Brain Pickings

Page 3

Matter, Music, and the Mind

“Sound is sea: pattern lapping pattern… Matter delights in music, and became Bach.”

Matter, Music, and the Mind

“A rough sound was polished until it became a smoother sound, which was polished until it became music,” Mark Strand wrote in his splendid poem “The Everyday Enchantment of Music,” touching on the materiality of that enchantment: Music is matter dancing in the mind.

Music has a profound spiritual power over us — an echo of what Aldous Huxley called “the blessedness that is at the heart of things.” But at the heart of the blessedness is a biological symphony — a sensorial interface between the human body and the fundamental forces of physics, a wilderness of shimmering synapses converting current into the song of feeling. Kierkegaard intuited this an epoch before the birth of neuroscience as he located the unparalleled power of music in the interplay between the spiritual and sensual, and Whitman understood it in celebrating music as the profoundest expression of nature.

Ronald Johnson

That singular interplay between nature and the human spirit is what the poet Ronald Johnson (November 25, 1935–March 4, 1998) explores throughout his magnificent forgotten masterpiece ARK (public library) — an epic poem of reality radiating the spirit of The Universe in Verse, partway between Blake and Feynman, harmonizing modernist verse with prose poetry. To describe his unexampled work, Buckminster Fuller coined the word “philoverse.” In 1980, decade after he began composing them, Johnson published the first thirty-three “beams” — as he termed each of the numbered poetic particles comprising the epic totality — as ARK: The Foundations. He continued adding beams along the remaining vector of his life.

Among the animating questions of the epic poem is the relationship between science and music — that reverberation across matter and mind, which Johnson hints at from the very beginning with his choice of epigraph, quoting one of Gertrude Stein’s exquisite encryptions of elemental truth: “anything shut in with you can sing.”

A century and a half after Margaret Fuller scandalized her fellow Transcendentalists with the radical assertion that “all truth is comprised in music and mathematics,” and a generation before a colossal four-kilometer tuning fork a century in the making detected the sound of spacetime with the epoch-making discovery of gravitational waves, Johnson considers the scientific poetics of sound in the seventh of his “beams”:

Sound is sea: pattern lapping pattern. If we erase the air and slow the sound of a struck tuning fork in it, it would make two sets of waves interlocking the invisibility in opposite directions.

Behavior of Waves (1962) by Berenice Abbott, from her lyrical photographic series Documenting Science.

With his poetic ear pressed to the pulses of compression and rarefaction unspooled by the tuning-fork as it pinches matter into waveform, Johnson writes:

These alternate equidistant forces travel at the rate of 1,180 feet per second through the elasticity of air, four times that through water (whale to singing whale), and fifteen times as fast through pure steel.

With an eye to the pioneering composer Charles Ives — creator of what may be the first radical piece of music in the twentieth century: the haunting 1906 orchestral masterpiece Central Park in the Dark, which traveled backward in time by drawing on the sounds of nature before Industrial humanity and forward in time by laying the groundwork for the polytonal and polyrhythmic experimental music that would score the following century — Johnson writes:

Pattern laps pattern, and as they joined, Charles Ives heard the 19th Century in one ear, and the 20th out the other, then commenced to make a single music of them. The final chord of the 2nd Symphony is a reveille of all notes at once, his Fourth of July [Variations on “America”, composed when Ives was 17] ends with a fireworks of thirteen rhythmic patterns zigzagging through the winds and brasses, seven percussion lines criss-crossing these, the strings divided in twenty-fours going up and down every-which way — and all in FFFF.

Both tuning fork and Fourth are heard by perturbations of molecules, through ever more subtle stumbling blocks, in spiral ricochet, to charged branches treeing in the brain.

This vibrating tree is trunked with neurobiology, rooted in the physics of cartilage and “Come Together”:

The outer shell leads to a membrane drum — and what pressure needed to sound this drum is equal to the intensity of light and heat received from a 50-watt electric bulb at the distance of 3,000 miles in empty space. (Though sound cannot travel, as light, through the void.) At the threshold of hearing the eardrum may be misplaced as little as a diameter of the smallest atom, hydrogen.

Structure of the inner ear from The American Journal of Anatomy, 1906–1907. (Available as a print.)

