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Richard Dawkins on the Luckiness of Death

“The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia.”

Richard Dawkins on the Luckiness of Death

We are born into the certitude of our eventual death. Every once in a while, something — perhaps an encounter with a robin’s egg, perhaps a poem — staggers us with the awful, awe-filled wonder of aliveness, the sheer luck of it against the overwhelming cosmic odds of nonexistence. But alloyed with the awe is always the half-conscious grief that one day the light of consciousness will be extinguished. It is a heavy gift to hold, this doomed delirium of aliveness. It is also a buoyant gladness, if we are limber enough to stretch into the cosmic perspective that does not come naturally to us small, Earth-bound bipeds corticed with tender self-importance.

Consider this.

For each of us, one thing is true: Had any one variable been ever so subtly different — had your parents mated on a different day or at a different altitude, had the early universe cooled a fraction of a second faster after the Big Bang, you would not exist as the particular constellation of atoms configuring the particular consciousness that makes you you. Because chance plays such dice with the universe, and because the die dictates that the vast majority of energy and matter never had the luck of cohering into this doomed delirium of aliveness, it is, in some profound and practical sense, a staggering privilege to die — one that betokens the privilege of having lived. To lament death, then, is to lament our luck, for any negation of the possibility of death is a negation of the improbable miracle of life, a wish for there to be nothing to do the dying — nothing to have partaken of the beautiful, bittersweet temporality of aliveness.

Possible Certainties. Photograph by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

It is easier to bend the intuitive mind into this correct but counterintuitive perspective while walking in a cemetery at the height of summer. Doing this very thing while thinking these very thoughts, I was reminded of a passage from one of the most lucid and lens-clearing books written this side of Darwin — Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (public library) by the visionary and often controversial (which is the social fate of every visionary) British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

A civilization after Marcus Aurelius celebrated mortality as the key to living fully, half a millennium after Montaigne observed that “to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” and a scientific epoch after Darwin contemplated the meaning of mortality in the wake of his beloved daughter’s death, Dawkins writes:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?

Complement with astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson’s exquisite “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” Nick Cave on grief as a portal to aliveness, and Christopher Hitchens on how to live with our mortality, then revisit the science of how alive you really are, examined through the curious lens of trees and Alan Turing.

BP

The Mirror of Enigmas: Chance, the Universe, and the Pale Blues of Knowing Who We Are

“There is no human being on earth capable of declaring with certitude who he is.”

The Mirror of Enigmas: Chance, the Universe, and the Pale Blues of Knowing Who We Are

It takes a great sobriety of spirit to know your own depths — and your limits. It takes a special grandeur of spirit to know the limits of your self-knowledge.

A recent brush with those limits reminded me of a short, stunning essay by Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986) titled “The Mirror of Enigmas,” found in his Labyrinths (public library) — the 1962 collection of stories, essays, and parables that gave us his timeless parable of the divided self and his classic refutation of time.

Titling the essay after St. Paul’s famous cryptic statement Videmus nunc per speculum in aenigmate — loosely translated as We now see through a mirror, enigmatically — Borges considers the tribe of thinkers who have perched their efforts to reconcile knowledge and mystery, the scientific and the spiritual, on the assumption that “the history of the universe — and in it our lives and the most tenuous detail of our lives — has an incalculable, symbolical value.” With his characteristic poetic precision, he condenses this common and somewhat tired hypothesis:

The outer world — forms, temperatures, the moon — is a language humans have forgotten or which we can scarcely distinguish.

No one, Borges argues, has taken this precarious hypothesis to more surefooted ground than the French novelist, poet, and philosophical pamphleteer Léon Bloy (July 11, 1846–November 3, 1917).

