“My poems: a handful of dust trying to get back to supernova. Like every longing, everything alive.”
By Maria Popova
“It’s so much more a thing of pliancy, persuasion,” the astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson wrote in her spare, lovely poem celebrating the genius of Einstein’s theory of relativity — genius at the heart of which was his bold and, at the time, countercultural decision to fix the speed of light as an immutable constant around which all the other variables converged to construct his groundbreaking model of spacetime, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe.
The speed of light and the vibrating mesh of our understanding and misunderstanding of the nature of reality come alive with uncommon originality of thought and feeling in the title poem from Marilyn Nelson’s 2012 poetry collection Faster Than Light (public library), which she read at the third annual Universe in Verse. It is a long poem, a beautiful and poignant poem, a soaring, meandering meditation on the nature of reality, the purpose of our existence, the way in which our impermanence both frustrates and fuels our creative drive. Enjoy:
My poems: a handful of dust
trying to get back to supernova.
Like every longing, everything alive.
How lovely, too, that Nelson’s altogether magnificent Faster Than Light opens with the perfect tryptic of epigraphs, straddling two and a half millennia of culture at the boundaries of science, philosophy, art, and activism:
“There is a taint on any contact between two people which does not affirm as an axiom the personal inviolability of both.”
By Maria Popova
“We hear and apprehend only what we already half know,” Thoreau wrote as he contemplated with uncommon lucidity what it takes to apprehend reality unblinded by our preconceptions. Every once in a rare and rapturous while, the curtain of our preconceptions lifts and we are able to see, as Virginia Woolf did, “behind the cotton wool of daily life” and experience “a revelation of some order” as we apprehend reality as it really is. But such is the paradox of consciousness: Without preconceptions — without having already half-templated and half-mapped the world we are trying to perceive and navigate — we would have to evaluate afresh every smallest object our attention falls upon. We would not see a table but several pieces of wood, a geometry of shapes and surfaces, an arrangement of atoms we would have to process anew each time in order to perceive the object we understand to be a table. Without our preconceptions, we would be so overwhelmed by raw reality as to become paralyzed by our insufficient processing powers.
And so we develop schemata — perceptual shorthands that pre-process what we encounter in order to spare us this impossible cognitive toil. The upside is survivalist; the downside, inescapably, moral: Each thing we preconceive blinds us to what actually is — a tendency that, when it rises to the level of social perception in the form of stereotypes, metastasizes into a status quo that makes the powerful all the more powerful and the power-poor all the poorer. “We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” James Baldwin observed in contemplating freedom and how we imprison ourselves — an observation rooted in the knowledge that both the making and the unmaking of this world, both our traps and our freedom, lie in reconceiving these preconceptions that keep power structures in place.
Drawing on the pioneering psychologist William James’s lovely landmark formulation of a baby’s first perception of the world as “one great blooming, buzzing confusion,” Lippmann writes:
Few facts in consciousness seem to be merely given. Most facts in consciousness seem to be partly made. A report is the joint product of the knower and known, in which the role of the observer is always selective and usually creative. The facts we see depend on where we are placed, and the habits of our eyes.
For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see. In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.
Lippmann considers how we automate the classification of what we encounter into pre-conceived categories of perception:
In untrained observation we pick recognizable signs out of the environment. The signs stand for ideas, and these ideas we fill out with our stock of images. We do not so much see this man and that sunset; rather we notice that the thing is man or sunset, and then see chiefly what our mind is already full of on those subjects.
Those whom we love and admire most are the men and women whose consciousness is peopled thickly with persons rather than with types, who know us rather than the classification into which we might fit. For even without phrasing it to ourselves, we feel intuitively that all classification is in relation to some purpose not necessarily our own; that between two human beings no association has final dignity in which each does not take the other as an end in himself. There is a taint on any contact between two people which does not affirm as an axiom the personal inviolability of both.
The most tainting of our interpersonal relations, Lippmann notes, is that in which we take a single trait of the other and extrapolate from it an entire type, filling in the rest of the picture with the stereotype we already hold of that “person.” We are handed this coloring book of caricatures by our culture, so early in our moral development and so surreptitiously that we grow unwitting of its influence upon our way of being and our regard for others.