Conducting the bone orchestra of hammer, anvil, and stirrup at the membrane drum of the oval window that stretches between the middle ear and the cochlea, Johnson writes:

Shut to air, this window vibrates another windowed membrane, tuning a compressed fluid between. Here, also, is couched our sense of the vertical.

A resonance is set up in a spiral shell-shape receptor turned with yet another, also spiral, membrane. This is the pith of labyrinth, and as sound waves themselves it trembles two directions at once, crosswise and lengthwise.

After a bright sidewise detour to Orpheus and Thoreau, to the synesthetic seeing-ear of the bat and the vernal sensuality of birdsong, Johnson loops back to the crucible of matter and mind:

The physicists tell us that sounding bodies are in a state of stationary vibration, and that when the word syzygy last shook atoms, its boundary was an ever slighter pulse of heat, and hesitation of heat. Matter delights in music, and became Bach. Its dreams are the abyss and empyrean, and to that end, may move, in time, the stones themselves to sing.

Johnson’s ARK is a symphonic read in its entirety. Complement this fragment with a constellation of beloved writers on the power of music, Nick Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence in the age of technology and the poetic neurologist Oliver Sacks — who saw biology and Bach as a unified field of experience — on why music moves us so, then revisit the great physician and poet Lewis Thomas on the poetics of smell as a mode of knowledge and poet A. Van Jordan’s Feynman-inspired inquiry into truth and tenderness at the nexus of science and meaning.


I Measure Every Grief I Meet: Emily Dickinson on Love and Loss

“‘Tis good — the looking back on Grief.”

Grief is the shadow love casts in the light of loss. The grander the love, the vaster the shadow. So much of who we are — who we discover ourselves to be — takes shape in that umbral space as we fumble for some edge to hold onto, some point of light to orient by.

Because the price of living wholeheartedly (which is the only way worth living) is the heartbreak of many losses — the loss of love to dissolution, distance, or death; the loss of the body to gravity and time — and because loss leaves in its wake an experience so private yet so universal, the common record of human experience that we call literature is replete with reflections on grief: from Seneca’s 2,000-year-old letter to his mother about the key to resilience in the face of loss to Lincoln’s spare and melancholy consolation to Meghan O’Rourke’s memoir of mourning to Nick Cave’s soulful meditation on the paradox of bereavement. And yet, as Joan Didion wrote in her crowning classic on the subject, “grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.”

No writer, in my reading life, has charted the fractal reaches of grief with more nuance and precision than Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) — the poet laureate of love and loss, of the interplay between the two, the interplay between the beauty and terror of being alive as we drift daily toward “the drift called ‘the infinite.'”

Emily Dickinson, daguerreotype, circa 1847. (Amherst College Archives & Special Collections)

In her 561st poem, included in her indispensable Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (public library), Dickinson considers grief as an experience both profoundly intimate and profoundly universal. She composed it in 1862, as a tidal wave of grief was sweeping her war-torn country and as Dickinson herself was wading through the deepest, most mysterious mourning of her life, the shadow of some unnamed “terror” of the heart she underwent the previous year — a mystery that still puzzles scholars and one that animates a sizable portion of Figuring. The poem gives voice to the continual syncopation between these two scales of being, both absolute and relativistic, as we burrow in the hollow of our private losses and pass each other in the public square of human suffering:

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes —
I wonder if It weighs like Mine —
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long —
Or did it just begin —
I could not tell the Date of Mine —
It feels so old a pain —

I wonder if it hurts to live —
And if They have to try —
And whether — could They choose between —
It would not be — to die —

I note that Some — gone patient long —
At length, renew their smile —
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil —

I wonder if when Years have piled —
Some Thousands — on the Harm —
That hurt them early — such a lapse
Could give them any Balm —

Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve —
Enlightened to a larger Pain –
In Contrast with the Love —

The Grieved — are many — I am told —
There is the various Cause —
Death — is but one — and comes but once —
And only nails the eyes —

There’s Grief of Want — and Grief of Cold —
A sort they call “Despair” —
There’s Banishment from native Eyes —
In sight of Native Air —

And though I may not guess the kind —
Correctly — yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary —

To note the fashions — of the Cross —
And how they’re mostly worn —
Still fascinated to presume
That Some — are like My Own —