Digging through the surviving fragments of Bloy’s written thought, he surfaces a passage emblematic of Bloy’s uncommon physics of the metaphysical — an 1894 passage fomented by his interest in the teachings of St. Paul. Translated by Borges himself, Bloy writes:

[St. Paul’s statement] would be a skylight through which one might submerge himself in the true Abyss, which is the soul of man. The terrifying immensity of the firmament’s abyss is an illusion, an external reflection of our own abysses, perceived “in a mirror.” We should invert our eyes and practice a sublime astronomy in the infinitude of our heart… If we see the Milky Way, it is because it actually exists in our souls.

Art from Thomas Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750 — the first book to describe the spiral shape of the Milky Way. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

A century before Milan Kundera considered the eternal challenge of knowing what we really want in his classic novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Bloy shines a sidewise gleam on the elemental self-opacity with and within which we live:

Everything is a symbol, even the most piercing pain. We are dreamers who shout in our sleep. We do not know whether the things afflicting us are the secret beginning of our ulterior happiness or not.

These ideas haunted Bloy, animated his pamphlets, his poems, his novels, then culminated in his 1912 book-length essay The Soul of Napoleon — a philosophical prose poem that sets out, as Borges puts it, “to decipher the symbol Napoleon, considered as the precursor of another hero — man and symbol as well — who is hidden in the future.” Bloy, translated again by Borges, writes in this uncommon work:

Every man* is on earth to symbolize something he is ignorant of and to realize a particle or a mountain of the invisible materials that will serve to build the City of God.

[…]

There is no human being on earth capable of declaring with certitude who he is. No one knows what he has come into this world to do, what his acts correspond to, his sentiments, his ideas, or what his real name is, his enduring Name in the register of Light… History is an immense liturgical text where the iotas and the dots are worth no less than the entire verses or chapters, but the importance of one and the other is indeterminable and profoundly hidden.

But as you contemplate these existential immensities, you face the limits of contemplation — the limits of meaning-making in relation to elemental truth.

Borges recognized this, closing the essay with by acknowledging “it is doubtful that the world has a meaning… even more doubtful that it has a double or triple meaning.”

I recognized this upon sitting down in for morning meditation in my garden after a nightlong storm and watching an almost otherworldly deposit roll onto the cushion: a tiny, perfect robin egg, improbable and sorrowful in its displaced blue beauty.

Singing Only Is by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

I considered climbing the neighbor’s colossal tree to find the storm-shaken nest and reinstate the egg. (Perfectly, the tree is an Ailanthus altissima, known as “tree-of-heaven” in its native China — a migrant now rooted in Brooklyn, like me.)

But then I considered this chance-event as the product of the same impartial forces that deposited the exact spermatozoid of my father’s onto my mother’s ovum at the exact moment to produce the chance-event of my particular configuration of atoms animated by this particular consciousness that just is, the consciousness mourning the robin that will never be. To call one expression of chance good and another bad is mere human hubris — the hubris of narrative and interpretation superimposed on an impartial universe devoid of why, awash in is.

No one knows the meaning of why anything comes to be, or doesn’t. Here is this pale blue orb, dropped from the tree-of-heaven onto a tiny Brooklyn point on the face of this Pale Blue Dot, itself a “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” within an immense and impartial universe, conceived in the creation myths and early scientific theories of our meaning-hungry ancestors as a great cosmic egg.

Art from An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750, illustrating Thomas Wright’s model of the cosmos as an egg-like structure of nested infinities. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Here I am, and here you are, and here is the robin’s egg in its near-life collision with chance. To ask for its meaning is as meaningless a question as to demand the meaning of a color or the meaning of a bird. On this particular day, at this particular moment — the only locus of aliveness we ever have — the contour of meaning comes in shades of blue, singing only is.

BP

Our Cosmic Humanity: Astronomer Jill Tarter Reads Nobel-Winning Polish Poet Wisława Szymborska

“…as long as our kindness is still incomparable, peerless even in its imperfection…”

“They should have sent a poet,” gasps Jodie Foster’s character in the film based on Carl Sagan’s novel Contact as another galaxy emerges before her eyes outside the spaceship window, redeeming with the wonder of possibility her lifelong dream of finding intelligent life beyond our solar system.

