Time yet. No one had pressed the start button on Time. No one had shouted Now! And since Time had yet to be created, time words like “before,” “during,” “when,” “then,” “after lunch,” and “last Wednesday” had no possible meaning. It screws with the head, but there it is.

The Greek word for “everything that is the case,” what we could call “the universe,” is COSMOS. And at the moment — although “moment” is a time word and makes no sense just now (neither does the phrase “just now”) — at the moment, Cosmos is Chaos and only Chaos because Chaos is the only thing that is the case. A stretching, a tuning up of the orchestra…

In the remainder of the thoroughly enchanting and elucidating Mythos, Fry goes on to trace the origins of so many of our present givens — the names of planets and diseases, the words “fraud” and “doom,” our precepts of beauty, our taxonomies of love — to a complex, imaginative, and imperfect civilization that lived long ago, which imprinted cultures and civilizations to come with its layered legacy. Complement it with Jill Lepore on how the shift from mythology to science shaped the early dream of democracy, then revisit Italian artist Alessandro Sanna’s wordless existential cosmogony inspired by Pinocchio and this gorgeous 1974 Hungarian animated short film exploring the tragic heroism of hopefulness in the Greek myth of Sisyphus.

BP

A Pioneering Case for the Value of Citizen Science from the Polymathic Astronomer John Herschel

“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.”

A Pioneering Case for the Value of Citizen Science from the Polymathic Astronomer John Herschel

“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.

John Herschel (artist unknown)

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.

Diversity of snowflake shapes from a 19th-century French science textbook. Available as a print.

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.)

Couple with a wonderful 1957 treatise on the art of observation and why genius lies in the selection of what is worth observing, then revisit Maria Mitchell on how to find your calling.

BP

The First Surviving Photograph of the Moon: John Adams Whipple and How the Birth of Astrophotography Married Immortality and Impermanence

A dual serenade to being and non-being, composed in glass, metal, and stardust.

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.

John Adams Whipple and Harvard’s Great Refractor telescope.

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.

The Moon by John Adams Whipple, February, 1852 (Harvard College Observatory)

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.

Partial solar eclipse by John Adams Whipple (Harvard College Observatory glass plate collection)

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.

“Four Views of the Solar Eclipse, August 1869” by John Adams Whipple

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.

Annie Jump Cannon at work
Annie Jump Cannon at work

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.

BP

On Children: Poignant Parenting Advice from Kahlil Gibran

“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…”

On Children: Poignant Parenting Advice from Kahlil Gibran

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?

Art by Derek Dominic D’souza from Song of Two Worlds by physicist Alan Lightman.

A century ago, perched between two worlds and two World Wars, the Lebanese-American poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) addressed these elemental questions with sensitive sagacity in a short passage from The Prophet (public library) — the 1923 classic that also gave us Gibran on the building blocks of true friendship, the courage to weather the uncertainties of love, and what may be the finest advice ever offered on the balance of intimacy and independence in a healthy relationship.

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.

Art by Alessandro Sanna from Crescendo.

Complement with Susan Sontag’s 10 rules for raising a child and Crescendo — an Italian watercolor serenade to the splendid prenatal biology of becoming a being — then revisit Gibran on authenticity, why we make art, and his gorgeous love letters to and from the woman without whom The Prophet might never have been born.

BP

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