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Science, Religion, and the Big Bang: An Animated Clarifier

From the non-beginning to the singularity, by way of belief-muddling misnomers and beneficial ignorance.

The friction between science and religion stretches back millennia and has been addressed by some of humanity’s greatest minds. Galileo paid a high price for his dissenting opinions. Richard Feynman channeled his views in an ode to the universe, while Albert Einstein articulated his beautifully in a letter to a little girl who wanted to know whether scientists pray. Carl Sagan found reverence of science and Bucky Fuller revised The Lord’s Prayer with science. Richard Dawkins countered mythology with the magic of reality and Isaac Asimov found humanism in the spirituality of science. Ray Bradbury exorcised the tension in his sublime unpublished poems.

Now, the fine folks of MinutePhysics — who have previously explored whether the universe has a purpose, why the color pink doesn’t exist, how science education is stuck in the 19th century, why the past is different from the future, why it’s dark at night, and the true science of parallel universes — trace the origin of this friction all the way back to the Big Bang, whose very name, it turns out, is so terribly misleading that it might be to blame for much of our cultural ambivalence.

Experimental evidence doesn’t actually rule out the possibility that there may indeed be a time before the beginning — a previous age of the universe that ended when space collapsed in on itself … so physics might actually be nudging us back to the view that the universe is eternal and didn’t “begin” after all.

Complement with why there is something rather than nothing, then revisit Sagan’s timeless meditation on science and spirituality.

BP

Anaïs Nin on Self-Publishing, the Magic of Letterpress, and the Joy of Handcraft

“You pit your faculties against concrete problems. The victories are concrete, definable, touchable.”

Celebrated diarist Anaïs Nin has previously given us some keen insights on life, mass movements, Paris vs. New York, and what makes a great city. Besides artist and author, Nin was also a publishing entrepreneur. In January 1942, she sets up her own small press in a loft on Macdougal Street, and soon set out to print and self-publish a new edition of her third book, Winter of Artifice, teaching herself typesetting and doing most of the manual work herself.

From The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 (public library) comes this beautiful passage on the joy of handcraft, written in January of 1942 — a particularly timely meditation in the age of today’s thriving letterpress generation and the Maker Movement. (Especially interesting is the parallel to what developer Ellen Ullman articulates in describing the mesmerism of programming software.)

Anaïs Nin operating her handpress in Macdougal Street studio

The relationship to handcraft is a beautiful one. You are related bodily to a solid block of metal letters, to the weight of the trays, to the adroitness of spacing, to the tempo and temper of the machine. You acquire some of the weight and solidity of the metal, the strength and power of the machine. Each triumph is a conquest by the body, fingers, muscles. You live with your hands, in acts of physical deftness.

You pit your faculties against concrete problems. The victories are concrete, definable, touchable. A page of perfect printing. You can touch the page you wrote. We exult in what we master and discover. Instead of using one’s energy in a void, against frustrations, in anger against publishers, I use it on the press, type, paper, a source of energy. Solving problems, technical, mechanical problems. Which can be solved.

If I pay no attention, then I do not lock the tray properly, and when I start printing the whole tray of letters falls into the machine. The words which first appeared in my head, out of the air, take body. Each letter has a weight. I can weigh each word again, to see if it is the right one.

I use soap boxes as shelves, to hold tools, paper, inks. I arrive loaded with old rags for the press, old towels for the hands, coffee, sugar.

[…]

The press mobilized our energies, and is a delight. At the end of the day you can see your work, weigh it. It is done. It exists.

Nin then offers a wonderfully vivid vignette, in which her partner in the venture, Gonzalo, engages in a wild wrestling match with the press — a near-primal struggle we’ve all experienced in the face of an unruly letterpress or even a plain old office printer jam:

Once there was something wrong with the press. It did not work. Gonzalo would not send for the workman, or the repairman. He literally battled with the press, as if it were a bronco, a bull, an animal to be tamed. His hair flew around his face, perspiration fell from his forehead, his centaur feet were kicking the pedals. The machine groaned.

It seemed almost like a physical battle which he intended to win by force. He towered over it. He seemed bigger than the machine. I never saw anything more primitive, more like a battle between an ancient race and a new type of monster. Both as stubborn, both strong, both violent. Gonzalo won. He was breathing heavily. The wheel suddenly began to spin again. He looked absolutely triumphant.

Ultimately, the practical handiwork is for Nin a disciplining agent for the creative process of the conceptual. In a diary entry from April of the same year, she writes:

Take the letter O out of the box, place it next to the T, then a comma, then a space, and so on.

