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Song of Two Worlds: Alan Lightman’s Poetic Ode to Science, the Unknown, and Our Search for Meaning, Illustrated by an 18-Year-Old Boy in India

“One thousand questions, and each gives an answer, which then forms a question.”

Song of Two Worlds: Alan Lightman’s Poetic Ode to Science, the Unknown, and Our Search for Meaning, Illustrated by an 18-Year-Old Boy in India

“You will not concede me philosophical poetry,” Ada Lovelace — the world’s first computer programmer, maverick daughter of the poet Lord Byron — wrote to her mother, a mathematician bent on eradicating the father’s “poetical” influences on the girl. Young Lovelace exhorted: “Invert the order! Will you give me poetical philosophy, poetical science?”

Two centuries later, the physicist, novelist, and essayist Alan Lightman — MIT’s only professor with dual appointment in the sciences and the humanities, and one of the most enchanting writers of our time — furnished the world with a masterwork at the intersection of “poetical philosophy” and “poetical science” in an epic poem exploring life’s largest questions, some answerable and some not: questions about existence and nonexistence, free will, the nature of time and reality, the paradox of nothingness, and the human search for meaning amid an indifferent universe.

Song of Two Worlds was published in 2009 as a small, enormous book, the lyrical profundity of which rippled across the globe. Five years later, Lightman received a letter from Ajai Narendran, a teacher at the Srishti School of Art, Design, and Technology in Bangalore, India — a longtime fan of Lightman’s, who had assigned the verse book to the students in his “Conceptual Science in Art and Design” class. One of them — an 18-year-old boy named Derek Dominic D’souza, a gifted self-taught artist — had been so inspired by Lightman’s book that he created a series of pen-and-ink drawings in response to the verses. Lightman was in turn so touched by the imaginative splendor of the boy’s drawings that he approached Red Hen Press — an independent publisher devoted to celebrating diverse voices in creative literature — to work together on a special edition of Song of Two World (public library), featuring D’Souza’s art.

Inspired by the Indian philosopher Tagore — who himself explored many of these monumental questions in his famous 1930 conversation with Einstein, the protagonist of Lightman’s first novel — the poem roams across the canon of human knowledge, Western and Eastern, through the existential struggle of its narrator. He is, the reader gathers, a writer who has suffered a great personal tragedy that has rendered him unable to write and is now exiled from his native land, living somewhere in the Middle East, where he is bearing witness to an elderly friend’s passage into nonexistence.

From the vortex of the narrator’s personal experience spins out an expansive inquiry into the nature of reality, synthesizing in verse the legacies of giants like Newton, Galileo, Einstein, Lao Tzu, and Darwin, and paying homage to insufficiently celebrated heroes like physicist Lise Meitner and Persian polymath Omar Khayyam. What emerges is an ode to science as our finest instrument of knowledge, but also an elegy — in the proper sense of lamentation and celebration — for its limitations in the face of questions of meaning, best answered by philosophy and best savored in their unanswerableness by poetry.

It all begins at the boundary of wakefulness and dream, of known and unknown:

Awake —
What are these quick shots of warmth,
Fractals of forests
That wind through my limbs?
Fragrance of olive and salt taste of skin,
Razz-tazz and clackety sound?
Figures and shapes slowly wheel past my view,
Villas and deserts, distorted faces,
Children, my children —

Distant, the pink moons of my feet.
What rules do they follow?
I think movement, they wondrously move,
Moons flutter and shake.
I probe the hills and the ruts of my face —
Now I grow large, now
I grow small, as the waves
Of sensation break over my shore.

There, a gnarled tree I remember,
A stone vessel, the curve of a hill.
What is the hour?
Some silence still sleeps
In my small sleeping room —
Is it end or beginning?

I take up my pen, dry for some years.

What should I write?
What should I think?