Sagan, who wrote the novel in 1985 and returned his stardust to the universe months before the film’s premiere in 1997, modeled Foster’s character — a scientist persisting in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence against the tidal force of resistance from the limited imagination of mainstream science — on the heroic longtime director of the SETI Institute: astronomer Jill Tarter.

In the spring of 2020, as our one and only world was celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day while coming unworlded by a deadly pandemic, Dr. Tarter joined the human chorus serenading our cosmic belonging in The Universe in Verse — my annual charitable celebration of science and the natural world through poetry — to read a poem that could have been composed by her or for her or about her: “The Ball” by the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012), who received her Nobel Prize with a stunning reflection on how our certitudes keep us small and whose poignant lesser-known prose has explored the paradoxes and opportunities of our cosmic solitude.

THE BALL
by Wisława Szymborska

As long as nothing can be known for sure,
(no signals have been picked up yet),

As long as earth is still unlike
The nearer and more distant planets,

As long as there’s neither hide nor hair
Of other grasses graced by other winds
Or other treetops bearing other crowns,
Other animals as well grounded as our own,

As long as the local echo
Has been known to speak in syllables

As long as there’s no word
Of better or worse mozarts,
platos, edisons out there,

as long as our inhuman crimes
are still committed only between humans,

as long as our kindness
is still incomparable,
peerless even in its imperfection,

as long our heads packed with illusions
still pass for the only heads so packed,

as long as the roofs of our mouths alone
still raise voices to high heavens —

let’s act like very special guests of honour
at the district fireman’s ball,
dance to the beat of the local oompah band,
and pretend that it’s the ball
to end all balls.

I can’t speak for others —
for me this
misery and happiness enough:

just this sleepy backwater
where even the stars have time to burn
while winking at us

unintentionally.

“The Ball,” translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, appears in Szymborska’s indispensable Map: Collected and Last Poems (public library), which also gave us her ode to the number pi and her lovely “Possibilities.”

Part of the Milky Way, from a study made between 1874 and 1876
Part of the galaxy of which we are a part, from Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s 19th-century astronomical drawings. (Available as a print and a face mask.)

For more about Dr. Tarter, her inspiring story, and her poetic credo that “it takes a cosmos to make us human,” savor her On Being conversation with Krista Tippett. (Krista was also a part of The Universe in Verse in 2020 with a lovely reading of and reflection on Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things,” and in 2019 with Howard Nemerov’s ode to the interconnectedness of the universe.)

For more lush lyrical interleavings of our hunger for elemental truth and our search for human meaning, delve into the Universe in Verse archive, spanning several years and dozens of diversely inspiring humans reading perspective-broadening poems, including astronomer Natalie Batalha reading and reflecting on Dylan Thomas’s cosmic serenade to trees and the wonder of being human, musician Meshell Ndegeocello performing Whitman’s ode to the entwined mutuality of life, physicist Brian Greene reading and reflecting on Rilke and the nature of time, U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her spare and poignant invocation of Einstein’s mother, astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to Earth’s forests, and Patti Smith reading Emily Dickinson’s poetic premonition of particle physics.

BP

Dotspotting Expressionist Science: What the Mysterious Color-Markings on Storm Drains Have to Do with Rachel Carson’s Legacy and the War on a Deadly Virus

Strange signals from the lacuna between street art and microbiology.

I noticed them first in my neighborhood — dots of paint hovering over the grate of the storm drain in a blue-green spectrum punctuated by white. I noticed them probably because I had been writing about the wondrous science of the color blue and my brain had formed, as brains tend to, a search image for its present preoccupation.

At first I took them for mindless spray-can tests by a street artist getting ready to graffiti a nearby wall. But no surface in sight was emblazoned with these colors.

And then I started seeing them all over Brooklyn: Red Hook, Greenpoint, even the alleys of the Green-Wood Cemetery — quiet ecstasies of color amid the bleak grey-brown of winter, chromatic macaw cries in the concrete jungle, the ghost of Alma Thomas risen from the dead through the New York City sewer system.

