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Why the Sea Is Blue: Rachel Carson on the Science and Splendor of the Marine Spectrum

“The deep blue water of the open sea far from land is the color of emptiness and barrenness; the green water of the coastal areas, with all its varying hues, is the color of life.”

Why the Sea Is Blue: Rachel Carson on the Science and Splendor of the Marine Spectrum

“The world is blue at its edges and in its depths,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her contribution to history’s most beautiful meditations on the color blue. And yet blue itself is a universe of color — the world is woven not of blue but of blues. “Each blue object could be,” Maggie Nelson observed in her stunning serenade to the most existential color, “an X on a map too diffuse ever to be unfolded in entirety but that contains the knowable universe.”

Nowhere is this chromatic cosmos richer than in the marine world, and no one has had more profound an impact on impressing its science and splendor upon the popular imagination than marine biologist and author Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964).

Rachel Carson

In 1937, a quarter century before she catalyzed the modern environmental movement with her epoch-making book Silent Spring, Carson pioneered a new storytelling aesthetic by making science a literary subject in an exquisite Atlantic Monthly essay titled Undersea. This lyrical, unprecedented invitation to imagine our blue planet from the perspective of nonhuman creatures — creatures that inhabit the aquatic mystery Walt Whitman called “the world below the brine” — earned Carson a book deal. It became the basis of her 1951 book The Sea Around Us (public library), which won Carson the National Book Award and soon rendered her the most respected science writer in America.

With her uncommon gift for bridging the scientific and the poetic — a gift rooted in Carson’s conviction that science is part and particle of our spiritual bond with nature — she writes:

To the human senses, the most obvious patterning of the surface waters is indicated by color. The deep blue water of the open sea far from land is the color of emptiness and barrenness; the green water of the coastal areas, with all its varying hues, is the color of life. The sea is blue because the sunlight is reflected back to our eyes from the water molecules or from very minute particles suspended in the sea. In the journey of the light rays into deep water all the red rays and most of the yellow rays of the spectrum have been absorbed, so when the light returns to our eyes it is chiefly the cool blue rays that we see. Where the water is rich in plankton, it loses the glassy transparency that permits this deep penetration of the light rays. The yellow and brown and green hues of the coastal waters are derived from the minute algae and other microorganisms so abundant there. Seasonal abundance of certain forms containing reddish or brown pigments may cause the “red water” known from ancient times in many parts of the world, and so common is this condition in some enclosed seas that they owe their names to it — the Red Sea and the Vermilion Sea are examples.

But the sea’s truest blue is its blackest — the result of the subtraction of light from the fathomless sum of all colors. In a chapter hauntingly titled “The Sunless Sea,” Carson writes:

The unrelieved darkness of the deep waters has produced weird and incredible modifications of the abyssal fauna. It is a blackness so divorced from the world of the sunlight that probably only the few men who have seen it with their own eyes can visualize it. We know that light fades out rapidly with descent below the surface. The red rays are gone at the end of the first 200 or 300 feet, and with them all the orange and yellow warmth of the sun. Then the greens fade out, and at 1000 feet only a deep, dark, brilliant blue is left. In very clear waters the violet rays of the spectrum may penetrate another thousand feet. Beyond this is only the blackness of the deep sea.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly enthralling The Sea Around Us with a lovely animated adaptation of Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, then revisit Carson on writing and the loneliness of creative work, her brave and prescient letter protesting the government’s assault on nature, and her almost unbearably moving farewell to her soul mate.


Big Wolf & Little Wolf: A Tender Tale of Loneliness, Belonging, and How Friendship Transforms Us

A subtle meditation on the meaning of solidarity, the relationship between the ego and the capacity for love, and the little tendrils of care that become the armature of friendship.

We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins. There is a strange and sorrowful loneliness to this, to being a creature that carries its fragile sense of self in a bag of skin on an endless pilgrimage to some promised land of belonging. We are willing to erect many defenses to hedge against that loneliness and fortress our fragility. But every once in a while, we encounter another such creature who reminds us with the sweetness of persistent yet undemanding affection that we need not walk alone.

