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The 7-Word Autobiographies of Famous Writers, Artists, Musicians, and Philosophers

John Irving, Joan Didion, David Byrne, Rem Koolhaas, Madeleine Albright, Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Dennett, Andrew Sullivan, Ed Ruscha, Brian Eno, and more.

Since 2005, the LIVE from the NYPL program masterminded and anchored by intellectual impresario Paul Holdengräber — one of the most interesting people to ever encounter, should you be so fortunate — has transformed the New York Public Library into a wonderland of stimulating conversations on literature and life with some of today’s most celebrated writers, scientists, artists, philosophers, musicians, and other luminaries. Among Holdengräber’s signature touches are the 7-word autobiographies he asks each of his prominent guests to provide, to be read as he introduces them. Here is a selection of the best such personal micro-biographies — the literal, the abstract, the sarcastic, the poetic — from the entire run of the series so far:

Tom Wolfe at LIVE from the NYPL, November 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Tom Wolfe drops some delightful vintage lingo:

Ace daddy, gym rat, Balzolan reporter, Ph.D.

Cheryl Strayed at LIVE from the NYPL, October 2012 (Photograph by Sarah Stacke courtesy NYPL)

The magnificent Cheryl Strayed, whose Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar was among the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012 and is one of the best existential favors one can do oneself, goes for truth-by-way-of-its-opposite, offering “seven words that won’t define [her]”:

Reticent.
Boney.
Mahout.
Indifferent.
Tame.
Archipelago.
Republican.

Daniel Dennett, man of infinite wisdom and endlessly quotable insight:

Philosopher, professor, author, sailor, New Atheist

Jim Holt, whose Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story remains indispensable and who has previously shared some mind-bending insight on the nature of “nothing”:

Failed mathematician who happily declined into journalism.

David Byrne at LIVE from the NYPL, December 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

David Byrne, who knows a thing or two about how music and creativity work, appears blissfully oblivious to the 7-word-limit brief:

unfinished, unprocessed, uncertain, unknown, unadorned, underarms, underpants, unfrozen, unsettled, unfussy

Daniel Kahneman in conversation with Nassim Taleb at LIVE from the NYPL, February 2013 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Daniel Kahneman, whose Thinking, Fast and Slow is one of the most insightful psychology books in recent history, compensates for Byrne’s excess with his own sub-quota answer:

Endlessly amused by people’s minds

Brian Eno at LIVE from the NYPL, November 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Brian Eno, sage of timeless insight on art:

I like making and thinking about culture.

Andrew Solomon in conversation with Paul Holdengräber and Krista Tippett at LIVE from the NYPL, March 2010 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Andrew Solomon, whose meditation on horizontal vs. vertical identity and the power of love is a soul-stirring must-read, goes for something his mother used to say to him:

Good listeners: more interesting than good talkers.

Paul Holdengräber, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Rem Koolhaas at LIVE from the NYPL, March 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Hans Ulrich Obrist, legendary curator and art instigator:

Catalyst
Conversation
Curating
Curiosity
Junctionmaking
Protest against forgetting

Malcolm Gladwell, overlord of the contrarian:

Father said: “Anything but journalism.” I rebelled.

William Gibson in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, April 2013 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

William Gibson, champion of “personal microculture” and a solid daily creative routine, offers an answer somewhere between Yoda and Gertrude Stein:

Postwar. Cold War. Stop the War. Later.

Elizabeth Gilbert in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, May 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Elizabeth Gilbert playfully riffs off the title of her modern classic:

Eats/Loves too much…should Pray more.

Ed Ruscha in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, March 2013 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Ed Ruscha, who does indeed have a soft spot for sign painting:

Lapsed catholic
Newspaper carrier
Hitchhiker
Sign painter
Printer’s devil
Daydreamer
Artist

Rufus Wainwright with Lucinda Childs at LIVE from the NYPL, September 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Rufus Wainwright, music god, rebels against humility with his characteristic charming irreverence:

According to Elton John world’s greatest singer-songwriter

Sherry Turkle in conversation with Steven Johnson at LIVE from the NYPL, October 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Sherry Turkle stays true to her technodystopia:

Technology doesn’t just change what we do; it changes who we are.

Errol Morris in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, November 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Errol Morris, documentarian extraordinaire and bastion of photographic truth:

autodidact, necrophile, voyeur, filmmaker, opinionated writer, father

Don DeLillo at LIVE from the NYPL, October 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Don DeLillo, who also abides by a rigorous writing routine, goes for a beautiful format:

       Bronx boy
wondering
       why he is here.

