“Marriage is rarely bliss / But, surely it would be worse / As particles to pelt / At thousands of miles per sec / About a universe / Wherein a lover’s kiss / Would either not be felt / Or break the loved one’s neck.”
By Maria Popova
“How should we like it were stars to burn with a passion for us we could not return?” asked W.H. Auden (February 21, 1907–September 29, 1973) in “The More Loving One” — one of the greatest, most largehearted poems ever written. The son of a physicist, Auden wove science throughout much of his poetry — sometimes playfully, sometimes poignantly, always as a finely polished lens on the deepest moral and humanistic questions with which we live and for which we die. At the heart of his scientific poetics was the understanding that the eternal tension between knowledge and the unknown, enveloped in our ambivalent longings, is what makes us human.
Nowhere do these tessellated ideas and sensibilities come together more vibrantly than in his 1961 poem “After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics,” found in his indispensable Collected Poems (public library) and brought to life by musician Josh Groban at the third annual Universe in Verse.
Following theoretical cosmologist and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander’s ardent case for the interbelonging of art and science, and reading to the background of an Auden portrait painted by astrophysicist, novelist, and poetry enchantress Janna Levin, Groban prefaced his reading of Auden with a remarkable personal story about his own great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather — a 17th-century German rebel astronomer and theologian, who allowed his scientific understanding of the cosmos to expand his spiritual life rather than contracting it with fear and dogma as the era’s church did — the same era in which Kepler’s revolutionary astronomy thrust his mother into a witchcraft trial.
AFTER READING A CHILD’S GUIDE TO MODERN PHYSICS by W.H. Auden
If all a top physicist knows
About the Truth be true,
Then, for all the so-and-so’s,
Futility and grime,
Our common world contains,
We have a better time
Than the Greater Nebulae do,
Or the atoms in our brains.
Marriage is rarely bliss
But, surely it would be worse
As particles to pelt
At thousands of miles per sec
About a universe
Wherein a lover’s kiss
Would either not be felt
Or break the loved one’s neck.
Though the face at which I stare
While shaving it be cruel
For, year after year, it repels
An ageing suitor, it has,
Thank God, sufficient mass
To be altogether there,
Not an indeterminate gruel
Which is partly somewhere else.
Our eyes prefer to suppose
That a habitable place
Has a geocentric view,
That architects enclose
A quiet Euclidian space:
Exploded myths — but who
Could feel at home astraddle
An ever expanding saddle?
This passion of our kind
For the process of finding out
Is a fact one can hardly doubt,
But I would rejoice in it more
If I knew more clearly what
We wanted the knowledge for,
Felt certain still that the mind
Is free to know or not.
It has chosen once, it seems,
And whether our concern
For magnitude’s extremes
Really become a creature
Who comes in a median size,
Or politicizing Nature
Be altogether wise,
Is something we shall learn.
“Have I not said that womanhood involves all? Have I not told how the universe has nothing better than the best womanhood?”
By Maria Popova
“I can conceive of no better service,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) wrote in contemplating the mightiest force of resistance in times far more troubled than ours, “than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.” To Whitman, who declared himself “the poet of the woman the same as the man,” the gravest weakness of democracy was the artificial, culturally manufactured inequality of the genders, which he recognized not only as a corruption of democracy but as a corruption of nature. Equality for him, be it of the genders or the races, was never a matter of politics — that plaything of the human animal — but a matter of naturalness. Because he saw how thickly interleaved our individual dignities are, how interdependent our flourishing — saw that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” — he took it upon himself, a century and a half before his society did, to save democracy from politics, standing up for the rightful balance of dignity and power. Anne Gilchrist — the unheralded genius whom Whitman admired as “a sort of human miracle” belonging “to the times yet to come” — spoke for the epochs when she asked: “Who but he could put at last the right meaning into that word ‘democracy,’ which has been made to bear such a burthen of incongruous notions?”
Whitman threw himself at righting — naturalizing — the gender imbalance of democracy not despite his maleness but precisely because of it. At the heart of his devotion to equality was an astute insight into the paradox of power: the understanding that no socially and politically marginalized group — not even a biological majority — moves to the center solely by its own efforts; it takes a gravitational pull by those kindred to the cause who are already in relative positions of power or privilege. It was a countercultural understanding in his time, and remains a countercultural understanding in ours, its negation ahistorical: Citizens helped us immigrants obtain legal rights and protections; white women like astronomer Maria Mitchell and literary titan Margaret Fuller were on the ideological front-lines of abolition, some even on the literal front-lines of the Civil War.