[…]

I knock on the door of the universe.
Here, this small villa, this table, this pen.
I ask the universe: What? and Why?
Now weakened, I must remake the world,
One grain at a time.

[…]

I knock on the door of the universe, asking:
What makes the light of the stars?
What makes the heat of my flesh?
What makes the tear shape of rain?

[…]

So much I’ve lost,
I have nothing
Except a fierce hunger
To fathom this world.
Naked, I knock on the door,
Wearing only my questions.

Great Newton, you hid in your rooms,
Outcast like me,
Careless of meals, stockings untied,
Drinker of rosewater, olive oil, beeswax —

You found the force
Between planets and sun,
Pattern of cosmic attraction,
Heard clearly the music of spheres.

You gauged the distance to stars
And the vast rooms of space,
Which were naught to the space of your mind.

You struck the door of the universe.
What raging night seized you
And screamed that the world
Must be number and rule?

This is the world of the ticking of clocks,
Menses of women and tides
Of the moon. Orbits of planets,
The swing of the pendulum, spin of the earth,
Cycles of seasons.

This is the cosmos of time and of space,
And of light rays that travel twelve billion years,
And the whale-raptured sprawl of the galaxies.
But is this not also the cosmos of life,
That rare cluster of atoms and forms,
A few grains on the beach of nonlife?

[…]

One thousand questions, and each gives
An answer, which then forms a question.
The questions and answers will meld with each other
Like colors of light,
Like the light rays that once crossed the space
Of the cosmos
And rest now in the small warmth of a hand.

I knock on the doors of the universe,
Asking: What makes the swirl
Of ghazali love songs?
And the parallel singing of loss?
And the choice to live life alone?

I surrender my calipers, rules, and clocks,
Microscopes, diodes, transistors,
Glass flasks. For how can I measure
The stroke of a passion? Or dissect a grief
With the digits of pi?

Thus, I stand naked, with nothing
Except a fierce hunger to fathom this world,
To embark on this road
Without length without breadth.

Complement Song of Two World, an immensely beautiful invitation to contemplation, with Lightman on science and spirituality and the creative sympathies of art and science, then revisit Hannah Arendt on the crucial difference between truth and meaning and physicist Sean Carroll on how “poetic naturalism” helps us find meaning in an impartial universe.

All illustrations © Derek Dominic D’souza, courtesy of Alan Lightman

BP

To Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the World: Pioneering Psychotherapist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, the Loneliness of Mental Illness, and the Healing Power of Believing in a Person’s Inextinguishable Inner Light

How a visionary woman persisted in leading a quiet revolution in mental health.

To Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the World: Pioneering Psychotherapist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, the Loneliness of Mental Illness, and the Healing Power of Believing in a Person’s Inextinguishable Inner Light

“All good teachers know that inside a remote or angry person is a soul, way deep down, capable of a full human life,” Anne Lamott wrote in her beautiful meditation on the life-giving power of great teachers. Those whom teachers — nor parents, nor friends, nor spouses, nor lovers — cannot reach, those whose inner turbulence has metastasized into acute mental illness and shipwrecked them on the remotest edges of the mind, are left to psychotherapists. But the most effective therapists are animated by the same unflinching conviction that within each patient lives an almost sacred person, and that no person, no matter how damaged and disturbed, is irredeemable or incapable of having a full life.

This was the animating ethos of pioneering psychotherapist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (October 23, 1889–April 28, 1957), who had narrowly escaped from Nazi Germany, lived in exile in France and Palestine, and ended up in America to begin nothing short of a revolution in mental health care. (Adding another layer of rebellious complexity to her life was her decision to marry, while still in Germany, the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm — her colleague and onetime patient, ten years her junior.) In many ways, she was the Oliver Sacks of mental health, not merely applying her robust professional expertise to the healing of her patients but bathing them in largehearted perseverance of faith in the inextinguishable light of their humanity.