Madeleine Albright echoes Helen Keller:

Optimist who worries a lot; Grateful American

John Irving at LIVE from the NYPL, January 2013 (Photograph courtesy NYPL)

John Irving, crusader against censorship, employs a strategic semicolon:

Imagined missing father; wrestled, wrote, fathered children.

Irving was apparently so delighted by the exercise that he took the liberty of writing a few more seven-word bios for other notables:

FOR DICKENS (THE WRITER):
Had many kids; wrote about unhappy childhoods.

FOR THE OTHER DICKENS, MY DOG:
Best dog ever — she had a family.

AND THOMAS HARDY:
Fate, the universe driver; stopped writing for idiots.

NATURALLY, I COULDN’T RESIST MELVILLE:
More than a postal worker; knew whales, too.

Edmund de Waal in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, October 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Edmund de Waal has some fun with it:

Actually, I still make pots you know.

Rem Koolhaas stays true to form:

Mystic rational sober baroque patient immediate

Dan Savage and Andrew Sullivan in conversation at LIVE from the NYPL

Andrew Sullivan, who is one of the living reasons to love the internet and whose decades-long advocacy has been critical in the historic attainment of marriage equality, follows Strayed’s suit with anti-descriptive sarcasm:

French, straight, single, Anglican, diabetic, illiterate, slut.

Then comes Dan Savage, whose own tireless advocacy can’t be overstated:

asshole, blond, slut, shy, sunny, father, husband.

Anish Kapoor offers what’s arguably the most beautiful, in sheer poetics of language, answer:

As if to celebrate I discovered a mountain

Joan Didion at LIVE from the NYPL, November 2012 (Photograph courtesy NYPL)

But my favorite comes from notebook-lover Joan Didion, who has a rare gift for wry self-awareness and unwavering self-respect:

Seven words do not yet define me.

Paul Holdengräber (Photograph by Jocelyn Chase)

And, of course, this omnibus wouldn’t be complete without Holdengräber’s own 7-word autobiography, as pointedly brilliant as the man:

Mother always said: Two ears, one mouth.

See the full conversations on the LIVE from the NYPL Vimeo channel, treat yourself to one of the upcoming live events, and join me in supporting NYPL programming, which, like Brain Pickings, is made possible by patron donations.

BP

The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol

It’s hard not to love a good book trailer. Enter this fantastic new trailer for John Wilcock‘s The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol. (The second Warhol-related gem to drop this year.)

Granted, the book isn’t actually as much an autobiography so much as it is a biography collaged through interviews with 20 people close to Warhol at the end of the 60’s — from Nico to Taylor Mead to Lou Reed — trying to “explain” and make sense of the pop art icon. Still, it’s a remarkable piece of cultural history offering a rare glimpse of a man full of contradictions.

A lot of people really misunderstood him then and indeed still do, although there’s hardly a day when Andy’s name is not mentioned in the paper. He’s become a kind of icon, kind of representative of what the 60’s were.” ~ John Wilcock

Wilcock is a self-admitted expert on Warhol — he used to go to The Factory, Warhol’s famous studio, two or three times a week during the sixties and early seventies, and accompanied him to the sets of his first films.

Andy taught me an awful lot about life. I learned that artist and poets who hang around together basically tell the future, and even though they maybe explain it in words or in images that you’re not quite clear about, somebody interprets that. And, to some extent, I felt that was my role — to hang around artists and try and explain what I thought was some of the meaning.” ~ John Wilcock

The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol is as wondefully written as it is beautifully art-directed, full of rare images that make it double as a priceless stand-alone photography book. See for yourself — you can preview it on the book’s website.

via Flavorpill

BP

The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics Pioneer Norbert Wiener on Communication, Control, and the Morality of Our Machines

“We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves. A pattern is a message.”

The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics Pioneer Norbert Wiener on Communication, Control, and the Morality of Our Machines

“Information will never replace illumination,” Susan Sontag asserted in considering the conscience of words. “Words are events, they do things, change things,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in the same era in her exquisite meditation on the magic of real human communication. “They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.” But what happens when words are stripped of their humanity, fed into unfeeling machines, and used as currencies of information that no longer illuminates?

Half a century before the golden age of algorithms and two decades before the birth of the Internet, the mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener (November 26, 1894–March 18, 1964) tried to protect us from that then-hypothetical scenario in his immensely insightful and prescient 1950 book The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (public library) — a book Wiener described as concerned with “the limits of communication within and among individuals,” which went on to influence generations of thinkers, creators, and entrepreneurs as wide-ranging as beloved author Kurt Vonnegut, anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier.