Long before the term feminism wove itself into the modern lexicon, America’s most celebrated poet (though perhaps the second-greatest) became an outspoken feminist. In his 1888 poem “America” — a reading of which is the only surviving recording of his voice — Whitman eulogized his homeland as a “centre of equal daughters, equal sons.” He added this poem to his continually revised and expanded Leaves of Grass in the final years of his life, but coursing through it was the pulse-beat of a longtime conviction: As a young man, Whitman was greatly influenced by Margaret Fuller — one of the central figures Figuring — whose epoch-making book Woman in the Nineteenth Century catalyzed American women’s emancipation movement. Clippings of Fuller’s columns for the New-York Tribune, where she became the first female editor of a major American newspaper and America’s first foreign war correspondent, were found among Whitman’s papers after his death.
Insisting that no democratic society could exist in which women are not afforded the same rights as men, he wrote:
I have sometimes thought… that the sole avenue and means of a reconstructed sociology depended, primarily, on a new birth, elevation, expansion, invigoration of woman… Great, great, indeed, far greater than they know, is the sphere of women.
Of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn — they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account.
A century before Adrienne Rich argued for literature as a force of women’s empowerment and a form of resistance to male capitalist society, Whitman called for the creation of a new American literature that would be as much an original art form as a tool of social change. Among “the most precious of its results,” Whitman envisioned, would be “achieving the entire redemption of woman… and thus insuring to the States a strong and sweet Female Race.” Art, he resolutely believed, was the ultimate catalyst for social transformation and betterment:
The literature, songs, esthetics, &c., of a country are of importance principally because they furnish the materials and suggestions of personality for the women and men of that country, and enforce them in a thousand effective ways.
Whitman’s first serious biographer, the great nature writer John Burroughs, notes in his exquisitely beautiful and loving portrait of the poet, Whitman: A Study (public library | free ebook), that Whitman always heralded woman as man’s equal and never his plaything, property, or unpaid domestic servant, always as capable of embodying the qualities Whitman most celebrated in human nature. Burroughs wrote:
I sometimes meet women whom I say are of the Whitman type — the kind of woman he invoked and predicted… They are cheerful, tolerant, friendly, think no evil, meet high and low on equal terms; they walk, row, climb mountains; they reach forth into the actual world of questions and events, open-minded, sympathetic, frank, natural, good-natured… in short, the large, fresh, wholesome open-air natures whose ideal so completely possessed Walt Whitman.
Burroughs placed the equality of men and women as the crowning achievement of a more Whitmanesque society — the more democratic society of the future:
The more democratic we become, the more we are prepared for Whitman; the more tolerant, fraternal, sympathetic we become, the more we are ready for Whitman; the more we inure ourselves to the open air and to real things, the more we value and understand our own bodies, the more the woman becomes the mate and equal of the man, the more social equality prevails, — the sooner will come to Whitman fullness and fruition.
Whitman himself had written in Leaves of Grass:
The race is never separated — nor man nor woman
All is inextricable — things, spirits, nature, nations,
you too — from precedents you come.
The creation is womanhood;
Have I not said that womanhood involves all?
Have I not told how the universe has nothing better
than the best womanhood?
Ravishing otherworldly wonders of the cosmos beneath the surface, from the first expedition to prove that life exists in the depths.
By Maria Popova
“While stroking an octopus, it is easy to fall into reverie,” naturalist Sy Montgomery wrote in her breathtaking inquiry into how Earth’s most alien creature illuminates the wonders of consciousness. “To share such a moment of deep tranquility with another being, especially one as different from us as the octopus, is a humbling privilege… an uplink to universal consciousness.”
A century before her, and decades before the great marine biologist, conservation pioneer, and poetic science writer Rachel Carson invited the popular imagination undersea for the first time through the valve of science — the fathoming that gave rise to the environmental movement — the German marine biologist Carl Chun (October 1, 1852–April 11, 1914) led a pioneering deep-sea expedition that upended, with the most spectacular findings, the long-held belief that life could not exist below 300 fathoms.
In the summer of 1898, Chun and his team embarked on what became known as the Valdivia expedition, plunging below 500 fathoms — depths the British-led Challenger expedition, which had laid the foundation of oceanography sixteen years earlier, had failed to reach — and emerging eight months later with marvels beyond the wildest human imaginings and the most daring scientific speculations, creatures too strange and otherworldly even for Jules Verne’s fantastical worlds: cosmoses of bioluminescent fish, swimmers navigating the inky blackness of the depths with senses other than sight, fleshy pulsating supernovae of crimson, gilled and frilled and tentacled wonders that seemed to belong to the “other spheres” Whitman imagined when he contemplated “the world below the brine.”
Chun spent the remainder of his life bringing the world’s awed attention to the unfathomed wonderland he had discovered, in twenty-four rigorously detailed volumes, some featuring arresting, almost erotic illustrations by the artist Friedrich Wilhelm Winter — none more arresting than those found in the 1910 treasure Cephalopod Atlas, a surviving copy of which has been digitized by the wonderful Biodiversity Library.
Among Winter’s stunning, sensual illustrations — which I have restored and made available as prints, benefiting Greenpeace and their inspired endeavor to protect the increasingly human-savaged habitats of these living wonders — is one of a creature Chun was the first to describe: a small, black cephalopod with branchial hearts and a light gonad that appears to shine just above its stomach. He named it Vampyroteuthis infernalis, “vampire squid from hell.”
“These matters are in the hands of a blind fate whose decrees it is perhaps well that we cannot foresee.”
By Maria Popova
In her stunning “Hymn to Time,” Ursula K. Le Guin observed how death and chance course through “space and the radiance of each bright galaxy,” through our “eyes beholding radiance” — death and chance meaning death and life, for each of us is a wonder of improbability made by an immense Rube Goldberg machine of chance: If the Big Bang had churned out just a little more antimatter than matter, if the ratio of hydrogen and helium in the baby universe had been only a little bit different, if our Pale Blue Dot had snapped into orbit just a little bit closer to or farther from our life-warming home star, if the ratio of mutual attraction had been just a little bit different when your parents crossed orbits, if they had put on a different record and cross-pollinated gene pools on a different night, you would not exist. As the physicist Brian Greene put it in his poetic inquiry into what gives meaning to our ephemeral lives in an impartial universe, “by the grace of random chance, funneled through nature’s laws, we are here.”
Most of us, if at all aware of the glorious accident we experience as our own existence, are only dimly aware of it and only as an abstraction. Not so for the great physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson (December 15, 1923–February 28, 2020) — one of the vastest scientific minds of the past century, and one of the most humanistic.
When Dyson’s father — the English composer George Dyson — was a young music teacher, his closest friend — a lanky classicist who taught at the same school — was drafted into the British army during WWI and sent to fight in Paris. One day, this exceedingly tall young man stuck his head to look out from the trench. A German sniper killed him instantly. His sister, with whom he’d been incredibly close, was grief-stricken. So was his best friend. The grief brought the two together. A year after his death, they were married. When they had their first child, they named him for the slain hero: Freeman. Freeman Dyson lived out his entire life — a life of nearly a century, a life that lived through humanity’s darkest hour and through some of our most dazzling triumphs: the discovery of the double helix, the Moon landing, the birth of the Internet, the detection of gravitational waves, the signing of the Paris Agreement — never losing sight of the double-edged sword of chance that had made his own life possible by his uncle’s death. It informed his entire personal cosmogony, as a scientist and a humanist. Viewed in this light, this light of ultimate lucidity, all of our conflicts and combats — international or interpersonal — appear not only unnatural but anti-natural, foolish squanderings of the brief and improbable life that chance has dealt us, vandalized verses from the sacred poetry that is the book of nature.
Upon receiving the heart-sinking news of Freeman Dyson’s death, I expressed my condolences to his son — the science historian and splendid writer George Dyson, named for his grandfather. He responded with the above photograph from the family archives — a charming embodiment of the playfulness and free-spirited good nature that endowed Freeman Dyson’s brilliant mind with such coruscating creativity. When I remarked that something so utterly delightful — both the captured moment and the whole existence of the man — should be the product of chance in the shape of a bullet, he sent me a letter, found in an abandoned family trunk and shared here with his kind permission, which his grandfather had written to another friend fighting in the trenches of France, also a classicist — one who would, unlike the slain Freeman Atkey, survive to become an eminent Dante scholar.
In the hindsight of history, both Dyson’s personal history and our cultural history, the letter staggers the imagination with its account of the unimaginable and its subtle hope for a different future governed by different human choices — a stirring reminder that choice is the necessary reality-shaping counterpart to chance.
