A sweet illustrated serenade to our eternal nocturnal companion and how it unites creaturely lives of great difference under its soft light.
By Maria Popova
Night after night at my telescope, I marvel with undiminished awe at what Margaret Fuller reverenced as “that best fact, the Moon.” How is it that our abiding nocturnal companion, which has stood sentinel and silent witness to the rise and fall of civilizations, to innumerable heartbreaks and triumphs, never loses its luminous mesmerism? It has inspired sonnets and love songs and religious reveries — an enchanted loom onto which humanity has woven entire mythologies and cosmogonies. Nothing else quite beckons us to transcend the smallness of our lives, zoom out of our fleeting sorrows, and take solace in the telescopic perspective more powerfully than the Moon. “There is a soft moonlight that can give us the peace that passes understanding,” Aldous Huxley wrote in his meditation on the Moon, considering its myriad enchantments. “There is a moonlight that inspires a kind of awe. There is a cold and austere moonlight that tells the soul of its loneliness and desperate isolation, its insignificance or its uncleanness. There is an amorous moonlight prompting to love — to love not only for an individual but sometimes even for the whole universe.”
That timeless bond between our home planet and its satellite, between moonlight and the human heart, comes alive with uncommon loveliness in Moon: A Peek-Through Picture Book (public library) by German artist and author Britta Teckentrup.
A singsong narrative carries the reader across gentle rhymes and gorgeously illustrated vignettes, depicting the Moon’s role in the lives of various creatures. As its phases swell from crescent to full, we see it illuminate the nocturnal foraging of the field mouse, congregate the puffins under the northern lights, govern the tides of the mighty ocean, steer the sea turtles to lay their eggs, and stand vigil over our homes as we dream our human dreams.
As birds fly south to warmer climes,
They seem to sense the perfect time.
Shining strongly through the night,
The moon will always guide their flight.
What emerges is a tender serenade to this most beloved fixture of the night sky, both springboard for the human imagination and anchor to the deepest cosmic realities, uniting lives of tremendous difference under its soft, generous glow.
The ocean sparkles, bluey-green,
Lit up by a magical scene.
Waves roll gently to and fro.
The moon commands their ebb and flow.
Couple Teckentrup’s lovely Moon with her 17th-century compatriot Maria Clara Eimmart’s stunning astronomical drawings of the moon phases, then revisit Sun and Moon — a picture-book about celestial myths from Indian folklore, illustrated by ten of India’s greatest indigenous artists.
“A common chemistry and a common physics run through the universe.”
By Maria Popova
In his stirring poem “The More Loving One,” W.H. Auden asked: “How should we like it were stars to burn / With a passion for us we could not return?” It is a perennial question — how to live with our human fragility of feeling in a dispassionate universe. But our passions, along with everything we feel and everything we are, do belong to the stars, in the most elemental sense. “We’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself,” Carl Sagan proclaimed in his iconic series Cosmos — a scientific statement so poetic and profound that it has enchanted more imaginations and infected more lay people with cosmic curiosity than any other sentiment in the history of science. It is also a statement Sagan could not have made without the foundational work of the English-American astronomer and astrophysicist Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (May 10, 1900–December 7, 1979).
In 1925, in her 215-page Harvard doctoral thesis that made her the first person to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy at Radcliffe-Harvard, Payne discovered the chemical composition of stars — the “stuff” the cosmos is made of, which was, much to scientists’ surprise, the selfsame “stuff” of which we too are made. It was a shock and a revelation — a landmark leap in our understanding of the universe and of ourselves.
In early November 1925, the Harvard College Observatory broadcast the first episode of a series of radio talks about astronomy. Every Tuesday and Thursday for the next eleven weeks, Harvard astronomers would take to the airwaves of Boston’s Edison Electric Illuminating Company, WEEI, and deliver short, surprisingly poetic lectures on everything from comets, shooting stars, and eclipses to the evolution of stars and the search for life beyond Earth. Nothing like this had ever been done before — it was the world’s first public broadcast series of popular science and its printed record, published the following year as The Universe of Stars: Radio Talks from the Harvard College Observatory (public library), became the world’s first book of radio transcripts.
In mid-December 1925, having just completed her revolutionary doctoral thesis, the 25-year-old Payne delivered the fourteenth lecture in the series, titled “The Stuff Stars are Made of.”