In her 793rd poem, composed sometime the following year, Dickinson revisits the multifaceted nature of grief with a personified taxonomy — grief, the skittish mouse; grief, the surreptitious thief; grief, the juggler of fragilities; grief, the self-indulgent reveler; grief, the grand silence:

Grief is a Mouse —
And chooses Wainscot in the Breast
For His Shy House —
And baffles quest —

Grief is a Thief — quick startled —
Pricks His Ear — report to hear
Of that Vast Dark —
That swept His Being — back —

Grief is a Juggler — boldest at the Play —
Lest if He flinch — the eye that way
Pounce on His Bruises — One — say — or Three —
Grief is a Gourmand — spare His luxury —

Best Grief is Tongueless — before He’ll tell —
Burn Him in the Public Square —
His Ashes — will
Possibly — if they refuse — How then know —
Since a Rack couldn’t coax a syllable — now.

In another poem written in 1862 — Dickinson’s most creatively fertile year, in which she processed her unnamed “terror” through her art, as all artists do — she dilates the contracted consciousness of mourning into a perspectival reminder that there is an other side to even the deepest pain; that everything, even the most all-suffusing emotion, passes and is overgrown with new experience; that the ache of loss is the twin face of love, each an equal and inseparable part of aliveness:

‘Tis good — the looking back on Grief —
To re-endure a Day —
We thought the Mighty Funeral —
Of All Conceived Joy —

To recollect how Busy Grass
Did meddle — one by one —
Till all the Grief with Summer — waved
And none could see the stone.

And though the Woe you have Today
Be larger — As the Sea
Exceeds its Unremembered Drop —
They’re Water — equally —

Complement with Elizabeth Gilbert on love, loss, and how to move through grief as grief moves through you and a tender animated field guide to the counterintuitive psychology of how to best support a grieving friend, then revisit Dickinson’s stunning ode to resilience and the electric love letters in which she honed her dual capacity for love and loss.


Citizen Science, the Cosmos, and the Meaning of Life: How the Comet That Might One Day Destroy Us Gives Us the Most Transcendent Celestial Spectacle

Encounters with the beautiful and the sublime in the science of “the single most dangerous object known to humanity.”

On July 13, 1862, while a young experiment in democracy was being ripped asunder by its first Civil War, The Springfield Republican reported a strange and wondrous celestial sighting in the undivided sky, as bright as Polaris. Within days, two astronomers — Lewis Swift and Horace Parnell Tuttle — independently observed the phenomenon and determined it to be a colossal comet. Comet Swift-Tuttle — the largest Solar System object to periodically pass near Earth — is now known to return every 133 years, dragging in its long wake a dazzling annual gift: Each summer, as our lonely planet crosses the orbit of Swift-Tuttle and the debris shed by the icy colossus burn up in our atmosphere, the Perseid meteor shower streaks across the common sky, washing the whole of humanity with wonder.

19th-century Solar System quilt featuring a comet, designed and embroidered by Ellen Harding Baker over the course of seven years to teach women astronomy when they were barred from higher education in science. (Available as a print and a face mask, benefitting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.)

For millennia, the Perseids have lit up the summer sky in an annual celestial spectacle — one of the most staggering on Earth, with as many as 200 vibrant meteors per hour — that just befell the awestruck human animal without known cause or cosmic correlation. Some thought the streaks of light were debris from volcanic eruptions in faraway lands falling back to Earth. Others, including most scientists well into the nineteenth century, believed they were atmospheric phenomena like rainbows and lightning. Their cometic origins were unknown and comets themselves were a mystery. For astronomers — even for Caroline Herschel, who became the world’s first professional female astronomer thanks to her prolific and perilous comet-hunting — they were little more than a diversion, a flexing of tenacity, a competitive game of discovery that advanced personal reputations rather than elemental truth. More than a century before Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan shed light on the still-unsolved science of comets, very little was understood about these mysterious visitors from outer space. The poetic science writer Emma Converse — the Carl Sagan of her epoch — prophesied that someday, “with a powerful grasp, like that of Newton, some watcher of the stars shall seize the secret of cometic history.”

The November meteors, observed between midnight and 5 A.M. on  November 13-14, 1868
One of French artist and astronomer Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s stunning 19th-century paintings of celestial objects and phenomena. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.)