Count page 1, 2, 3, and so on. Select the good ones while Gonzalo runs the machine. Day after day. We are nearing the end. I have difficulties with the separation of words. And it is a problem in setting type.

(My separation of the word lo-ve became years later the favorite of the faultfinders!)

The writing is often improved by the fact that I live so many hours with a page that I am able to scrutinize it, to question the essential words. In writing, my only discipline has been to cut out the unessential. Typesetting is like film cutting. The discipline of typesetting and printing is good for the writer.

Nin recounts the hard-earned triumph of her handcrafted masterpiece:

The book was finished May fifth. Gonzalo and I printed the cover. The bookbinder was objecting to the nonstandard measurements. The machines were set for standard measurements. We finally found a bookbinder willing to bind three hundred books of an odd size. It was delivered all bound May fifteenth. The Gotham Book Mart gave a party for it. The book created a sensation by its beauty. The typography by Gonzalo, the engravings by Ian Hugo were unique. The bookshop was crowded. Otto Fuhrman, teacher of graphic arts at New York University, praised the book. Art galleries asked to carry it. I received orders from collectors, a letter from James Laughlin, offering me a review in New Directions by anyone I chose.

A surviving hard-bound copy of the limited edition of Winter of Artifice, self-published by Anaïs Nin in 1942, with engravings by Ian Hugo.

The book was, indeed, stunning. (The artwork on cover of The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 is also by Ian Hugo, an engraving he created for another one of Nin’s books, Under a Glass Bell.)

BP

Twenty Beloved New York Writers on the Magic of Central Park

“You cannot live without establishing an equilibrium between the inner and outer.”

New York has had its share of love letters, old and new and famous and private.

In Central Park: An Anthology (public library), Andrew Blauner collects twenty paeans to this one particular, and particularly beloved, part of the city by twenty of its most celebrated authors. Adrian Benepe promises in the introduction:

Reading this volume is a little like a walk in the park with some truly excellent companions… .
It underscores the fact that Central Park is not simply a geographic destination, nor just the essential masterpiece of landscape architecture and great creative accomplishments of the nineteenth century. Once you add people and time, it becomes a ever-evolving work of art and performance art. It is central to our thinking, our style, and our magnificence.

And the slim but potent volume lives up to that promise.

In “Through the Children’s Gate,” Adam Gopnik brings a dimensional lens to one of New Yorkers’ most persistent and enduring laments: the city’s inescapable pace of change, with its embedded nostalgia for what once was and never will again be:

Still, croissants and crime are not lifestyle choices, to be taken according to taste; the reduction of fear, as anyone who has spent time in Harlem can attest, is a grace as large as any imaginable. To revise Chesterton slightly: People who refuse to be sentimental about the normal things don’t end up being sentimental about nothing; they end up being sentimental about anything, shedding tears over old muggings and the perfect, glittering shards of the little crack vials, sparkling like diamonds in the gutter. Où sont les neiges d’antan?: Who cares if the snows were all of cocaine? We saw them falling and our hearts were glad.

[…]

It is a strange thing to be the serpent in one’s own garden, the snake in one’s own grass. The suburbanization of New York is a fact, and a worrying one, and everyone has moments of real disappointment and distraction. The Soho where we came of age, with its organic intertwinings of art and food, commerce and cutting edge, is unrecognizable to us now— but then that Soho we knew was unrecognizable to its first émigrés, who by then had moved on to Tribeca. This is only to say that in the larger, inevitable human accounting of New York, there are gains and losses, a zero sum of urbanism: The great gain of civility and peace is offset by a loss of creative kinds of vitality and variety. (There are new horizons of Bohemia in Brooklyn and beyond, of course, but Brooklyn has its bards already, to sing its streets and smoke, as they will and do. My heart lies with the old island of small homes and big buildings, the sounds coming from one resonating against the sounding board of the other.)

But those losses are inevitably specific. There is always a new New York coming into being as the old one disappears. And that city— or cities; there are a lot of different ones on the same map— has its peculiar pleasures and absurdities as keen as any other’s. The one I awakened to, and into— partly by intellectual affinity, and much more by the ringing of an alarm clock every morning at seven— was the civilization of childhood in New York. The phrase is owed to Iona Opie, the great scholar of children’s games and rhymes, whom I got to interview once. “Childhood is a civilization with its own rules and rituals,” she told me, charmingly but flatly, long before I had children of my own. “Children never refer to each other as children. They call themselves, rightly, people, and tell you what it is that people like them— their people— believe and do.” The Children’s Gate exists; you really can go through it.