Five years before the discovery of Pluto and mere months after Edwin Hubble had refuted Harvard College Observatory director Harlow Shapley’s longtime insistence that our home galaxy was the full extent of the cosmos by identifying stars that must belong to another galaxy, Andromeda — a radical revision of previous ideas about the nature and size of the universe — Payne takes her listeners on a journey into our cosmic neighborhood and beyond, into the unfathomed cosmic unknown:
We are going tonight far out beyond the bounds of the solar system, for this talk relates especially to the universe of stars… This solar system of ours is large enough, measured by earthly standards, since the distance across the orbit of Neptune, the farthest known planet, is some six thousand million miles. Even light, which travels at the furious speed of eleven million miles a minute, takes about eight hours to cross that space. But let us go out into the moonless night. Overhead we shall see thousands of twinkling points of light that we call the stars. Although light takes a third of a day to cross the solar system, the light that reaches us from the Milky Way may have been travelling five thousand years.
When we direct our thoughts to the stellar universe, the solar system is dwarfed out of recognition. We only notice it because we happen to be living in it. Until we begin to think in terms of the system of stars, we are liable to overrate the size and comprehensiveness of the system of the planets.
Writing in an era when there was only rudimentary awareness of the existence of stellar nuclei and nuclear reactions, she considers the mystery of our ancient nocturnal companions:
When we look at the twinkling light of the stars, we need all our powers of imagination to visualize what they really are. Every one of those points of light is actually a huge mass, often far larger than the Sun. Every one shines because it is hot — so hot that it glows by its own light. And every one of them is pouring out light and heat into space in enormous quantities. Many bright stars pour out hundreds of millions of tons of light every second.
When you look at the night sky, you are looking at an almost inconceivably great quantity of matter; and therefore when I talk about the stuff the stars are made of I am telling you what we know of the Chemistry of the Universe.
Payne examines the essence of the question itself: When we ask what things are “made of” in the world around us, we answer by pointing to their material — clay and rocks and water and wood — and then further analyze each material into different kinds of atoms. But because it is impossible to physically fetch atoms directly from a star the way one might fetch a fistful of clay from the ground, scientists can only analyze another aspect of the stellar “stuff”: light. Three centuries after Newton first used the word spectrum — Latin for “appearance” — to describe the beautiful band of rainbow produced when sunlight disperses onto a glass prism, giving rise to the science of spectrography, Payne explains the study of stellar light:
[Stars] are all pouring out light into space and we can catch that light as it strikes the Earth, and analyze it. In a fundamental sense, that light was once as much a part of the stars as clay is a part of the Earth. Light is a form of energy, and it is the energy of a star that makes it shine, and keeps it going, and enables it to survive. A star literally lives on its light.
Analyzing that light makes it possible to discern what stars are made of, because matter in the gaseous state emanates light of specific wavelengths, with each atom occupying a different set of wavelengths and thus appearing at a different spot along the color spectrum when its light passes through a prism. This method, Payne notes, revealed that stars are made of the selfsame elements found all around us, even though conditions on those stars are dramatically different from those on Earth, with temperatures reaching tens of thousands of degrees centigrade. After a necessary detour to physics, explaining how the structure of the atom factors into this commonality of matter, Payne concludes with the kernel of the poetic and profound sentiment Sagan would popularize more than half a century later:
In the spectrum of the Sun, we can pick out all the two thousand colors that are given out by an atom of iron; they are exactly the same as the colors that would be given out by a piece of iron, heated in the electric arc in the laboratory. A common chemistry and a common physics run through the universe.
The story that I have told you is one that has wide implications. Not only does it confirm us in our belief that a common physics and chemistry underlie the universe, but it suggests a basis for the study of the fundamental problem of the stability of matter. [This] implies that all stars have the same composition… that the relative amount of the different elements are in some way fixed, and have some fundamental significance in the universe.
This was a revolutionary idea that would lead to entirely new theories about the evolution of the universe. Payne herself would devote the remainder of her life to illuminating these mysteries, becoming the first woman to chair a Harvard department. But such honors meant little to her — she stood with Maria Mitchell, who famously asserted that honors “are small things in the light of stars.” Six decades after her doctoral thesis, Payne ended her autobiography with a short poem of her own, celebrating the scientific muse that governed her trailblazing career — a beautiful articulation of the universal motive force that impels all great scientists to do what they do.