Such a reminder radiates with uncommon tenderness from Big Wolf & Little Wolf (public library) by French author Nadine Brun-Cosme, illustrated by the always magical Olivier Tallec and translated by publisher Claudia Zoe Bedrick, the visionary founder of Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse Enchanted Lion. With great subtlety and sensitivity, the story invites a meditation on loneliness, the meaning of solidarity, the relationship between the ego and the capacity for love, and the little tendrils of care that become the armature of friendship.

We meet Big Wolf during one of his customary afternoon stretches under a tree he has long considered his own, atop a hill he has claimed for himself. But this is no ordinary day — Big Wolf spots a new presence perched on the horizon, a tiny blue figure, “no bigger than a dot.” With that all too human tendency to project onto the unknown our innermost fears, Big Wolf is chilled by the terrifying possibility that the newcomer might be bigger than he is.

But as the newcomer approaches, he turns out to be Little Wolf.

Big Wolf saw that he was small and felt reassured. He let Little Wolf climb right up to his tree.

“It is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar,” Anaïs Nin wrote, and it is precisely the stark contrast between Big Wolf’s towering stature and his vulnerable insecurity that lends the story its loveliness and profundity.

At first, the two wolves observe one another silently out of the corner of their eyes. His fear cooled by the smallness and timidity of his visitor, Big Wolf begins to regard him with unsuspicious curiosity that slowly warms into cautious affection. We watch Big Wolf as he learns, with equal parts habitual resistance and sincerity of self-transcendence, a new habit of heart and a wholly novel vocabulary of being.

Night came.
Little Wolf stayed.
Big Wolf thought that Little Wolf went a bit too far.
After all, it had always been his tree.

When Big Wolf went to bed, Little Wolf went to bed too.
When Big Wolf saw that Little Wolf was shivering at the tip of his nose, he pushed a teeny tiny corner of his leaf blanket closer to him.

“That is certainly enough for such a little wolf,” he thought.

When morning breaks, Big Wolf goes about his daily routine and climbs up his tree to do his exercises, at first alarmed, then amused, and finally — perhaps, perhaps — endeared that Little Wolf follows him instead of leaving.

Once again, Big Wolf at first defaults to that small insecure place, fearing that Little Wolf might outclimb him. But the newcomer struggles, exhaling a tiny “Ouch” as he thuds to the ground on his first attempt before making it up the tree, leaving Big Wolf both unthreatened and impressed with the little one’s quiet courage.

Silently, Little Wolf mirrors Big Wolf’s exercises. Silently, he follows him back down. On the descent, Big Wolf picks his usual fruit for breakfast, but, seeing as Little Wolf isn’t picking any, grabs a few more than usual. Silently, he pushes a modest plate to Little Wolf, who eats it just as silently. The eyes and the body language of the wolves emanate universes of emotion in Tallec’s spare, wonderfully expressive pencil and gouache illustrations.

When Big Wolf goes for his daily walk, he peers at his tree from the bottom of the hill and sees Little Wolf still stationed there, sitting quietly.

Big Wolf smiled. Little Wolf was small.

Big Wolf crossed the big field of wheat at the bottom of the hill.
Then he turned around again.
Little Wolf was still there under the tree.
Big Wolf smiled. Little Wolf looked even smaller.

He reached the edge of the forest and turned around one last time.
Little Wolf was still there under the tree, but he was now so small that only a wolf as big as Big Wolf could possibly see that such a little wolf was there.
Big Wolf smiled one last time and entered the forest to continue his walk.

But when he reemerges from the forest by evening, the tiny blue dot is gone from under the tree.

At first, Big Wolf assures himself that he must be too far away to see Little Wolf. But as he crosses the wheat field, he still sees nothing. We watch his silhouette tense with urgency as he makes his way up the hill, propelled by a brand new hollowness of heart.

Big Wolf felt uneasy for the first time in his life.
He climbed back up the hill much more quickly than on all other evenings.