The subtlest and most pervasive of all influences are those which create and maintain the repertory of stereotypes. We are told about the world before we see it. We imagine most things before we experience them. And those preconceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception. They mark out certain objects as familiar or strange, emphasizing the difference, so that the slightly familiar is seen as very familiar, and the somewhat strange as sharply alien… Were there no practical uniformities in the environment, there would be no economy and only error in the human habit of accepting foresight for sight. But there are uniformities sufficiently accurate, and the need of economizing attention is so inevitable, that the abandonment of all stereotypes for a wholly innocent approach to experience would impoverish human life.
What matters is the character of the stereotypes, and the gullibility with which we employ them. And these in the end depend upon those inclusive patterns which constitute our philosophy of life. If in that philosophy we assume that the world is codified according to a code which we possess, we are likely to make our reports of what is going on describe a world run by our code. But if our philosophy tells us that each man is only a small part of the world, that his intelligence catches at best only phases and aspects in a coarse net of ideas, then, when we use our stereotypes, we tend to know that they are only stereotypes, to hold them lightly, to modify them gladly. We tend, also, to realize more and more clearly when our ideas started, where they started, how they came to us, why we accepted them. All useful history is antiseptic in this fashion. It enables us to know what fairy tale, what school book, what tradition, what novel, play, picture, phrase, planted one preconception in this mind, another in that mind.
And yet the great tragedy of human society — a tragedy that has played out in devastating ways in the century since Lippmann, from the Holocaust to the twenty-first century’s various corruptions of democracy — is that those in power are reluctant to hold stereotypes lightly and modify them gladly, because stereotypes are how they stake out their place in the world and maintain the world-order that is the source of their power. Lippmann writes:
The systems of stereotypes may be the core of our personal tradition, the defenses of our position in society.
They are an ordered, more or less consistent picture of the world, to which our habits, our tastes, our capacities, our comforts and our hopes have adjusted themselves. They may not be a complete picture of the world, but they are a picture of a possible world to which we are adapted. In that world people and things have their well-known places, and do certain expected things. We feel at home there. We fit in. We are members. We know the way around. There we find the charm of the familiar, the normal, the dependable; its grooves and shapes are where we are accustomed to find them. And though we have abandoned much that might have tempted us before we creased ourselves into that mould, once we are firmly in, it fits as snugly as an old shoe.
No wonder, then, that any disturbance of the stereotypes seems like an attack upon the foundations of the universe. It is an attack upon the foundations of our universe, and, where big things are at stake, we do not readily admit that there is any distinction between our universe and the universe.
These warped maps of the universe — like all maps — limit the landscape of possibility by substituting a dominant worldview for a representative and equitable depiction of reality. They hold power in place and keep the disenfranchised in their place. Lippmann examines their blinding and fracturing effect:
A pattern of stereotypes is not neutral. It is not merely a way of substituting order for the great blooming, buzzing confusion of reality. It is not merely a short cut. It is all these things and something more. It is the guarantee of our self-respect; it is the projection upon the world of our own sense of our own value, our own position and our own rights. The stereotypes are, therefore, highly charged with the feelings that are attached to them. They are the fortress of our tradition, and behind its defenses we can continue to feel ourselves safe in the position we occupy.
The stereotype not only saves time in a busy life and is a defense of our position in society, but tends to preserve us from all the bewildering effect of trying to see the world steadily and see it whole.
Even Aristotle, whose ideas endure as the scaffolding of modern democracy, was afflicted with this gruesome blind spot of social consciousness — he too was unwilling to relinquish his map of the universe, arguing that slaves were enslaved because it was their nature to be slaves and women were subordinate because it was their nature to be subordinated. Lippmann admonishes against this notorious stubbornness of stereotypes:
There is nothing so obdurate to education or to criticism as the stereotype. It stamps itself upon the evidence in the very act of securing the evidence.
This system of preconceptions informs our code of being and our entire interface with the world:
Morality, good taste and good form first standardize and then emphasize certain of these underlying prejudices. As we adjust ourselves to our code, we adjust the facts we see to that code. Rationally, the facts are neutral to all our views of right and wrong. Actually, our canons determine greatly what we shall perceive and how.
At the core of every moral code there is a picture of human nature, a map of the universe, and a version of history. To human nature (of the sort conceived), in a universe (of the kind imagined), after a history (so understood), the rules of the code apply.
