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Reading for Life: Polish Poet Aleksander Wat on How Books Helped Him Survive in a Soviet Prison

“I had a great desire to live because I found Nietzsche’s amor fati in every trifle in every book, even the pessimistic ones. The more pessimistic the book, the more pulsating energy, life energy, I felt beneath its surface — as if all of literature were only the praise of life’s beauty, of all of life…”

Reading for Life: Polish Poet Aleksander Wat on How Books Helped Him Survive in a Soviet Prison

“There are times when dreams sustain us more than facts. To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive,” 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin wrote as she recounted in her lovely letter to children how books saved lives in the Warsaw Ghetto of her Nazi-occupied homeland.

Around the same time, a prominent compatriot of hers attested with his own life to this elemental, salvatory power of literature.

In 1939, to escape the Nazi invasion of Warsaw, the Polish poet, memoirist, and futurism pioneer Aleksander Wat (May 1, 1900–July 19, 1967) fled to the city of Lviv, then under Soviet occupation. Because poets and artists are always the first to be targeted by totalitarian regimes — “Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify,” Iris Murdoch observed in her superb meditation on literature as resistance to tyranny — Wat was soon arrested and thrown into a series of increasingly menacing detention facilities, eventually ending up at the infamous Lubyanka prison near Moscow. What kept him alive there, amid the unbearable privations, the bleak prospects of release, and the harsh physical and psychic abuse of the Soviet “investigators,” was literature — an experience he recounted in his posthumously published memoir, My Century (public library).

Aleksander Wat

With a poet’s precision of sentiment and vividness of image, Wat writes:

The pendulum of prison time swings between agony and nothingness, but in Lubyanka time has other laws and moves in a different way. But books brought us back to life, immersed us in the life of free people in the great and free world. We took fictional reality naïvely, like children listening to fairy tales. Could that have been the reason they gave us books in that laboratory of prison existence, where every detail had been thought out, quite possibly even by Stalin himself? Perhaps the experience of two such antithetical realities is supposed to induce a schizophrenic dissociation in a prisoner, rendering him defenseless against the investigation.

He recounts the paradoxical nature of reading in the alternate reality of prison — an experience of literature that stood as a mirror image of that experience in the real world, the world of freedom and possibility:

I had a great desire to live because I found Nietzsche’s amor fati in every trifle in every book, even the pessimistic ones. The more pessimistic the book, the more pulsating energy, life energy, I felt beneath its surface — as if all of literature were only the praise of life’s beauty, of all of life, as if nature’s many charms were insufficient to dissuade us from suicide, from Ecclesiastes, and from Seneca’s “better not to have been born at all but, if born, better to die at once.” I came across books that I had read before prison and that had sapped me of my will. For example, Notes from the Underground. But there in my cell even those books sang hosannas.

Art by Ofra Amit from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

And yet something even more paradoxical was taking place in the mindscape of the imprisoned — reading, for them, had a strange double-edged quality. Wat reflects on this strangeness, which he observed not only in himself but also in his cellmates:

Books stimulated a keen desire for life, life of any sort, at any cost, to live and move with the Rastignacs, Rostovs, and even the heroes of Notes from the Underground, an insatiable desire to live in freedom, even if that were the miserable freedom of the camps. I encountered many prisoners who had been pulled out of the camps for a review of their trials; despite their having no faith in being released and despite the great wretchedness of camp life, they would still grow nostalgic about being able to move freely about the camp, about the chance to work and be in contact with large numbers of people. A second and opposite effect of reading was that it disordered a prisoner’s mental structure by causing him to experience two entirely different realities simultaneously: the world of books — free, full of movement, light, change, colorful, Heraclitean — and the world where time stood still, lost all sensation in captivity, and faded into a dirty gray. The sum total of both opposed effects worked to the investigator’s advantage because it disturbed the victim’s entire soul.

But reading had the opposite effect on me. It marshaled my intellectual and spiritual resources and made me stronger. It truly was like touching the earth for Antaeus. No doubt that was because what I primarily filtered out from books, any sort of book, was the poetry they contained, and it was only in prison that I became aware of a certain banal truth, one that I had often doubted, namely, that I am a poet.

My Century is a stirring read in its totality — part invaluable document of a dark hour in human history that must not be forgotten and erased, part lyrical map to the inner world of an artist of uncommon intellectual and creative vitality. Complement this particular fragment with poet Mary Oliver on how books saved her life from a very different form of violence, Neil Gaiman on what books do for the human spirit, and a lovely animated oral history of how libraries save lives.

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Moon: A Peek-Through Picture-Book About the Most Beloved Fixture of the Night Sky

A sweet illustrated serenade to our eternal nocturnal companion and how it unites creaturely lives of great difference under its soft light.

Moon: A Peek-Through Picture-Book About the Most Beloved Fixture of the Night Sky

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.

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Lost Radio Talks from the Harvard Observatory: Cecilia Payne, Who Discovered the Chemical Fingerprint of the Universe, on the Science of Stars and the Muse of All Great Scientists

“A common chemistry and a common physics run through the universe.”

Lost Radio Talks from the Harvard Observatory: Cecilia Payne, Who Discovered the Chemical Fingerprint of the Universe, on the Science of Stars and the Muse of All Great Scientists

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.

Cecilia Payne, Harvard College Observatory

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.

Part of the Milky Way, from a study made between 1874 and 1876
One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s stunning 19th-century astronomical drawings, based on his observations at the Harvard College Observatory.

Echoing pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell’s lovely incantation — “Mingle the starlight with your lives and you won’t be fretted by trifles,” Mitchell had told her Vassar students, who paved the way for women at the Harvard College Observatory — Payne reflects:

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.

Etching by artist Vija Celmins from her project The Stars.

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.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s embroidery of supernova remnant Cas A. Read the story behind the project here.

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.
Like Danae
I saw him in a stream of glowing stars;
Like Alkmena
Long, long I lay in his terrible embrace.
Their sons go striding round the firmament;
My children gambol at their heels.

Couple with Cecilia Payne’s advice to the young, then revisit other highlights from The Universe in Verse: Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by the Canadian astronomer, poet, and tragic genius Rebecca Elson, astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to the world’s first professional female astronomer, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her homage to Stephen Hawking, U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie.

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Moral Wisdom in the Age of Artificial Intelligence: Cybernetics Pioneer Norbert Wiener’s Prophetic Admonition About Technology and Ethics

“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.”

Moral Wisdom in the Age of Artificial Intelligence: Cybernetics Pioneer Norbert Wiener’s Prophetic Admonition About Technology and Ethics

“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.

Norbert Wiener

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.

Complement with Nick Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence in the age of artificial intelligence — the most insightful and sensitive contemporary perspective on the paradoxes of AI I’ve encountered — then revisit the prescient, foundational questions of science and ethics Mary Shelley raised in Frankenstein more than a century before Wiener.

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