There was no one under his tree. No one big, no one little.
It was like before.
Except that now Big Wolf was sad.

“The joy of meeting and the sorrow of separation,” Simone Weil wrote in contemplating the paradox of closeness, “we should welcome these gifts … with our whole soul, and experience to the full, and with the same gratitude, all the sweetness or bitterness as the case may be.” But Big Wolf feels only the bitterness of having lost what he didn’t know he needed until it invaded his life with its unmerited grace.

That evening for the first time Big Wolf didn’t eat.
That night for the first time Big Wolf didn’t sleep.
He waited.

For the first time he said to himself that a little one, indeed a very little one, had taken up space in his heart.

A lot of space.

By morning, Big Wolf climbs his tree but can’t bring himself to exercise — instead, he peers into the distance, his forlorn eyes wide with sorrow and longing.

He bargains the way the bereaved do — if Little Wolf returns, he vows, he would offer him “a larger corner of his leaf blanket, even a much larger one”; he would give him all the fruit he wanted; he would let him climb higher and mirror all of his exercises, “even the special ones known only to him.”

Big Wolf waits and waits and waits, beyond reason, beyond season.

And then, one day, a tiny blue dot appears on the horizon.

For the first time in his life Big Wolf’s heart beat with joy.

Silently, Little Wolf climbs up the hill toward the tree.

“Where were you?” asked Big Wolf.

“Down here,” said Little Wolf without pointing.

“Without you,” said Big Wolf in a very small voice, “I was lonely.”

Little Wolf took a step closer to Big Wolf.
“Me too,” he said. “I was lonely too.”
He rested his head gently on Big Wolf’s shoulder.
Big Wolf felt good.

And so it was decided that from then on Little Wolf would stay.

Complement the immeasurably lovely Big Wolf & Little Wolf with Seneca on true and false friendship and astronomer Maria Mitchell on how we co-create each other in relationship, then revisit other thoughtful and touching treasures from Enchanted Lion: Cry, Heart, But Never Break, The Lion and the Bird, Bertolt, The Paper-Flower Tree, and This Is a Poem That Heals Fish

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova


Stephen Hawking on What Makes a Good Theory and the Quest for a Theory of Everything

“There are grounds for cautious optimism that we may now be near the end of the search for the ultimate laws of nature.”

Stephen Hawking on What Makes a Good Theory and the Quest for a Theory of Everything

“We are bathing in mystery and confusion on many subjects,” Carl Sagan reflected in an interview in August of 1980, “and I think that will always be our destiny. The universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it.”

Exactly eight years later, a mind far more scientifically formidable, if not as poetic, ignited in the popular imagination the idea that Sagan’s worldview might be wrong — that the universe might, after all, be fully knowable and fully describable in a single elegant theory.

When Stephen Hawking (January 8, 1942–March 14, 2018) sent his book proposal for what would become A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (public library) to Cambridge University Press — his first book of popular science — his editors cautioned him that it contained too much science to be sellable. Every equation, they admonished, would cut book sales in half. Hawking revised the manuscript until it contained a single equation — Einstein’s E = mc2. He transmuted all the remaining equations into a scintillating scientific narrative and completed the book just before he rallied Cambridge into a celebration of the 300th anniversary of Newton’s Principia — perhaps the most paradigm-shifting book in the history of science, introducing the theory of gravitation to the world.

Stephen Hawking (Photograph: Gemma Levine)

A Brief History of Time was published on April Fool’s Day 1988. In the introduction, Carl Sagan extolled Hawking as a “worthy successor” to Newton and lauded the book as replete with “lucid revelations on the frontiers of physics, astronomy, cosmology and courage.” Its accelerated ascent up the bestseller list stunned even Hawking himself. Within months, millions of copies had sold and the book was being translated into multiple languages — success so rapid that it entered the Guinness Book of World Records. (Hawking was amused that his American-made speech synthesizer struggled with the word, pronouncing it Guy-ness.) A “phenomenal international bestseller” for decades to come, in the words inscribed on the cover of the most current edition at the time of Hawking’s death, A Brief History of Time went on to shape the way generations comprehend the universe.