Norbert Wiener

Wiener had coined the word cybernetics two years earlier, drawing on the Greek word for “steersman” — kubernētēs, from which the word “governor” is also derived — to describe “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine,” pioneering a new way of thinking about causal chains and how the feedback loop taking place within a system changes the system itself. (Today’s social media ecosystem is a superficial but highly illustrative example of this.)

In a complement to Hannah Arendt’s contemporaneous insight into how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression and manipulation, Wiener explains why, under this model of information systems, communication and control are inexorably linked:

Information is a name for the content of what is exchanged with the outer world as we adjust to it, and make our adjustment felt upon it. The process of receiving and of using information is the process of our adjusting to the contingencies of the outer environment, and of our living effectively within that environment. The needs and the complexity of modern life make greater demands on this process of information than ever before, and our press, our museums, our scientific laboratories, our universities, our libraries and textbooks, are obliged to meet the needs of this process or fail in their purpose. To live effectively is to live with adequate information. Thus, communication and control belong to the essence of man’s inner life, even as they belong to his life in society.

Art by Ralph Steadman from a rare edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

A pillar of Wiener’s insight is the second law of thermodynamics and its central premise that entropy — the growing tendency toward disorder, chaos, and unpredictability — increases over time in any closed system. But even if we were to consider the universe itself a closed system — an assumption neglecting the possibility that our universe may be one of many universes — neither individual human beings nor the societies they form can be thought of as closed systems. Rather, they are pockets of attempted order and decreasing entropy amid the vast expanse of cosmic chaos — attempts encoded in our systems of organizing and communicating information. Wiener examines the parallel between organisms and machines in this regard — a radical notion in his day and plainly obvious, if still poorly understood, in ours:

If we wish to use the word “life” to cover all phenomena which locally swim upstream against the current of increasing entropy, we are at liberty to do so. However, we shall then include many astronomical phenomena which have only the shadiest resemblance to life as we ordinarily know it. It is in my opinion, therefore, best to avoid all question-begging epithets such as “life,” “soul,” “vitalism,” and the like, and say merely in connection with machines that there is no reason why they may not resemble human beings in representing pockets of decreasing entropy in a framework in which the large entropy tends to increase.

When I compare the living organism with such a machine, I do not for a moment mean that the specific physical, chemical, and spiritual processes of life as we ordinarily know it are the same as those of life-imitating machines. I mean simply that they both can exemplify locally anti-entropic processes, which perhaps may also be exemplified in many other ways which we should naturally term neither biological nor mechanical.

Art by Ralph Steadman from an illustrated biography of Leonardo da Vinci

In a sentiment of astounding foresight, Wiener adds:

Society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and that in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever-increasing part.

[…]

In control and communication we are always fighting nature’s tendency to degrade the organized and to destroy the meaningful; the tendency… for entropy to increase.

In consonance with Neil Gaiman’s conception of stories as “genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance,” Wiener considers how living organisms resemble and are aided by information systems:

Organism is opposed to chaos, to disintegration, to death, as message is to noise. To describe an organism, we do not try to specify each molecule in it, and catalogue it bit by bit, but rather to answer certain questions about it which reveal its pattern: a pattern which is more significant and less probable as the organism becomes, so to speak, more fully an organism.

[…]

We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves. A pattern is a message.

He adds:

Messages are themselves a form of pattern and organization. Indeed, it is possible to treat sets of messages as having an entropy like sets of states of the external world. Just as entropy is a measure of disorganization, the information carried by a set of messages is a measure of organization. In fact, it is possible to interpret the information carried by a message as essentially the negative of its entropy, and the negative logarithm of its probability. That is, the more probable the message, the less information it gives.

Wiener illustrates this idea with an example that would have pleased Emily Dickinson:

Just as entropy tends to increase spontaneously in a closed system, so information tends to decrease; just as entropy is a measure of disorder, so information is a measure of order. Information and entropy are not conserved, and are equally unsuited to being commodities. Clichés, for example, are less illuminating than great poems.

[…]

The prevalence of cliches is no accident, but inherent in the nature of information. Property rights in information suffer from the necessary disadvantage that a piece of information, in order to contribute to the general information of the community, must say something substantially different from the community’s previous common stock of information. Even in the great classics of literature and art, much of the obvious informative value has gone out of them, merely by the fact that the public has become acquainted with their contents. Schoolboys do not like Shakespeare, because he seems to them nothing but a mass of familiar quotations. It is only when the study of such an author has penetrated to a layer deeper than that which has been absorbed into the superficial clichés of the time, that we can re-establish with him an informative rapport, and give him a new and fresh literary value.