And yet there comes a point when the code and the facts diverge, and the facts cannot be ignored. No manufacturing of “alternative facts” is strong enough to blunt the stereotype-severing edge of reality. Pointing to these moments as the crucible of change, Lippmann writes:
There is always such a point, because our images of how things behave are simpler and more fixed than the ebb and flow of affairs. There comes a time, therefore, when the blind spots come from the edge of vision into the center. Then unless there are critics who have the courage to sound an alarm, and leaders capable of understanding the change, and a people tolerant by habit, the stereotype, instead of economizing effort, and focussing energy… may frustrate effort and waste men’s energy by blinding them.
The pattern of stereotypes at the center of our codes largely determines what group of facts we shall see, and in what light we shall see them.
Lippmann considers our responsibility as citizens and social beings who are prone to and, in some deep sense, dependent on these patterns of stereotypes — how we can hold them in a way that aids us and others without encumbering us with the moral downside of this cognitive technology:
Yet a people without prejudices, a people with altogether neutral vision, is so unthinkable in any civilization of which it is useful to think, that no scheme of education could be based upon that ideal. Prejudice can be detected, discounted, and refined, but so long as finite men must compress into a short schooling preparation for dealing with a vast civilization, they must carry pictures of it around with them, and have prejudices. The quality of their thinking and doing will depend on whether those prejudices are friendly, friendly to other people, to other ideas, whether they evoke love of what is felt to be positively good, rather than hatred of what is not contained in their version of the good.
Because these prejudices are part of our cultural mythology, Lippmann reminds us that we ought to treat them the way we treat all myths:
What a myth never contains is the critical power to separate its truths from its errors. For that power comes only by realizing that no human opinion, whatever its supposed origin, is too exalted for the test of evidence, that every opinion is only somebody’s opinion. And if you ask why the test of evidence is preferable to any other, there is no answer unless you are willing to use the test in order to test it.
“Reformers are apt to forget… that the world is not made up entirely of the wicked and the hungry, there are persons hungry for the food of the mind, the wants of which are as imperious as those of the body.”
By Maria Popova
“Everybody should have something to point to,” a mill laborer told Studs Terkel in a beautiful conversation about the dignity of labor. For the vast majority of human history, the vast majority of human labor has been exerted in the direction of alleviating hunger as the basis for the survival of our species — only an unhungry species, after all, can flourish into a civilization. And yet there is a different kind of hunger elemental to the flourishing of a civilization — a hunger of the mind and of the spirit for justice, for peace, for freedom, for the continual reform of society toward expanding the collective landscape of possibility for happiness. At bottom, it is a hunger for knowledge and truth, for without knowing the world as it truly is, we cannot build toward what it could be or should be. The ideal always rests upon and rises from the real, as should rests upon and rises from is.
“We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire,” the trailblazing astronomer and abolitionist Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) wrote as she considered our human search for truth while she was building whole new worlds of possibility for women. Living through the dawning days of liberalism, when social reformers and moralists were fixated on alleviating hunger and eradicating sin while denying more than half the population basic social agency — women and people of color could neither vote, nor own property, nor receive higher education — Mitchell was acutely aware of how intellectual and creative hunger thwarted the growth of the individual and thus the growth of society as a whole.
She addressed this in an exquisite diary entry included in Figuring (which long ago began as a biography of Mitchell and from which this essay is excerpted). Writing in her late thirties, several years after her historic comet discovery made her the first woman admitted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Mitchell reflects on the neglected bedrock of social change:
Reformers are apt to forget, in their reasoning, that the world is not made up entirely of the wicked and the hungry, there are persons hungry for the food of the mind, the wants of which are as imperious as those of the body… Reformers are apt to forget too, that the social chain is indomitable; that link by link it acts together, you cannot lift one man above his fellows, but you lift the race of men. Newton, Shakespeare and Milton did not directly benefit the poor and ignorant but the elevation of the whole race has been through them. They probably found it hard to get publishers, but after several centuries, the publishers have come to them and the readers have come, and the race has been lifted.
A decade earlier, Mitchell had devoured Woman in the Nineteenth Century, which struck her with resonance not only political but personal. In the epoch-making book that ignited women’s bid for equality, Margaret Fuller had envisioned a day when a “female Newton” would be possible. And yet Mitchell doesn’t seem to have fully envisioned how her own life was making that possibility real for generations to come. In the revolutionary Aurora Leigh, which was published months after Mitchell penned this diary entry and would soon become one of her favorite books, Elizabeth Barrett Browning captured how those who ignite the profoundest revolutions are themselves blind to their own spark:
The best men, doing their best,
Know peradventure least of what they do:
Men usefullest i’ the world, are simply used…
One of America’s first scientific celebrities, Mitchell traveled to Europe in her fortieth year, visiting with some of the most prominent artists and scientists of the Old World. Upon returning from the land of Milton and Shakespeare and Browning, she was greeted by an extraordinary gift — a five-inch refractor telescope, on a par with the instruments of the world’s greatest observatories, purchased through what may have been the world’s first crowdfunding campaign for science.