Fromm-Reichmann was introduced into the popular imagination by the improbable 1964 hit novel I Never Promised You a Rose Garden — the faintly fictionalized autobiographical account of Joanne Greenberg, one of her patients, who had made a seemingly miraculous recovery from what is considered the most hopeless of mental illnesses: schizophrenia. Greenberg had entered Fromm-Reichmann’s care as teenager so afflicted as to be gashing her arms with jagged tin can tops and putting out cigarettes into the wounds. She exited four years later as a fully functioning college student who went on to have a family and become a successful writer.

Although Greenberg wrote the novel under the pseudonym Hannah Green and christened Fromm-Freichmann “Dr. Fried,” details about the institution and their respective lives soon revealed their real identities. Against the odds of what seemed like an unusual and ill-advised premise for a popular novel, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden became a sensation, amassing a cult following through the six million copies sold in decades since. But its most enduring feat was to make its millions of readers fall in love with Frieda Fromm-Reichmann and her maverick insistence that even the most tortured minds have a shot at serenity given enough attentive patience and persistence on behalf of those qualified to help them.

Art by Bobby Baker from Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me

It was the novel that first introduced fifteen-year-old Gail Hornstein to Fromm-Reichmann’s work and planted the long-germinated seed of what would become, thirty-four years later, To Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the World: A Life of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (public library) — a spectacular biography ten years in the making, which Hornstein, by then a psychologist herself, hadn’t set out to write but found herself unable not to.

Hornstein considers the seedbed of Fromm-Reichmann’s unusually tenacious and patient faith in the potential for healing:

Frieda’s capacity to wait had been honed as a child, when she trained herself to expand to infinity the time she gave her parents to tire of misunderstanding. Medical school in Königsberg was one long act of patience, designed to prove that she and the handful of other women deserved to be there. Later, working at a Prussian army hospital during World War I, she learned from brain-injured soldiers what it was like to have a shell explode in your face and still be alive. Their muteness became her measure. When she took up treating schizophrenics in the 1920s, they seemed so intact by comparison that she found the work a pleasure. Most psychiatrists, accustomed to treating the “worried well,” find the unbearably slow pace of therapy with psychotics intolerable. But Frieda could wait cheerfully through years of infinitesimal gain; the knowledge that recovery was anatomically possible was enough to keep her going. She could tolerate any behavior, no matter how disgusting or bizarre, so long as it seemed necessary to protect a vulnerable person. It was only when symptoms became ruses or habits that she started badgering patients to give them up and get better.

Fromm-Reichmann held nothing back in helping her patients — nothing of herself, and nothing of the often arbitrary rules by which her profession operated. Hornstein writes:

She was willing to try practically anything that might help them, which was a great deal more than most other psychiatrists were willing to do. She saw one patient at ten o’clock at night because that’s when he was most likely to talk. She took others on walks around hospital grounds, or to symphony concerts, or to country inns for lunch. Those too distraught to leave at the end of an hour were permitted to stay for two. If a patient was violent and couldn’t be let off the ward, she went to his room or saw him in restraints, if necessary. “She would have swung from the chandelier like Tarzan if she thought it would help,” Joanne Greenberg later observed. A colleague remarked, not admiringly, that Frieda’s patients got better because she simply gave them no other choice.

Illustration by Marissa Betley from Project 1 in 4, exploring the realities of mental illness

“Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away,” Rebecca Solnit exhorted the common reader in her abiding manifesto for tenacious hope in the face of the seemingly impossible, and it was precisely this refusal to squander hope that Fromm-Reichmann embodied in her specialized field. Hornstein captures its essence:

For Frieda, treatment of mental illness was like physical therapy after stroke: a painstaking exercise in hope. Improvement was unpredictable, and was often followed by relapse or deterioration. Recovery, to the extent it was present, proceeded at an agonizingly slow pace. It was natural for the doctor to have periods of discouragement, even real despair, but he couldn’t afford to give up, no matter how many setbacks there were. A patient had to have at least one person who could imagine the possibility of his getting well.