One of the most abiding aspects of the book is Hawking’s succinct description of what makes a good theory. In a sense, it parallels pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner’s framework of what makes a good story. With an eye to Karl Popper’s famous assertion that “knowledge consists in the search for truth… not the search for certainty,” Hawking writes:

Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis: you can never prove it. No matter how many times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory. On the other hand, you can disprove a theory by finding even a single observation that disagrees with the predictions of the theory. As philosopher of science Karl Popper has emphasized, a good theory is characterized by the fact that it makes a number of predictions that could in principle be disproved or falsified by observation. Each time new experiments are observed to agree with the predictions the theory survives, and our confidence in it is increased; but if ever a new observation is found to disagree, we have to abandon or modify the theory.

A 1568 illuminated illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric system, from 100 Diagrams That Changed the World

In her excellent biography, Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind (public library), Kitty Ferguson builds upon Hawking’s formulation of a good theory and offers her own, more expansive and poetic definition:

A theory is not Truth with a capital T, not a rule, not fact, not the final word. You might think of a theory as a toy boat. To find out whether it floats, you set it on the water. You test it. When it flounders, you pull it out of the water and make some changes, or you start again and build a different boat, benefiting from what you’ve learned from the failure.

Some theories are good boats. They float a long time. We may know there are a few leaks, but for all practical purposes they serve us well. Some serve us so well, and are so solidly supported by experiment and testing, that we begin to regard them as truth. Scientists, keeping in mind how complex and surprising our universe is, are extremely wary about calling them that. Although some theories do have a lot of experimental success to back them up and others are hardly more than a glimmer in a theorist’s eyes — brilliantly designed boats that have never been tried on the water — it is risky to assume that any of them is an absolute, fundamental scientific “truth.”

It is important, however, not to dither around forever, continuing to call into question well-established theories without having a good reason for doing so. For science to move ahead, it is necessary to decide whether some theories are dependable enough, and match observation sufficiently well, to allow us to use them as building blocks and proceed from there. Of course, some new thought or discovery might come along and threaten to sink the boat.

A simulation of two black holes colliding to produce a gravitational wave — the landmark event detected by LIGO in 2016, arguably the most significant astrophysical discovery since Galileo’s day and the triumph of an Everestine century-long climb toward truth, building heavily on Hawking’s work.

Hawking’s own life was animated by one particular theoretical pursuit — the search for a theory, colloquially known as a “theory of everything,” that unifies Einstein’s general relativity, the gravity-based science of the very large, and quantum mechanics, the science of the very small, based on three non-gravitational forces: the weak, strong, and electromagnetic forces. In the penultimate chapter of A Brief History of Time, Hawking considers this unholy grail of physics against the backdrop of the history of science:

The prospects for finding such a theory seem to be much better now because we know so much more about the universe. But we must beware of overconfidence — we have had false dawns before! At the beginning of this century, for example, it was thought that everything could be explained in terms of the properties of continuous matter, such as elasticity and heat conduction. The discovery of atomic structure and the uncertainty principle put an emphatic end to that. Then again, in 1928, physicist and Nobel Prize winner Max Born told a group of visitors to Göttingen University, “Physics, as we know it, will be over in six months.” His confidence was based on the recent discovery by Dirac of the equation that governed the electron. It was thought that a similar equation would govern the proton, which was the only other particle known at the time, and that would be the end of theoretical physics. However, the discovery of the neutron and of nuclear forces knocked that one on the head too. Having said this, I still believe there are grounds for cautious optimism that we may now be near the end of the search for the ultimate laws of nature.

Complement the timelessly fascinating Brief History of Time with poet Marie Howe’s stunning tribute to Hawking, Hawking himself on the meaning of the universe, his “theory of everything” animated in 150 seconds, the story of how his mother shaped his genius, and the children’s book about time travel he co-wrote with his daughter, then revisit some of today’s leading thinkers on the most elegant theory of how the world works.