At the third annual Universe in Verse, astrophysicist Natalie Batalha — project scientist on NASA’s Kepler mission, responsible for discovering more than 4,000 exoplanets: whole new worlds unimaginable in Payne’s time, when the very notion of another galaxy was a shock — returned to read Payne’s poem, with a lovely prefatory mediation reaching across space and time to connect Payne to Sagan to her own work and the largest questions human beings bring to and ask of the universe:
RESEARCH by Cecilia Payne
O Universe, O Lover,
I gave myself to thee
Not for gold
Not for glory
But for love.
Our children are immortal,
I am the Mother.
The offspring of our love
Will bear the image of a humble mother
And also a proud imperious Father.
I saw him in a stream of glowing stars;
Long, long I lay in his terrible embrace.
Their sons go striding round the firmament;
My children gambol at their heels.
“The world of the future will be an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves.”
By Maria Popova
“Intelligence supposes goodwill,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote in the middle of the twentieth century. In the decades since, as we have entered a new era of technology risen from our minds yet not always consonant with our values, this question of goodwill has faded dangerously from the set of considerations around artificial intelligence and the alarming cult of increasingly advanced algorithms, shiny with technical triumph but dull with moral insensibility.
In De Beauvoir’s day, long before the birth of the Internet and the golden age of algorithms, the visionary mathematician, philosopher, and cybernetics pioneer Norbert Wiener (November 26, 1894–March 18, 1964) addressed these questions with astounding prescience in his 1954 book The Human Use of Human Beings, the ideas in which influenced the digital pioneers who shaped our present technological reality and have recently been rediscovered by a new generation of thinkers eager to reinstate the neglected moral dimension into the conversation about artificial intelligence and the future of technology.
A decade after The Human Use of Human Beings, Wiener expanded upon these ideas in a series of lectures at Yale and a philosophy seminar at Royaumont Abbey near Paris, which he reworked into the short, prophetic book God & Golem, Inc. (public library). Published by MIT Press in the final year of his life, it won him the posthumous National Book Award in the newly established category of Science, Philosophy, and Religion the following year.
With an eye to a future in which artificial intelligences begin making human intellectual and moral decisions — a notion lightyears ahead of its time in 1964 — Wiener writes:
It is relatively easy to promote good and to fight evil and good and evil are arranged against each other in two clear lines, and when those on the other side are our unquestioned enemies and those on our side our trusted allies. What, however, if we must ask, each time and in every situation, where is the friend and where is the enemy? What, moreover, when we have to put the decision in the hands of an inexorable magic or an inexorable machine of which we must ask the right questions in advance, without fully understanding the operations of the process by which they will be answered?
To ask the right questions, Wiener implies, requires not only a literacy in the language of the asking, both technological and ethical, but also an understanding of the myriad nuances that shade such considerations — subtleties challenging enough for human judgment in many situations and just about impossible to encode in a set of operative rules to be applied indiscriminately across a variety of contexts by pre-programmed machines. Half a century later, as variations on the Trolley problem cast these questions into sharp relief in considering the technology behind everything from self-driving cars to elder care AIs, Wiener’s words reverberate with wisdom both disquieting and consolatory. In a passage of sobering lucidity, which today’s overconfident makers of technologically potent yet morally impoverished algorithms would be well advised to heed, Wiener echoes Rachel Carson’s advice to the next generations and writes:
The future offers very little hope for those who expect that our new mechanical slaves will offer us a world in which we may rest from thinking. Help us they may, but at the cost of supreme demands upon our honesty and our intelligence. The world of the future will be an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves.
A countercultural serenade to the wellspring of the creative spirit against the tidal forces of commerce and criticism.
By Maria Popova
“Does what goes on inside show on the outside?” the 26-year-old Van Gogh wrote to his brother in his stirring letter about the struggle for artistic purpose and recognition. “Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.” It is a hollowing feeling every artist experiences at one point or another, this dispiriting mismatch between the ferocity of one’s inner fire and the cold, blind eye of the outside world.