But this was, and to some extent still is, a radical attitude in Fromm-Reichmann’s day, especially when it came to the patients too underprivileged to afford private psychotherapy or simply too ill to be helped by it, those who ended up in mental institutions — institutions that only a few decades before Fromm-Reichmann’s arrival in America perpetrated infernal abuse of the mentally ill. What enabled her to hold this view so ardently was the conviction, furnished by her intensive work with patients, that sanity and insanity aren’t binary categories between which one flips a switch but a spectrum along which one slides according to an as-yet enigmatic combination of genetics and environmental triggers. Alongside it — and this was another of Fromm-Reichmann’s pioneering insights — was a parallel slide into loneliness, perhaps the crowning anguish of mental illness. Hornstein writes:

The loneliness of mental illness, Frieda emphasized, is nothing like the solitude people seek at the ocean or to do creative work. It is a state of extraordinary anguish in which a person ceases to be able to imagine, much less experience, anyone else being able to enter his experience. Understanding this profound kind of loneliness was Frieda’s life goal. Rarely speaking directly about politics or history, analyzing loneliness was her way of coming to grips with the horrors she had witnessed: the men gassed in trenches who screamed in their sleep, the schizophrenics who set fire to their bodies, the refugees who stumbled across a ruined Europe, terror in their eyes.

Art by Isol from Daytime Visions

Loneliness, in fact, was Fromm-Reichmann’s most acute point of compassion and curiosity. She spent many years writing and rewriting a trailblazing paper on loneliness that went on to shape the study of this commonest malady of spirit for decades to come. In The Lonely City, one of the finest books of 2016, Olivia Laing extols it as “one of the first attempts by a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst to approach loneliness as an experience in its own right, distinct from and perhaps fundamentally more damaging than depression, anxiety or loss.” She cites Fromm-Friedmann’s own writings:

People who are in the grip of severe degrees of loneliness cannot talk about it; and people who have at some time in the past had such an experience can seldom do so either, for it is so frightening and uncanny in character that they try to dissociate the memory of what it was like, and even the fear of it.

[…]

Loneliness, in its quintessential form, is of a nature that is incommunicable by the one who suffers it. Nor, unlike other non-communicable emotional experiences, can it be shared via empathy. It may well be that the second person’s empathic abilities are obstructed by the anxiety-arousing quality of the mere emanations of the first person’s loneliness.

Fromm-Reichmann knew that loneliness was neither symptom nor cause, not exactly, but more of a serpent with its tail in its mouth — the inescapable attendant malady of those suffering from mental illness, compounding their suffering often past the threshold of the bearable. Hornstein writes:

Frieda urged psychiatrists to talk openly of their patients’ loneliness and to create a space where both of them could explore such feelings. For patients too withdrawn to speak, “the doctor’s mere presence” or statements like “I know” and “I am here” might begin to ease the isolation. The main obstacle to “therapy with the lonely,” she argued, was the psychiatrist’s inability to confront this terror in his own life. As a reviewer of her paper noted, “The fear of loneliness, the fear of being enveloped by that nameless state, may be what really makes people afraid of schizophrenic patients, makes them think of these patients as ‘out of this world’ or as a different species than the rest of us.”

Hornstein quotes Fromm-Reichmann herself:

Not being able to understand somebody communicating with us connotes loneliness. If we don’t understand, that touches our own possibilities of loneliness, and rather than accepting [that] there is this barrier of loneliness between the psychotic and us, we evade it and feel guilty. I think that the guilt feeling is an evasion of accepting the tragic facts of human loneliness.

How Fromm-Reichmann devoted her life to alleviating that tragedy by tearing down the barrier of loneliness is what Hornstein goes on to explore in the revelatory and emboldening To Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the World. Complement it with Walt Whitman on healthcare and the human spirit and the story of how trailblazing Victorian journalist Nellie Bly risked her life for an 1887 exposé that ended asylum abuse, then revisit the fascinating science of how the microbiome might impact mental illness and Virginia Woolf, who spent her whole life combatting mental illness, on the relationship between loneliness and creativity.