From this follows a corollary made all the clearer by the technologies and media landscapes which Wiener never lived to see and with which we must and do live:

The idea that information can be stored in a changing world without an overwhelming depreciation in its value is false.

[…]

Information is more a matter of process than of storage… Information is important as a stage in the continuous process by which we observe the outer world, and act effectively upon it… To be alive is to participate in a continuous stream of influences from the outer world and acts on the outer world, in which we are merely the transitional stage. In the figurative sense, to be alive to what is happening in the world, means to participate in a continual development of knowledge and its unhampered exchange.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

In a passage that calls to mind Zadie Smith’s lucid antidote to the illusion of universal progress and offers a sobering counterpoint to today’s strain of social scientists purveying feel-good versions of “progress” via the tranquilizing half-truths of highly selective statistics willfully ignorant of the for whom question, Wiener writes:

We are immersed in a life in which the world as a whole obeys the second law of thermodynamics: confusion increases and order decreases. Yet, as we have seen, the second law of thermodynamics, while it may be a valid statement about the whole of a closed system, is definitely not valid concerning a non-isolated part of it. There are local and temporary islands of decreasing entropy in a world in which the entropy as a whole tends to increase, and the existence of these islands enables some of us to assert the existence of progress.

[…]

Thus the question of whether to interpret the second law of thermodynamics pessimistically or not depends on the importance we give to the universe at large, on the one hand, and to the islands of locally decreasing entropy which we find in it, on the other. Remember that we ourselves constitute such an island of decreasing entropy, and that we live among other such islands. The result is that the normal prospective difference between the near and the remote leads us to give far greater importance to the regions of decreasing entropy and increasing order than to the universe at large.

A 1617 depiction of the notion of non-space, found in Cosmigraphics.

Wiener considers the central flaw of the claim that the arrow of historical time is aligned with the arrow of “progress” in a universal sense:

Our worship of progress may be discussed from two points of view: a factual one and an ethical one — that is, one which furnishes standards for approval and disapproval. Factually, it asserts that the earlier advance of geographical discovery, whose inception corresponds to the beginning of modern times, is to be continued into an indefinite period of invention, of the discovery of new techniques for controlling the human environment. This, the believers in progress say, will go on and on without any visible termination in a future not too remote for human contemplation. Those who uphold the idea of progress as an ethical principle regard this unlimited and quasi-spontaneous process of change as a Good Thing, and as the basis on which they guarantee to future generations a Heaven on Earth. It is possible to believe in progress as a fact without believing in progress as an ethical principle; but in the catechism of many Americans, the one goes with the other.

With this, Wiener turns to the most gaping void in the narrative of progress — a recognition of the interconnectedness of existence across scales and species, which the pioneering naturalist John Muir so memorably captured a century earlier in his assertion that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” A decade before Rachel Carson awakened the modern environmental conscience, Wiener considers the larger planetary costs of humanity’s “progress”:

What many of us fail to realize is that the last four hundred years are a highly special period in the history of the world. The pace at which changes during these years have taken place is unexampled in earlier history, as is the very nature of these changes. This is partly the result of increased communication, but also of an increased mastery over nature which, on a limited planet like the earth, may prove in the long run to be an increased slavery to nature… We have modified our environment so radically that we must now modify ourselves in order to exist in this new environment. We can no longer live in the old one. Progress imposes not only new possibilities for the future but new restrictions… May we have the courage to face the eventual doom of our civilization as we have the courage to face the certainty of our personal doom. The simple faith in progress is not a conviction belonging to strength, but one belonging to acquiescence and hence to weakness.

[…]

The new industrial revolution is a two-edged sword… It may be used for the benefit of humanity, but only if humanity survives long enough to enter a period in which such a benefit is possible. It may also be used to destroy humanity, and if it is not used intelligently it can go very far in that direction.

Three decades later, the great physician, etymologist, poet, and essayist Lewis Thomas would articulate the flip side of the same sentiment in his beautiful meditation on the peril and possibility of progress: “We are in for one surprise after another if we keep at it and keep alive. We can build structures for human society never seen before, thoughts never thought before, music never heard before… Provided we do not kill ourselves off, and provided we can connect ourselves by the affection and respect for which I believe our genes are also coded, there is no end to what we might do on or off this planet.” Wiener’s most visionary point is that if we are to not only survive but thrive as a civilization and a species, we must encode these same values of affection and respect into our machines, our information systems, and our technologies of communication, so that “the new modalities are used for the benefit of man, for increasing his leisure and enriching his spiritual life, rather than merely for profits and the worship of the machine as a new brazen calf.”