May pole in the park, May 1912 (Library of Congress)

In “Framed in Silver,” Mark Helprin reflects on the park through the dusty photographs of his own childhood:

My father and I are in Central Park, on the path that leads from the playground at Ninety-third Street toward the Reservoir. I am about two. It is not long after the war, still the first half of the twentieth century. I know nothing of what has passed. You can see in his face that as someone who was born as the century turned, my father knows perhaps too much. I know nothing of what is to come. Having lived through the great wars and the small, he does. We are walking together, he in a double-breasted great coat, I in an absurd snowsuit. He has a Liberty of London scarf, and his hair is still as black as it was in the desert. I come up to his midthigh, a hood surrounds my face, and on top of it, and my head, is a pompom.

We have passed the playground that was the setting of my first dream, in which I flew from one outcropping of granite to another. Unknowing of the nature of dreams, when I awoke I believed that I had actually flown. I’m holding my father’s hand, or, rather, he is holding mine, which disappears quite easily in his. Confident of his absolute protection, I think that as long as I am tethered and close, nothing can ever hurt me. He knows better.

Although I dreamed that I could fly, I would not have dreamed that someday I would look back upon the invisible paths made by those whom I love and who are gone, that the picture in which I am walking in Central Park with my father would darken over time, like a clock about to mark the inevitable moment in which I will rejoin him. And then, perhaps as now I am aware of the invisible paths made by others, still others might feel, like the breeze you cannot see, the invisible paths made by me.

Portrait of Doris Day and Kitty Kallen, Central Park, April 1947 (Library of Congress)

In “The Colossus of New York,” Colson Whitehead paints a mosaic portrait of the archetypes you’re promised to encounter in the park — the hipsters, the socialite ladies, the entitled parents, the photographers, the lovers. And, of course, the runners:

SO MANY PEOPLE running. Is something chasing them. Yes, something different is chasing each of them and gaining slowly. She feels fit and trim. People remove layers one by one the deeper they get into the park. The sweaters keep falling from their waists no matter how they tie them. The matching strides of the jogging pair give no indication that after she tells her secret he will stop and bend and put his palms to his knees. Like some of the trees here, some of today’s miseries are evergreen. Others merely deciduous. This is his tenth attempt to join the jogging culture. This latest outfit will do the trick. Pant and heave. How much farther. Reservoir of what. Small devices keep track of ingrown miles. Unfold these laps from their tight circuit to make marathons. It’s his best time yet, never to be repeated. If he had known, he would have saved it for after a hard day at the office or a marital argument. Instead all he has is sweat stains to commemorate. One convert says, I’m going to come here every day from now on. It’s so refreshing.

In “Some Music in the Park,” Francine Prose traces the history of the park as a stage for music and politics:

There was nothing neutral about Nina Simone’s performance. She sang “Strange Fruit,” which is about the bodies of lynching victims hanging from trees in the South. She sang “Four Women,” which is about the oppression— slavery, rape, prostitution— of African American women. She sang “Mississippi Goddam,” a song inspired by the murder of Medgar Evers and the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four little girls. Every time she said Goddam, she spit the word at the audience. I had never seen a performer, let alone a woman, let alone a black woman, be that angry on stage. She was telling us that, to paraphrase a saying popular in those days, we were not part of the solution; we were part of the problem.

Kids coasting in the park, ca. 1910-1915 (Library of Congress)

In “The Sixth Borough,” Jonathan Safran Foer (he of Tree of Codes fame) weaves a whimsical alternative mythology, in which a sixth borough mysteriously floats away from the island of Manhattan, but a piece of it is transplanted — literally, lifted off with giant hooks and pulled by the people of New York into its new place — to become what we know as Central Park:

Children were allowed to lie down on the park as it was being moved. This was considered a concession, although no one knew why a concession was necessary, or why it was to children that this concession must be made. The biggest fireworks show in history lighted the skies of New York City that night, and the Philharmonic played its heart out. The children of New York lay on their backs, body to body, filling every inch of the park as if it had been designed for them and that moment. The fireworks sprinkled down, dissolving in the air just before they reached the ground, and the children were pulled, one inch and one second at a time, into Manhattan and adulthood. By the time the park found its current resting place, every single one of the children had fallen asleep, and the park was a mosaic of their dreams. Some hollered out, some smiled unconsciously, some were perfectly still.

Was there really a Sixth Borough?

There’s no irrefutable evidence. There’s nothing that could convince someone who doesn’t want to be convinced.