That day began dawning in the small hours of November 13, 1833. Neighbors awoke neighbors with shouts of excitement as people gathered in the street to watch a rain of fire from beneath the invisible umbrella of the night. Shooting stars blazed across the dark sky at the breath-stilling rate of thousands, tens of thousands per minute. All of this was puzzling: It was November, not August; the meteors were falling at manyfold the rate of the annual summer Perseids; and, at so high a density, they seemed to be streaming from a single source far from Earth, challenging the accepted notion that meteors were atmospheric phenomena.

Denison Olmsted (Portrait by Reuben Son of Moulthrop. Smithsonian Libraries.)

Among the stunned spectators was the esteemed Yale mathematician, astronomer, and “natural philosopher” Denison Olmsted. (He couldn’t yet be called a “scientist” — the word was coined a year later for the polymathic Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville.) Like most of his colleagues, Olmsted had largely ignored meteors as uninteresting minor curiosities, irrelevant to astronomy and better left to meteorology. Now, he was seized with the sense that they might have cosmic origins and might therefore hold clues to the celestial mechanics of the universe. But he knew his personal observations that night hardly constituted data.

The following morning, two years after the polymathic astronomer John Herschel — the era’s most venerated patron saint of science — made his pioneering case for citizen science, Olmsted drafted a letter and sent it to the local newspaper in New Haven, appealing to ordinary people to help him “collect all the facts attending this phenomenon… with as much precision as possible” by reporting anything they could recall about the time, orientation, and speed of the shooting stars they had witnessed. The announcement was quickly reprinted in newspapers across the country and responses began pouring in.

Art from Thomas Wright’s revolutionary 1750 book An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.)

Drawing on these observations, Olmsted was able to ascertain that the spectacle in Earth’s sky had cosmic rather than atmospheric origins and to locate its point of emergence — poetically known as radiant — in the constellation Leo. And so the Leonid showers ushered in the dawn of meteor science as a field of astronomy rather than meteorology.

But even with the origin point located, the cause of meteor showers remained a mystery. It took another generation to discover that fiery pageants like the Perseids and the Leonids are the debris of passing comets. Today, the Leonids are known to be the flotsam of Comet Tempel-Tuttle, visible from Earth every 33 years. It was independently discovered in 1865–1866, on its next passage after the 1833 triumph of citizen science, by the astronomers Wilhelm Tempel and Horace Parnell Tuttle — the same Tuttle who two years earlier had co-discovered the cometic originator of the Perseids, so named because in 1835, the Belgian astronomer and statistician Adolphe Quetelet — founder of Brussels Observatory and creator of the Body Mass Index scale — had located the radiant of the annual summer meteor showers in the constellation Perseus.

Art by Sophie Blackall from If You Come to Earth.

That fateful July of 1862, when newspaper reports of the strange celestial apparition that became Comet Swift-Tuttle interrupted for a moment the stream of death-tolls from the battlefields of the American Civil War, a young comet-hunter in another revolution-torn country elsewhere on the globe was also following the bright light advancing across the common sky — the Italian astronomer and historian of science Giovanni Schiaparelli, born the year the Perseids got their name.

Within a few years of obsessive scholarship, Schiaparelli arrived at a startling hypothesis: meteor showers might be the tails of passing comets. With astrophotography newly born and the instruments of science advancing rapidly in a Golden Age of telescopic astronomy, his hypothesis was proven correct, conferring upon comets a new aura of interest for science.

Art from Kometenbuch [The Comet Book], 1587. (Available as a print.)

As more and more came to be understood about these icy boomerangs from the outer reaches of the Solar System, the enormous and proximate Comet Swift-Tuttle — which comes closer to the Earth-Moon system than any other: a mere 130,000 kilometers at its perihelion, less than twenty times the distance between Europe and America — took on an ominous air, looming larger and larger in the popular imagination as a potential destroyer of Earth, invoking the same instincts that had prompted our Medieval ancestors to view comets as demonic omens before the birth of the scientific method and astronomy as we know it.

A calculation in the 1990s suggested that the comet’s passage on August 14, 2126 could result in a collision with Earth. By the end of the decade, Comet Swift-Tuttle was deemed “the single most dangerous object known to humanity,” given the damage it would inflict in case of actual collision — an impact many times more powerful than that of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, with a trillion times the energy of the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

Our Sun and Moon in proportion to their diameters, alongside two comets, from Thomas Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.)