The Great Polish Poet and Nobel Laureate Czesław Miłosz on Love

“Who serves best doesn’t always understand.”

The Great Polish Poet and Nobel Laureate Czesław Miłosz on Love

Perhaps the greatest trial of love, and its greatest triumph, is to unmoor yourself from your longings and refuse to constrict the other with the dictate of your unmet needs — to accept that love, to the extent that it is real, must come unbidden. It cannot be obtained by ultimatum or negotiation; it is not subject to demand; it must flow freely or it doesn’t flow at all. And yet, though befriending our neediness may be essential to happiness, how do we keep ourselves from constricting love with the cycle of insatiable need?

In tussling with this elemental question, I have found myself returning again and again to two complementary perspectives — the great Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s assertion that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” built upon his foundational teaching that “understanding is love’s other name”; and poet Nikki Giovanni’s insistence in her forgotten conversation with James Baldwin that “if you don’t understand yourself you don’t understand anybody else.” We might feel that such an understanding calls for crouching closer and closer to its subject, be it self or other, in order to examine it with narrow focus and shallow depth of field, but this is a misleading intuition — the understanding of love is an expansive understanding, requiring us to zoom out of our habitual solipsism so as to regard ourselves and the object of our love from a great distance against the backdrop of universal life.

Nothing articulates this notion more beautifully than a spare, profound poem by the Nobel-winning Polish poet, essayist, translator, diplomat, and dissident Czesław Miłosz (June 30, 1911–August 14, 2004), found in his indispensable New and Collected Poems: 1931–2001 (public library).

by Czesław Miłosz

Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills.
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.

Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

Complement with Shel Silverstein’s lovely illustrated allegory for the simple secret of love, Rainer Maria Rilke on what it really means to love, and philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how you know whether you love somebody, then revisit Miłosz’s compatriot and fellow Nobel-winning poet Wisława Szymborska on great love.


Walt Whitman on the “Meaning” of Art and How to Best Access the Poetic

“At its best, poetic lore is like what may be heard of conversation in the dusk, from speakers far or hid, of which we get only a few broken murmurs. What is not gather’d is far more — perhaps the main thing.”

Walt Whitman on the “Meaning” of Art and How to Best Access the Poetic

“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf observed in her diary. “Looked at, it vanishes.” The same could be said of the soul of art, or perhaps of anything of substance and complexity — to write or speak about the meaning of a painting or a poem or a symphony is to flatten and impoverish its essence in some measure.

That is what Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) addresses with poetic precision of insight in a passage from Specimen Days (public library) — the endlessly rewarding collection of his prose fragments and diaries, which gave us Whitman’s meditations on the wisdom of trees, the singular power of music, the essence of happiness, and optimism as a force of resistance.

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

In a diary entry immediately following his reflection on what makes life worth living on the morning of his sixty-fourth birthday in 1882, Whitman writes:

Common teachers or critics are always asking “What does it mean?” Symphony of fine musician, or sunset, or sea-waves rolling up the beach — what do they mean? Undoubtedly in the most subtle-elusive sense they mean something — as love does, and religion does, and the best poem; — but who shall fathom and define those meanings?

In consonance with what Rachel Carson would later term “experiences that gives an odd and hard-to-describe feeling, with so many overtones beyond the facts themselves,” Whitman considers “the soul’s frequent joy in what cannot be defined to the intellectual part, or to calculation,” and writes of poetry what holds true of all art:

At its best, poetic lore is like what may be heard of conversation in the dusk, from speakers far or hid, of which we get only a few broken murmurs. What is not gather’d is far more — perhaps the main thing.

Grandest poetic passages are only to be taken at free removes, as we sometimes look for stars at night, not by gazing directly toward them, but off one side.

Specimen Days remains an indispensable read in its totality. Complement this particular portion with Jeanette Winterson on the paradox of art and pioneering philosopher Susanne Langer on how art works us over, then revisit Whitman on how art enhances life and his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life.


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