Foer does what he does best, grounding the escapist whimsy back into a brilliantly human reality:

[I]t’s hard for anyone, even the most cynical of cynics, to spend more than a few minutes in Central Park without feeling that he or she is experiencing some tense in addition to just the present. Maybe it’s our own nostalgia for what’s past, or our own hopes for what’s to come. Or maybe it’s the residue of the dreams from that night the park was moved, when all of the children of New York City exercised their subconsciouses at once. Maybe we miss what they had lost, and yearn for what they wanted.

Toy yachts in the pond, 1910 (Library of Congress)

In “Fogg in the Park,” Paul Auster juxtaposes the unspoken behavioral governance of the city with the parallel universe of the park:

To walk among the crowd means never going faster than anyone else, never lagging behind your neighbor, never doing anything to disrupt the flow of human traffic. If you play by the rules of this game, people will tend to ignore you. There is a particular glaze that comes over the eyes of New Yorkers when they walk through the streets, a natural and perhaps necessary form of indifference to others. It doesn’t matter how you look, for example. Outrageous costumes, bizarre hairdos, T-shirts with obscene slogans printed across them— no one pays attention to such things. On the other hand, the way you act inside your clothes is of the utmost importance. Odd gestures of any kind are automatically taken as a threat. Talking out loud to yourself, scratching your body, looking someone directly in the eye: these deviations can trigger off hostile and sometimes violent reactions from those around you. You must not stagger or swoon, you must not clutch the walls, you must not sing, for all forms of spontaneous or involuntary behavior are sure to elicit stares, caustic remarks, and even an occasional shove or kick in the shins. I was not so far gone that I received any treatment of that sort, but I saw it happen to others, and I knew that a day might eventually come when I wouldn’t be able to control myself anymore. By contrast, life in Central Park allowed for a much broader range of variables. No one thought twice if you stretched out on the grass and went to sleep in the middle of the day. No one blinked if you sat under a tree and did nothing, if you played your clarinet, if you howled at the top of your lungs. Except for the office workers who lurked around the fringes of the park at lunch hour, the majority of people who came in there acted as if they were on holiday. The same things that would have alarmed them in the streets were dismissed as casual amusements. People smiled at each other and held hands, bent their bodies into unusual shapes, kissed. It was live and let live, and as long as you did not actively interfere with what others were doing, you were free to do what you liked.

What emerges is a meditation on what it means to be oneself:

In the park, I did not have to carry around this burden of self-consciousness. It gave me a threshold, a boundary, a way to distinguish between the inside and the outside. If the streets forced me to see myself as others saw me, the park gave me a chance to return to my inner life, to hold on to myself purely in terms of what was happening inside me. It is possible to survive without a roof over your head, I discovered, but you cannot live without establishing an equilibrium between the inner and outer.

[…]

Perhaps that was all I had set out to prove in the first place: that once you throw your life to the winds, you will discover things you had never known before, things that cannot be learned under any other circumstances.

Auto wreck in Central Park, 1912 (Library of Congress)

Like its subject, Central Park: An Anthology is woven of the kind of magic that summons wildly different multiverses and commands them to fold unto each other with fluidity and grace as a single enchanted world unfolds.

BP

Mathemagician Vi Hart Explains Spirals and Fibonacci Numbers in Doodles and Vegetables

What snuggled-up slug cats have to do with the math of cosmic wonder and simple beginnings.

You may recall mathemagician Vi Hart from her delightful stop-motion explanation of the Victorian novella Flatland on a Möbius strip and her ingenious illustrated unpacking of the science of sound, frequency, and pitch. Her latest doodletastic gem explores the mathematics of spirals and Fibonacci numbers through pine cones, cauliflower, pineapples, artichokes, and daisies.

It seems pretty cosmic and wondrous, but the cool thing about the Fibonacci series and spiral is not that it’s this big, complicated, mystical, magical supermath thing beyond the comprehension of our puny human minds that shows up mysteriously everywhere. We’ll find that these numbers aren’t weird at all — in fact, it would be weird if they weren’t there. The cool thing about it is that these incredibly intricate patterns can result from utterly simple beginnings.”

This is the first installment in Hart’s trilogy on the subject — keep an eye out for the two forthcoming parts.

For more on Fibonacci numbers, meet the man after whom they were named, a young Medieval mathematician who changed the very fabric of our lives — from our calendar to our business to the evolution of technology — when he wrote Liber Abbaci, Latin for Book of Calculation, in 1202. His story is one of the best science books of 2011 — riveting, important, and unmissable.

BP

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