But the threat turned out to reveal more about the workings of the human mind than about the workings of the universe, more reflective of our instinct to fear what we don’t fully understand than of a scientific reality. The 1990s were the dawn of a new Golden Age of science — one driven by digital computation and rapidly advancing data technologies.

Calculations of Comet Swift-Tuttle’s orbital period and tilt have been continually refined since its discovery in 1862, as scientists have peered backward in time with the telescope of scholarship to identify sightings and positions as early 69 BC, and have telescoped forward in spacetime with computational astrophysics to predict when and how close to Earth it will come in the future. We (“we,” if our species survives its plurality) can expect a close encounter with Comet Swift-Tuttle when it returns to the inner Solar System in the year 3044 — “close” being a relative proximity on the cosmic scale and a distant one million miles in the absolute.

Should these calculations too prove to be incorrect — for science is always improving and, as Richard Feynman astutely observed, “it is impossible to find an answer which someday will not be found to be wrong” — and should the comet one day shatter our lonely planet after all, it will have given us millennia of wonder and transcendence, slaking the human soul with its summer spectacle of otherworldly beauty.

The Leonid meteor showers of 1833. Art by Edmund Weiss from Bilder Atlas der Sternenwelt [Image Atlas of the Star World], 1888. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.)

Thoreau on Nature and Human Nature, the Tonic of Wildness, and the Value of the Unexplored

“At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable.”

“We call it ‘Nature’; only reluctantly admitting ourselves to be ‘Nature’ too,” Denise Levertov wrote in her revelation of a poem “Sojourns in the Parallel World” a generation after history’s most poetic piece of legislature termed that parallel world “wilderness” and defined it as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man* himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Those of us who visit wild places the way others visit churches and concert halls visit because we return transfigured, recomposed, exalted and humbled at the same time, enlarged and dissolved in something larger at the same time. We visit because there we undergo some essential self-composition in the poetry of existence, though its essence rarely lends itself to words.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young. (Available as a print.)

That ineffable essence is what Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) — who saw nature as a form of prayer — articulated with uncommon lucidity and splendor of sentiment in the final pages of Walden (public library | public domain), the record of the radical experiment in living he undertook a week before he turned twenty-eight.

He writes:

We need the tonic of wildness, — to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.

Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach — one of Japanese artist Hasui Kawase’s vintage woodblock prints. (Available as a print.)

A century before Rachel Carson observed that because “our origins are of the earth… there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Thoreau adds:

We can never have enough of Nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.

We can never have enough of Nature because Nature is not something to have — it is something we are. Epochs after Thoreau, when we wade into the wilderness with our bodies and our minds, with a walking stick or a poem, we witness more than our limits transgressed. We witness our boundaries dissolved, in turn dissolving that most limited and damaging foundational falsehood upon which the whole of the consumerist-extractionist complex is built: that the rest of the living world is a parallel world, a place to visit and mine for experiences and resources with which to adorn and enrich our separate human world.

Praise Song for Dawn by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

It is naïve and impracticable to insist that course-correcting our presently catastrophic trajectory of nature-destruction — that is, of self-destruction — requires reverting to the rugged naturalistic self-reliance that even Thoreau himself could not sustain beyond his short-lived experiment at Walden Pond, a life without consumption or companionship. Whatever it does require must begin with the elemental recognition that these are not separate worlds existing in parallel, that there is no “environment” surrounding the centrality of the human animal in nature, that there is nothing that can be bad for nature yet good for us — an elemental fact rendered achingly countercultural every time I walk into my local grocery store and see the organic produce, the good-for-us stuff, plastic-wrapped over styrofoam trays that will take tens of thousands of years to decompose in the landfill, leeching unfathomable toxicity in the process. It is a small act of resistance to contact store management with an appeal for change — small but not negligible, and certainly not naïve. As Thoreau himself put it in the conclusion of Walden:

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

Complement with Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’s lyrical illustrated rewilding of our relationship to nature, ornithologist and wildlife ecologist J. Drew Lanham on the spirituality of science, and poet Diane Ackerman’s lovely notion of the “Earth ecstatic,” then revisit Thoreau on the true value of a tree, the long cycles of social change, and how to use civil disobedience as an instrument of change.


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