BP

Rachel Carson’s Brave and Prescient 1953 Letter Against the Government’s Assault on Science and Nature

“The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife… Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.”

Rachel Carson’s Brave and Prescient 1953 Letter Against the Government’s Assault on Science and Nature

In 1953, nearly a decade before she catalyzed the environmental movement with the publication of Silent Spring, trailblazing biologist and writer Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) found herself with no choice but to embody the ethos that would come to animate her life: “To sin by silence, when we should protest makes cowards out of men.”

After Eisenhower took office, the Republican administration swiftly began instituting policies that effected the destruction of nature in the name of business. The Fish and Wildlife Service — of which Carson was editor in chief — was atop their target list. (Remember, there was no Environmental Protection Agency at the time; the EPA was created in 1970, largely on the wings of Carson’s work — a triumph tragic in its timing, for cancer took her life before she could savor its fruits.)

Since its inception in 1938, the Fish and Wildlife Service had been the government agency responsible for the protection and preservation of nature. Albert M. Day — a trained field scientist and a passionate conservationist — had been with the agency since the very beginning and became its visionary director in 1946. After appointing a businessman as Secretary of the Interior, the Republican government removed Day and replaced him with a nonscientist political pawn, who would sign off on removing hard-won environmental protections in order to turn natural resources into a profitable commodity — a decision Carson believed “should be deeply disturbing to every thoughtful citizen.” She poured her splendidly sobering rhetoric into a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, which was picked up by the wire of the Associated Press, syndicated widely across the country, and reprinted in Reader’s Digest — the era’s equivalent of going wildly viral. By that point, Carson had already surmounted the towering cultural odds against her gender and her underprivileged background to become the most respected science writer in the country. Her voice was a booming clarion call for resistance.

Rachel Carson

Later included in Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson (public library), the letter emanates astonishing pertinence to our present predicament as we are reminded of history’s cycles in the face of another administration ready to exploit the fragility of nature and the precious finitude of its resources for ruthless commercial and political gain.

With an eye to what it would really take to make America great again, as it were, Carson writes:

The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife. To utilize them for present needs while insuring their preservation for future generations requires a delicately balanced and continuing program, based on the most extensive research. Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.

By long tradition, the agencies responsible for these resources have been directed by men of professional stature and experience, who have understood, respected, and been guided by the findings of their scientists.

[…]

For many years public-spirited citizens throughout the country have been working for the conservation of the natural resources, realizing their vital importance to the Nation. Apparently their hard-won progress is to be wiped out, as a politically minded Administration returns us to the dark ages of unrestrained exploitation and destruction.

A century after Walt Whitman remarked in his abiding treatise on democracy that “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without,” Carson adds a remark of searing prescience:

It is one of the ironies of our time that, while concentrating on the defense of our country against enemies from without, we should be so heedless of those who would destroy it from within.

Although Carson’s courageous outcry made little political difference in the immediate term, it adrenalized and awakened the public consciousness in a powerful way — a germinal wakefulness she would further fertilize a decade later with Silent Spring, which became a catalyst not only for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency but for the modern environmental conscience that is our only hope for the long-term survival of our Pale Blue Dot. Carson’s legacy is a reminder that the payoffs of courage and resistance aren’t always immediately obvious, but they work as a mighty tectonic force that can shift the future in fundamental ways.

There is an indispensable trove of Carson’s timeless, timely wisdom collected in Lost Woods. Complement it with the courageous story of why and how Carson wrote Silent Spring, the powerful 1914 protest poem that emboldened her to speak inconvenient truth to power, and her touching, deeply humane farewell to her dearest friend, then revisit Carl Sagan on science as an invaluable tool of democracy.

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