99th Infantry Brigade
I got what purports to be your address a little while ago and I am sending this scribble there in the hope that it will find you, and find you well and flourishing, “as it leaves me at present.” When next we meet there will be no end to the tales I have to tell you. Even in my palmiest days I was never so fluent as I shall be if and when I come back. I am now something of a specialist in trench warfare, having written the only booklet on grenade fighting which the war office has as yet permitted to see daylight. I run the grenadiers of my brigade and I am at present learning a fair stretch of front from that point of view. I am billeted with two or three other officers in what is left of a little cottage about 3/4 mile behind a fairly hot corner of this country. We are continually under shell fire in this sense, that the friendly Hun shells the immediate neighborhood every day. Just at this moment he has unfortunately caught a squad of men in the road outside with appalling results. Our own guns are blazing away like mad, so that you can’t hear yourself think. There are six aeroplanes up above and the German is making little white puffs of shrapnel all around them. The trenches are simply vile in this weather. Between knee-deep and thigh deep in mud, in addition to the havoc wrought by the Bosch. I was in a fairly heavy bombardment of them two days ago. Everybody retires to dugouts, and even down there, 20 feet below ground sometimes, the shock blows the candles out. Your old friend Dante had a very amateur conception of Hell. I could improve on it vastly.
Still we are, by some providence, alive, and hope to remain so. These matters are in the hands of a blind fate whose decrees it is perhaps well that we cannot foresee. [Freeman] Atkey is, as you doubtless know, out here somewhere, but I have not come across him yet. He is well according to the latest news and not unhappy. The rest of our merry Marlborough “push” are scattered goodness knows where. I wonder if we shall ever have that Reunion dinner that we sometimes talk about.
I hear pretty regularly from “Thornhanger” and gather that a school is no place to be in in these days. Let me know what you and yours are doing. I saw and enjoyed the big London Zeppelin raid, but it’s child’s play to this! — Odd that I should have written that last sentence. It is now a half-hour later. Just where the dash is came a six-incher 10 yards to our left which finished the remaining windows and sent us to the cellar. A second one 10 yards to our right has fallen in an old barn, killed a horse and badly wounded three men. Enough for today. We must eat a humble tea and go on hoping for the best. Good luck to you,
Freeman Dyson began the preface to the wondrous collection of his own letters — the epistolary autobiography Maker of Patterns (public library) — with a sentiment of striking complementarity to his grandfather’s wartime lament:
In March 2017, when this book was almost finished, my wife received a message from our twelve-year-old granddaughter: “We are all metaphors in this dark and lonely world.” Our daughter added her own comment, “The sentiment is tempered by the fact that she has a pink Afro.” The pink Afro displays a proud and joyful spirit, masking the melancholy thoughts of a teenager confronting an uncertain future. Our granddaughter is now emerging into a world strikingly similar to the world of 1936 into which I came as a twelve-year-old. Both our worlds were struggling with gross economic inequality, stubbornly persistent poverty, brutal dictators on the rise, and small wars presaging worse horrors to come. I too was a metaphor for a new generation of young people without illusions. Her declaration of independence is a pink Afro. Mine was a passionate pursuit of mathematics.
Recounting how he fell under the spell of mathematics and physics through the work of the great English mathematician G.H. Hardy and quantum physics pioneer Paul Dirac, whose lectures plunged the young Dyson into “the strange new world of quantum physics, where strict causality is abandoned and atomic events occur by chance,” he adds:
The idea that chance governs nature was then still open to question. In the world of human affairs, Lev Tolstoy asked the same question, whether free choice prevails. While Dirac proclaimed free choice in the world of physics, Tolstoy denied it in the world of history. The idea that Dirac called causality, Tolstoy called Providence. At the end of his War and Peace, he wrote a long philosophical discussion, explaining why human free will is an illusion and Providence is the driving force of history. When I was a student in Cambridge, the same Providence that had destroyed Napoleon’s army in Russia in 1812 was destroying Hitler’s army in Russia in 1943. I was reading Tolstoy and Dirac at the same time.
If Dyson’s physics danced with chance, his humanism always landed on the side of conscious and conscientious choice. Three decades after a human finger trembling with the toxic thrill of nationalism fired the odd bullet to which Dyson owes his life, three years after humanity had savaged itself with another World War, and shortly after his “flash of illumination on the Greyhound bus,” the 25-year-old physicist attended a sermon by the renowned theologian Reinhold Niebuhr at Princeton’s university chapel. In a letter to his family, he summed up the sentiments that had resonated with his own convictions:
Just as the individual man can save his soul only by ceasing to worry about himself and immersing his actions in some larger ends, so also we shall stand a better chance of saving our civilisation if we do not worry too much over the imminent destruction of the little bit of it to which we happen to belong.
Dyson would later recount his father’s fighting strategy during the war — the supreme, most humanistic possible response to inhumanity, for we best survive by making art when life unmakes us:
My father… understood that the best way to show our contempt for Hitler was to continue making music… as if Hitler did not exist. My father said to the students in London in 1940, “All we have to do is to behave halfway decently, and the whole world will come to our side.” That was his way of fighting Hitler.