In the same era, another artist of towering genius and paltry recognition articulated this sentiment, as well as its heartening antidote, in a letter to the love of his life.
Robert Browning (May 7, 1812–December 12, 1889) met and fell in love with Elizabeth Barrett in the land of verse. “I love these books with all my heart — and I love you too,” he wrote to the stranger who had enchanted him with her 1844 poetry collection. He was an obscure poet six years her junior and this was the beginning of a most improbable courtship, recounted in Figuring, that would soon become one of the grandest, most beautiful true love stories in the common record.
“You and I seem to meet in a mild contrarious harmony,” Elizabeth wrote to Robert in their early epistolary romance, collected in the almost unbearably beautiful Love Letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning (public library | free ebook). What harmonized their differences and contradictions was literature — the shared passion for it, the intellectual and creative bond around it, the mutual admiration of each other’s artistic gift, particularly transformative for Robert: Elizabeth’s confidence in his talent buoyed him when criticism and indifference sank his spirit as he struggled for recognition.
In a letter penned at the dawn of their courtship, Elizabeth probes his orientation to criticism and creative purpose:
I do not know, I cannot guess, whether you are liable to be pained deeply by hard criticism and cold neglect, such as original writers like yourself are too often exposed to — or whether the love of Art is enough for you, and the exercise of Art the filling joy of your life.
Aware of her own creative courage and defiance of convention, the 33-year-old Robert responds:
You inquire about my “sensitiveness to criticism”… I write from a thorough conviction that it is the duty of me, and with the belief that, after every drawback and shortcoming, I do my best, all things considered — that is for me, and, so being, the not being listened to by one human creature would, I hope, in nowise affect me.
These scenes and song-scraps are such mere and very escapes of my inner power, which lives in me like the light in those crazy Mediterranean phares I have watched at sea, wherein the light is ever revolving in a dark gallery, bright and alive, and only after a weary interval leaps out, for a moment, from the one narrow chink, and then goes on with the blind wall between it and you; and, no doubt, then, precisely, does the poor drudge that carries the cresset set himself most busily to trim the wick — for don’t think I want to say I have not worked hard — (this head of mine knows better) — but the work has been inside, and not when at stated times I held up my light to you — and, that there is no self-delusion here, I would prove to you (and nobody else), even by opening this desk I write on, and showing what stuff, in the way of wood, I could make a great bonfire with, if I might only knock the whole clumsy top off my tower! Of course, every writing body says the same, so I gain nothing by the avowal; but when I remember how I have done what was published, and half done what may never be, I say with some right, you can know but little of me.
That such a poet [as Tennyson] should submit blindly to the suggestions of his critics… is much as if Babbage were to take my opinion and undo his calculating machine by it.
Emboldened by her insistence on authenticity over approval, Robert concurs:
Tennyson reads the Quarterly and does as they bid him, with the most solemn face in the world — out goes this, in goes that, all is changed and ranged. Oh me!
Robert Browning would go on to become one of the most beloved and influential poets our civilization has produced, much thanks to Elizabeth’s encouragement. Although today he is the better known of the two Brownings — a common selective erasure reflective of history’s worship of the Y chromosome — he spent most of his career in her shadow, always ungrudgingly, always in admiration. As Elizabeth rose to celebrity, Robert’s pride in her work was so great that he sublimated his own ego, readily recounting a period during which he could get publishers interested in his own work only if he also sent them something of his wife’s. A decade into their love, he published Men and Women — a two-volume collection of his poems, for which both Brownings had high hopes. It fell on unenchanted ears, dismissed by critics and ignored by the public. Several months later, Aurora Leigh — her epic novel in blank verse, a sensation best described today as viral — stationed Elizabeth atop a new stratum of celebrity. Robert was jubilant. “I am surprised, I own, at the amount of success,” a disbelieving Elizabeth wrote to her sister-in-law. “Golden-hearted Robert is in ecstasies about it — far more than if it all related to a book of his own.” Perhaps she was thinking of Robert’s obscurity and the public’s painful indifference to his books when she had her protagonist proclaim:
We get no good
By being ungenerous, even to a book
And calculating profits — so much help
By so much rending. It is rather when
We gloriously forget ourselves, and plunge
Soul-forward, headlong, into a book’s profound,
Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth —
’Tis then we get the right good from a book.