The great education reformer Elizabeth Peabody had envisioned the project and spent years raising the $3,000 for the telescope through a subscription paper, rallying Boston’s women to contribute. Just as Mitchell was departing for her European journey, Emerson — the era’s most esteemed cultural sage — had lent his voice to the fundraising effort in the pages of his popular magazine:
In Europe, Maria Mitchell would command the interest and receive the homage of the learned and polite, while in America so little prestige is attached to genius or learning that she is relatively unknown. This is a great fault in our social aspect, one which excites the animadversion of foreigners at once. “Where are your distinguished women — where your learned men?” they ask, as they are invited into our ostentatiously furnished houses to find a group of giggling girls and boys, or commonplace men and women, who do nothing but dance, or yawn about till supper is announced. We need a reform here, most especially if we would not see American society utterly contemptible.
While touring Europe’s iconic astronomical institutions, Mitchell had been dreaming up an observatory of her own. The crowdfunded telescope came as a wondrous surprise after a particularly difficult stretch for her, marked by the death of her beloved, Ida, and her once-brilliant mother’s terrifying descent into dementia. The instrument became the first physical building block of her dream. Behind the school resembling a Greek temple where her father had once served as founding schoolmaster, she erected a simple eleven-foot dome that rotated on a mechanism made of cannonballs. A month before Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the observatory opened its doors and Mitchell, now the Newton of Nantucket, began welcoming boys and girls.
During her time in Italy the previous year, she had hungered to visit the Observatory of Rome, mecca of the latest research on spectroscopy, but was jarred to learn that the observatory was closed to women. The polymathic mathematician Mary Somerville, for whom the word scientist had been coined a quarter century earlier and who was celebrated as Europe’s most learned woman, had been denied entrance, as had Sir John Herschel’s daughter. Mitchell recorded wryly in her diary:
I was ignorant enough of the ways of papal institutions, and, indeed, of all Italy, to ask if I might visit the Roman Observatory. I remembered that the days of Galileo were days of two centuries since. I did not know that my heretic feet must not enter the sanctuary, — that my woman’s robe must not brush the seats of learning.
She was eventually allowed to enter with special permission from the Pope, obtained after American diplomats pressed on her behalf. An hour and a half before sunset, she was led through the church into the observatory, where she marveled at the expensive instruments the papal government employed in studying the very motions for which they had tried Galileo two centuries earlier. Mitchell had hoped to see nebulae through the observatory’s powerful telescope, but she was informed that her permission did not extend past nightfall and was hastily sent away. She must have resolved, as soon as the back door spat her out into the narrow alley behind Collegio Romano, that when she built her own observatory, it would welcome any and all who hungered to commune with the cosmos.
Inside the nuanced science of serotonin and the underappreciated upside of being a sensitive creature.
By Maria Popova
“An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her stunning meditation on relationships. A happy human relationship, it turns out, is contingent not upon the nature and delivery process of these truths, particularly the difficult truths, but upon the nature of the hearer — upon our emotional orientation and sensitivity, which appears to be encoded in our DNA via a particular gene that regulates serotonin in the brain. So indicates the fascinating research of U.C. Berkeley psychophysiologist and behavioral neuroscientist Robert Levenson.
Known as 5-HTTLPR (serotonin-transporter-linked polymorphic region) and located on chromosome 17 of your DNA, this gene comes in two varieties — one with a short allele and the other with a long allele. Decades of research have revealed a strong positive correlation between the short-allele type and a high precedence of depression, anxiety, and attention disorders, suggesting that people with the short allele respond more negatively to emotional friction within a relationship and seeding the assumption that having this gene is plainly problematic for one’s psychoemotional health. But Levenson’s lab uncovered a much more nuanced and surprisingly optimistic reality — rather than predisposing to more negative emotional responses, the short allele appears to predispose simply to more emotional responses, serving as a kind of psychoemotional magnifying glass that renders all emotions, the lows as well as the highs, more deeply and intensely felt. Levenson explains: