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Trailblazing 19th-Century Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Social Change and the Life of the Mind

“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.”

Trailblazing 19th-Century Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Social Change and the Life of the Mind

“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.

Portrait of Maria Mitchell (Maria Mitchell Museum, photograph by Maria Popova)

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…

Maria Mitchell
Maria Mitchell

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.

Maria Mitchell’s first telescope, with which she had made her famous comet discovery, still on display at her humble Quaker childhood home on Nantucket. (Maria Mitchell Museum, photograph by Maria Popova)

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.

Maria Mitchell (top row, third from left) with the first astronomy class at Vassar, 1866
Maria Mitchell (top row, third from left) with the first astronomy class at Vassar, 1866

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.

For more excerpts from Figuring, see Elizabeth Peabody on middle age and the art of self-renewal, environmental pioneer Rachel Carson’s timeless advice to the next generations, Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters, and the story of how the forgotten sculptor Harriet Hosmer paved the way for women artists, then revisit Maria Mitchell on knowing what to do with your life and how friendship transforms us.

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Relationship Happiness and Your DNA: How One Gene Encodes Emotional Sensitivity

Inside the nuanced science of serotonin and the underappreciated upside of being a sensitive creature.

“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:

Complement with Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage, Virginia Woolf on what makes love last, and Rainer Maria Rilke on freedom, togetherness, and the key to a good relationship, then revisit these revelatory findings about relationships and happiness from Harvard’s landmark 75-year study of human flourishing.

HT Aeon

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Meditations on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp: Polish Painter Józef Czapski on Literature, Survival, and the Human Soul

“The slow and painful transformation of a passionate and narrowly egotistical being into a man who gives himself over wholly to some great work or other that devours him, destroys him, lives in his blood, is a trial every creative being must endure.”

Meditations on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp: Polish Painter Józef Czapski on Literature, Survival, and the Human Soul

“The end of a book’s wisdom appears to us as merely the start of our own,” Marcel Proust wrote as he considered why we read. “There is some Proust in me, and through Proust, bit by bit, I become aware of my own possibilities,” the great Polish painter Józef Czapski (April 3, 1896–January 12, 1993) reflected in his journal a generation later while interned as a prisoner of war in a Soviet labor camp alongside four thousand of his fellow Polish officers. Only seventy-nine of them would survive. The rest, alongside eleven thousand more Polish prisoners from other camps, would vanish without a trace somewhere in Siberia.

Survival was, of course, largely a matter of luck. But those who lived also owed their survival to the courageous, desperate, ennobling choice to nurture the resilience of their inner lives with intellectual and creative work that offered an escape, however temporary, from the anguishing depression and a restoration of their human dignity. While their compatriot Helen Fagin, who would survive the Holocaust and live past 100, was using literature to help young women endure in a Nazi ghetto in Warsaw, Czapski and his comrades, crammed into a dilapidated former convent previously occupied by Finnish prisoners with bunks infested by bedbugs, organized a series of literary and historical lectures to keep their minds and spirits alive.

Józef Czapski, Self-Portrait with Books, 1973 (Józef Czapski estate)

When the authorities discovered the gatherings and deemed them antirevolutionary, some of the speakers were immediately deported, or worse. But the lectures continued in secret — a testament to the memorable words of Rebecca West, who asserted while traveling through the same region at the same time that “if during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe.”

Czapski himself delivered several unscripted, soaring, intricately interwoven meditations on literature and creativity through the lens of Proust — whose novel In Search of Lost Time he had first devoured thirteen years earlier while recovering from typhoid fever and heartbreak — later published as Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp (public library). Addressing the forty or so fellow prisoners who came to listen to him at twilight in their soaked shoes after a hard day’s labor in the camp, where temperatures often dropped to negative forty-five, Czapski worked entirely from memory and illustrated his lectures with colorful diagrams densely populated by linkages between concepts as varied as love, solitude, the motives of composition, the forms of joy and suffering, and Bergson’s philosophy of time — a vibrant embodiment of what Oliver Sacks called the “buzzing, blooming chaos” of creative genius at work.

Diagram by Józef Czapski from Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp. Top: original in Polish; bottom: redrawn translation in English.

Czapski, who lived to nearly a hundred, reflects on the salvational value of these intellectual excursions away from the brutality of camp life and the suffocating weight of survivor’s guilt:

The joy of participating in an intellectual undertaking that gave us proof that we were still capable of thinking and reacting to matters of the mind — things then bearing no connection to our present reality — cast a rose-colored light on those hours spent in the former convent’s dining hall, that strangest of schoolrooms, where a world we had feared lost to us forever was revived. It was incomprehensible to us why we alone, four hundred officers and soldiers, were saved out of fifteen thousand comrades who disappeared without a trace somewhere beyond the Arctic Circle, within the confines of Siberia. From those gloomy depths, the hours spent with memories of Proust, Delacroix, Degas seemed to me among the happiest of hours.

He wrests from Proust’s example a model of literature’s most humanistic offering:

Proust shone a penetrating light into the most secret recesses of the human soul that the majority of humanity would prefer to ignore.