Man as Industrial Palace (1926) by infographics pioneer Fritz Kahn

More than a century after Mary Shelley raised these enduring questions of innovation and responsibility in Frankenstein, Wiener offers a sentiment of astonishing prescience and relevance to the artificial intelligence precipice on which we now stand, in an era when algorithms are deciding for us what we read, where we go, and how much of reality we see:

The machine’s danger to society is not from the machine itself but from what man makes of it.

[…]

The modern man, and especially the modern American, however much “know-how” he may have, has very little “know-what.” He will accept the superior dexterity of the machine-made decisions with out too much inquiry as to the motives and principles behind these… Any machine constructed for the purpose of making decisions, if it does not possess the power of learning, will be completely literalminded. Woe to us if we let it decide our conduct, unless we have previously examined the laws of its action, and know fully that its conduct will be carried out on principles acceptable to us! On the other hand, the machine [that] can learn and can make decisions on the basis of its learning, will in no way be obliged to make such decisions as we should have made, or will be acceptable to us. For the man who is not aware of this, to throw the problem of his responsibility on the machine, whether it can learn or not, is to cast his responsibility to the winds, and to find it coming back seated on the whirlwind.

At the heart of Wiener’s decades-old book is a point of great timelessness and great urgency, which ought to be inscribed on the mental motherboard of every coder, technologist, and entrepreneur. Eight years after the trailblazing philosopher Susanne Langer considered how the questions we ask shape the answers we give and the world we build, he writes:

When human atoms are knit into an organization in which they are used, not in their full right as responsible human beings, but as cogs and levers and rods, it matters little that their raw material is flesh and blood. What is used as an element in a machine, is in fact an element in the machine. Whether we entrust our decisions to machines of metal, or to those machines of flesh and blood which are bureaus and vast laboratories and armies and corporations, we shall never receive the right answers to our questions unless we ask the right questions.

Precisely because our existence is so improbable against the backdrop of a universe governed by entropy, it is imbued with a singular responsibility — a responsibility that is the source and succor of meaning in human life. In a sentiment which the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska would later echo, Wiener writes:

It is quite conceivable that life belongs to a limited stretch of time; that before the earliest geological ages it did not exist, and that the time may well come when the earth is again a lifeless, burnt-out, or frozen planet. To those of us who are aware of the extremely limited range of physical conditions under which the chemical reactions necessary to life as we know it can take place, it is a foregone conclusion that the lucky accident which permits the continuation of life in any form on this earth, even without restricting life to something like human life, is bound to come to a complete and disastrous end. Yet we may succeed in framing our values so that this temporary accident of living existence, and this much more temporary accident of human existence, may be taken as all-important positive values, notwithstanding their fugitive character.

In a very real sense we are shipwrecked passengers on a doomed planet. Yet even in a shipwreck, human decencies and human values do not necessarily vanish, and we must make the most of them. We shall go down, but let it be in a manner to which we may look forward as worthy of our dignity.

Nearly a century later, The Human Use of Human Beings remains an immensely insightful and increasingly relevant read. Complement it with the great cellist Pablo Casals on making our world worthy of its children, then revisit Thomas Merton’s beautiful letter to Rachel Carson about technology, wisdom, and the difficult art of civilizational self-awareness.

BP

Carl Sagan on the Enchantment of Chemistry, with Stunning Illustrations by Artist Vivian Torrence

“We too are made of starstuff.”

Carl Sagan on the Enchantment of Chemistry, with Stunning Illustrations by Artist Vivian Torrence

I have always been fascinated by transformation — the seemingly magical process, sometimes delicate and sometimes violent, by which a something becomes a something-else. This, perhaps, is why I chose chemistry as a concentration in my science-intensive Bulgarian high school. When I came to the United States for university, I was bewildered to realize that the college-level American textbooks of my high school curriculum were not necessarily a reflection of my teachers’ academic overambition but of the fact that high-school-level chemistry textbooks were simply a rarity bordering on a nonentity in America, where chemistry was not a required subject in the high school curriculum.

Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934–December 20, 1996) laments this fact in his poetic foreword to Chemistry Imagined: Reflections on Science (public library) — a beautiful and unusual book, part primer and part lyrical serenade, by the Nobel-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, intended to ignite in young people a zest for the enchantments of chemistry through the intersection of art and science. A believer in the fertile common ground between poetry and science, Hoffmann — himself a poet as well as a scientist — weaves original poems about the processes, phenomena, and history of science throughout his elegant expository prose. Accompanying his writing are intricate collage paintings by artist Vivian Torrence, who came to the project through the gates of wonderment, governed by her conviction that modern science is “a symbolic search, using the powers of logic and intellect as the driving force to find what is real.”

“Patterns” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.

Although as a scientist, Sagan had always been animated by an electric love of chemistry’s charms — his explanation of how stars are born, live, die, and give us life is a classic — he must have composed his foreword from a far more personal place. At that particular point in time, the mutations of myelodysplasia — the rare form of cancer that would eventually take his life — were already coursing through his body. Chemotherapy would soon be his lifeline. In order for his body not to reject the bone marrow transfusion he received from his sister, Sagan would take seventy-two pills labeled “BIOHAZARD” in a single sitting — chemistry at its most acutely double-edged.

“A Hands-on Approach” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.

In these final years of his life, Sagan brings his singular gift for science and romance to the foreword:

Except for the two simplest, hydrogen and helium, atoms are made in stars. A cascade of thermonuclear reactions builds hydrogen and helium up into ever larger and more complex atoms which are then spewed out into interstellar space as the star ages and dies. There they drift for ages, occasionally coming close enough to one another to make a bond. Then two or more atoms make a commitment to go through life together. These bonds are the business of chemistry. In an eon or two a maelstrom of self-gravitating interstellar matter gathers up solitary atoms, and those bonded with their fellows, and plunges them into a forming planetary system. Four and a half billion years ago, that is what happened in our neck of the galactic woods. Our warm and well-illuminated little world is one result. All the atoms of Earth (hydrogen and helium still excepted) derive from these distant and ancient interstellar events — the silicon in the rocks, the nitrogen in the air, the oxygen atoms in a mountain stream; the calcium in our bones, the potassium in our nerves, and the carbon and other atoms that in exquisite detail encode our genetic instructions and job orders for making a human being. We too are made of starstuff.

There is hardly an aspect of our lives that is not touched fundamentally by chemistry: electronics and computers; food and nutrition; depletion of the protective ozone layer; mining and metals; medicine and pharmaceuticals; every disease including AIDS and cancer, schizophrenia and manic-depressive syndrome; drugs, legal and illegal; toxic water; and much of what we call human nature. We are, at least in large part, the way we are because of the atoms and molecules that make us up, and how they interact. In a deep and fundamental way chemistry makes us us.

There is something of William Blake in Torrence’s stunning drawings, which bring to life Hoffmann’s narrative tracing the history of chemistry from the rudimentary ideas of the Ancient Greeks, who first theorized the atom, to the transmutations of the medieval alchemists, in whose hands science and superstition commingled, to the catalytic breakthroughs of eighteenth-century science, which inspired titans of poetry like Goethe and Coleridge, to the advent of spectroscopy in the nineteenth century, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe, to the atomic age of the twentieth century, which forever changed our relationship to nature.

“Radium” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Greek Air” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Greek Earth” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Greek Fire” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Greek Water” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Natural Cycles” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“The Periodic Table” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Amazing Growth” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Energy and Form” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Theory and Practice” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“The Chemist” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Simply Burning” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“The Philosopher’s Stone” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Celebrating Solutions” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Phlogiston” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Air of Revolution” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Intermediary” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Chinese Elements” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Blood Counts” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Seeing to the Center of Things” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Affinities” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Possibilities and Pragmatics” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Chemical Arts” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“The Grail” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“On the Crystal Scale” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Steps and Processes” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Formulation” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.
“Forces Constant” by Vivian Torrence from Chemistry Imagined by Roald Hoffmann.

That treasures like Chemistry Imagined fade out of print fills me with sadness for a system that is supposed to steward books and infuse the body of culture with substantive literature, but instead prioritizes what is easily marketable over what is lastingly meaningful. Complement this particular forgotten treasure, which is well worth a trip to the library or the second-hand bookstore, with Edward Livingston Youman’s splendid Victorian diagrams of how chemistry works, the story of how Mendeleev discovered his periodic table in a dream, and Berenice Abbott’s arresting black-and-white photographs of scientific processes and phenomena, then revisit Sagan on the power of books in protecting democracy and his timeless, increasingly timely wisdom on moving beyond “us” vs. “them” in bridging the divides of culture.

BP

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