With some stubborn sleuthing through various city agency logs, street art blogs, conspiracy theory fora, and health department reports, I discovered that they are not surreptitious art.

They are science.

They are war paint on humanity’s countenance as we combat our great eternal enemy: the mosquito.

Mosquito in biting position. (National Library of Medicine.)

When it rains, when the city washes the streets, water rushes into the drain along with all the debris it carries. To prevent downstream clogging, a catch basin resides just beneath the metal grate to sieve the debris before releasing the water into the drainage pipe. Mosquitos love nesting in these cozy, soggy chambers, where the air is warm enough for the females to survive the winter and where the water doesn’t freeze, so that their eggs — around 200 laid by each female mosquito — can float freely while preparing to become a bloodthirsty army that goes on replicating the 1:200 reproductive ratio ad infinitum.

Mosquitos have always plagued cities, but when the deadly West Nile virus arrived in America in 1999, landing in Queens, cities grew serious about defense. The expressionist markings indicate catch basins where the war has been waged. Modeled on the inspired pedal-powered program the City of San Francisco pioneered in 2005, the colorful dots across Brooklyn signal the particular treatment applied to that drain, with each color corresponding to one of the larvicides administered by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. (Yes, that is its name — a curious poetic inversion of the more expected syntax “department of hygiene and mental health.”)

Having devoted two hundred pages of Figuring to Rachel Carson and her epoch-making exposé of the assault on the natural world with DDT — an act of courage and resistance she paid for dearly, not living to see it awaken humanity’s ecological conscience, lead to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and catalyze the modern environmental movement — I was naturally keen to find out what substances the city uses to attack those curbside mosquito mansions.

Rachel Carson at work.

When Carson published Silent Spring, the ruthless forces she had unmasked — the $800 million chemical pesticide industry, the corporate interests of Big Agriculture, and a complicit government bankrolled by them — set out to tear down this scientist of uncommon courage and competence. Their commonest line of attack, launched everywhere from the pages of Monsanto Magazine to any national station that would give them share of voice, was based on a deliberate misconstrual of the book: Employing the classic tactic of the opinion-manipulator — refuting arguments the opponent hasn’t actually made — they disregarded Carson’s explicit caveat that there are certain lifesaving uses of chemical controls in typhoid and malaria outbreaks, accusing her of advocating for a total ban on pesticides that would cost countless human lives to malaria. Some warped the facts of biochemistry so egregiously that they called her work antiscientific. The grave irony is that Carson opposed not science but the most unscientific stance there is: the arrogance of false certitude unsupported by evidence and the dangerous delusion of pretending to have answers we don’t actually have — an arrogance radiating from the indiscriminate use of DDT, with which the government was hosing down acres of forests and which agricultural airplanes were raining down upon children lunching in the schoolyard amid cornfields.

Pesticide crop duster. (Photograph: Charles O’Rear, The Environmental Protection Agency.)

But Carson’s most visionary proposition, decades ahead of science, was the development of biological controls that would curtail the reproduction of a particular species without harming other organisms. In consonance with her vision, the City of New York uses larvicide that relies not on toxic chemicals to vanquish mosquito larvae but on rod-shaped aerobic bacteria commonly found in soil. Bacillus sphaericus and Bacillus thuringiensis produce proteins toxic to mosquitos and harmless to mammals, for we lack the enzymes to activate and digest them. But when a mosquito larva ingests the bacterium, the protein in it catalyzes the release of a digestive enzyme in the larva’s gut that binds to a particular receptor, causing mortal damage to the cell membranes.

Because this entire drama of life and death unfolds in the catch basin beneath the drain grate, both the dead larvae and the bacteria never enter the human world overground — they vanish into the ductile catacombs of the city sewer system to land at the local waste treatment plant along with all the other sewer-stuff, leaving only the colorful expressionist markings on the drain as notation of this silent symphony of science.

BP

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