[…]

Revising Anna Karenina, Tolstoy rewrote a long passage in order to hide his own opinion from the reader. But in Resurrection, the grand novel of his old age, we meet didacticism all too clearly, the author voicing certain key ideas so often that it produced the opposite effect, putting readers off, and so even Tolstoy, by lowering the artistic standard of his work, weakens rather than strengthens the radiance of his ideas.

Proust is the complete opposite. In his work we come across an absolute absence of bias, a willingness to know and to understand as many opposing states of the human soul as possible, a capacity for discovering in the lowest sort of man such nobility as to appear sublime, and in the seemingly purest of beings, the basest instincts. His work acts on us like life, filtered and illuminated by a consciousness whose soundness is infinitely greater than our own.

Diagram by Józef Czapski from Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp. Top: original in Polish; bottom: redrawn translation in English.

Reflecting on his entry into Proust’s work through the gateway of his own heartbreak and the resonance he found in the novel’s central theme of the heart’s incompleteness, Czapski writes:

Every great book is profoundly tied in one way or another to the very matter of the life of its author. But this link is even more pronounced and perhaps more integral to the work of Proust. The very theme of [In Search of Lost Time] is Proust’s life, transposed; the principal character writes in the first person, and page after page reads like a barely concealed confession.

[…]

The ensuing heartbreak produces the same result — a feeling of unreality, and the awareness that the pleasures of life and a final understanding of it exist in the act of creation, the sole true life and true reality.

From the particularity of Proust’s novel, Czapski draws out the universal human journey — the savage, fraught, transcendent process of self-refinement:

The slow and painful transformation of a passionate and narrowly egotistical being into a man who gives himself over wholly to some great work or other that devours him, destroys him, lives in his blood, is a trial every creative being must endure.

Diagram by Józef Czapski from Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp. Top: original in Polish; bottom: redrawn translation in English.

With an eye to “the extreme sense of responsibility Proust brought to each of his sentences” — immense, interminable sentences stretching past and beyond the page, saturated with a richness of language that revolutionized the era’s conventions of concision, fractalized into myriad references, allusions, and parenthetical revelations — Czapski considers the importance of this diffuse structure, both of form and of thought, to creativity itself:

Only by pushing a form to its furthest limits can one possibly manage to begin to convey the essence of a writer.

[…]

A scientist, on the verge of a discovery, can succeed only by giving his search the full attention of all his faculties, he is in no condition to think of anything else. In the same way, for the writer, it is not this or that idea he expounds by which we ought to measure the contribution that he has given to his country, but rather by the limits he pushes against in the realization of his form. Even among the greatest writers, single-mindedness weakens the effect of a work and can be a disservice, not only from an artistic point of view, but also in consideration of the very ideas that the writer had wanted to serve.

Complement Czapski’s short and splendid Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp with his compatriot Aleksander Wat on how books helped him survive in a Soviet prison, then revisit Iris Murdoch on literature as a force of resistance to tyranny and Toni Morrison on the writer’s singular service to humanity.

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What If: An Illustrated Celebration of the Utopian Imagination and the Will to Change the World

To be or not to be, bravely answered through the lens of could be.

What If: An Illustrated Celebration of the Utopian Imagination and the Will to Change the World

“The present is not a potential past; it is the moment of choice and action,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote. At bottom, choice and action always begin with “what if” — the mightiest spring for the utopian imagination, the fulcrum by which every revolution rolls into being. What if this world were freer, more beautiful, more just? “We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in weighing the transformative power of the speculative imagination. “We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.”

That chance to imagine a better world is what French author Thierry Lenain and artist Olivier Tallec invite in What If… (public library), translated by Enchanted Lion founder Claudia Bedrick — a lovely celebration of our civilizational responsibility, in the beautiful words of the cellist Pablo Casals, “to make this world worthy of its children” and a testament to James Baldwin’s sobering insistence that “we made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.”

Although we don’t yet know it, the story begins with an unborn child imagining himself into being as he imagines a better version of the world to be born into. Where he sees war, he imagines turning the soldiers’ guns into bird perches and shepherd’s flutes. Where he sees drought and famine, he imagines pulling rainclouds over the desert like enormous kites.

He places his child-body between the “gorging, ordering, shouting, and decreeing” orange-haired politician on the TV screen and the people mesmerized before it. He sits on the ocean shore and imagines it clean of human-inflicted pollution, buoying colorful fish.

He falls asleep on a mossy patch in the forest, listening to the wisdom of the trees. He sees heartache and tears, and imagines them salved by love.

“We have to hug,” he decided, “and not be afraid of kisses. What if we start saying ‘I love you,’ even if we’ve never heard it before?”

And looking out into this world, so imperfect yet so improvable, the child decides, in the final spread of the book, to be born.

The simple yet profound narrative and Tallec’s soulful, tender illustrations make What If… the young imagination’s counterpart to Albert Camus’s famous assertion that “judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” Complement it with James Baldwin on the building blocks of a juster future, then revisit other poetic and profound treasures from artist and writers around the world, brought to English-speaking children ages 1 to 100 by the imaginative Enchanted Lion Books: Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Big Wolf & Little Wolf, The Lion and the Bird, Bertolt, and This Is a Poem That Heals Fish, also illustrated by Tallec.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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