Crowning the canon of branched reflections on what it means to be human is the poem “Being but Men” by Dylan Thomas (October 27, 1914–November 9, 1953).
Written in 1939 — a time when we were all “men,” a time when Thomas was only twenty-five — and posthumously included in the indispensable Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas (public library), it came alive anew at the 2020 Universe in Verse, celebrating fifty years of Earth Day, in a reading by astronomer Natalie Batalha, who spearheaded NASA’s Kepler mission and its search for habitable worlds outside our solar system and who prefaced her reading with a personal reflection as poetic as the poem:
BEING BUT MEN by Dylan Thomas
Being but men, we walked into the trees
Afraid, letting our syllables be soft
For fear of waking the rooks,
For fear of coming
Noiselessly into a world of wings and cries.
If we were children we might climb,
Catch the rooks sleeping, and break no twig,
And, after the soft ascent,
Thrust out our heads above the branches
To wonder at the unfailing stars.
Out of confusion, as the way is,
And the wonder, that man knows,
Out of the chaos would come bliss.
That, then, is loveliness, we said,
Children in wonder watching the stars,
Is the aim and the end.
On the weight of the world and the weight of the sky.
By Maria Popova
Brain Pickings was born on October 23, 2006, as a short email to seven friends. Seven years and several incomprehensible million readers into its existence, I began what has since become an annual tradition — a distillation of the most important things I have learned about living while reading and writing my way through life; private learnings offered in the public commons, in the hope that these thoroughly subjective insights of a single consciousness might be of succor or salve to another. It is the only overtly personal writing I do on Brain Pickings. (Though, of course, the whole of it remains a deeply personal exercise in processing my own life and annealing my own ideas through the lives and ideas I celebrate in writing.) We are, after all, made of the same stuff.
Each year, I have drawn one new learning from that particular season of life. Each year, it has swelled into an existential challenge to prune the vastness, the lushness, the interleaved complexity of experience into a single blade of simple but not simplistic insight into the nature of life, glimpsed from the solitary pinhole of this one life. The challenge has never been more colossal than this past year — the most trying I have lived through, by orders of magnitude. Depression has lowered its leaden cloudscape over me again and again since I was fifteen, but no other year has lidded life more ominously, as the staggering collective grief we are living through together densified the black fog of private loss. In such seasons of life, one is pressed against the limits of one’s being, pressed eventually against the understanding — no, more than understanding and less than understanding: the blind elemental fact — that no matter the outer atmosphere of circumstance, one must lift the inner cloudscape by one’s own efforts, or perish under it.
I chose, by that blind instinct of survivalism we mistake for choice, to lift.
Against this contextual backdrop, here is the central learning drawn from a year so discomposing yet so vital and transformative a verse from the poetry of life. (You can read the previous thirteen here.)
14. Choose joy. Choose it like a child chooses the shoe to put on the right foot, the crayon to paint a sky. Choose it at first consciously, effortfully, pressing against the weight of a world heavy with reasons for sorrow, restless with need for action. Feel the sorrow, take the action, but keep pressing the weight of joy against it all, until it becomes mindless, automated, like gravity pulling the stream down its course; until it becomes an inner law of nature. If Viktor Frankl can exclaim “yes to life, in spite of everything!” — and what an everything he lived through — then so can any one of us amid the rubble of our plans, so trifling by comparison. Joy is not a function of a life free of friction and frustration, but a function of focus — an inner elevation by the fulcrum of choice. So often, it is a matter of attending to what Hermann Hesse called, as the world was about to come unworlded by its first global war, “the little joys”; so often, those are the slender threads of which we weave the lifeline that saves us.
Delight in the age-salted man on the street corner waiting for the light to change, his age-salted dog beside him, each inclined toward the other with the angular subtlety of absolute devotion.
Delight in the little girl zooming past you on her little bicycle, this fierce emissary of the future, rainbow tassels waving from her handlebars and a hundred beaded braids spilling from her golden helmet.
Delight in the snail taking an afternoon to traverse the abyssal crack in the sidewalk for the sake of pasturing on a single blade of grass.
Delight in the tiny new leaf, so shy and so shamelessly lush, unfurling from the crooked stem of the parched geranium.
I think often of this verse from Jane Hirshfield’s splendid poem “The Weighing”:
So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.
Yes, except we furnish both the grains and the scales. I alone can weigh the blue of my sky, you of yours.
“The more a creature’s life is worth, the less of it is alive.”
By Maria Popova
When the young Alan Turing (June 23, 1912–June 7, 1954) lost the love of his life, Christopher, to a bacterium contracted from cow’s milk, the grief-savaged future father of computing comforted his beloved’s grief-savaged mother by telling her that “the body provides something for the spirit to look after and use.” For the remainder of his life, he never ceased contemplating this binary code of body and spirit — a preoccupation fanned by this leveling loss in young adulthood, but ignited in childhood, by a book he had been given at age ten, a book he later told his own mother was what opened his mind and heart to science.
Published the year Turing was born, impishly described by its author as being “mostly about things that you do not learn in school,” Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know (public library) by Edwin Tinney Brewster invited young minds to step through the portal of science and contemplate not why life is — the domain of Sunday school theology — but what life is and how it came to be that way. Before there were scientists, it fell on the “natural philosophers” — men (for they were only men) typically trained in theology — to make sense of nature’s phenomena and processes. Born in the middle of the nineteenth century, only a generation after the person for whom the word scientist was coined — the polymathic Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville — Brewster devoted his life to aiding humanity’s great migration from the epoch of religion to the epoch of reality.
The young Turing was captivated by Brewster’s playful analogies and his elegantly reasoned expositions of biological realities, worded so simply as to border on the poetic. How the chicken gets inside the egg, why we grow and grow old, what plants know — these wonders of life impressed the boy’s imagination with a lifelong passion: Unbeknownst to most, the father of modern computing devoted a substantial portion of his mind to an obscure branch of the biology of life known as morphogenesis — the process by which living organisms take their shape — which he illustrated in a series of hauntingly beautiful hand-drawn diagrams.
The book’s most captivating chapter, titled “How Much of Us Is Alive,” explores not the existential puzzlement of the question — that is best left to the poets and the artists of life — but the science, the staggering and counterintuitive reality, of aliveness. Brewster writes:
How much of a tree is alive? Certainly not the outer bark. That falls off in dry scales, or can be scraped off down to the white layers within, and the tree be none the worse. Certainly not the wood. One often comes across old trees that have lost limbs or been carelessly pruned, which are entirely decayed out on the inside, so that nothing is left but a thin shell next the bark. Yet these trees grow as vigorously as ever, and bear leaves and fruit like a solid tree. The bark is dead; and the wood is dead. Between the two is a thin layer, perhaps a quarter inch thru, which is alive. On one side, it is changing into dead wood. On the other side, it is changing into dead bark. The new wood is alive, and the new bark. Between them is something neither wood nor bark, but just living tree-stuff. The green leaves also are alive, and the green twigs, and the blossoms, and the growing buds. But at least half of every living tree is already dead; while the larger and longer lived a tree is, the smaller proportion of it is alive at one time.
What is true of trees, Brewster observes, is true of us. (And not only because we see so much of ourselves in trees.) We exert vast portions of our anxious creative energy on devising antidotes to our elemental fear of death — some mightier than others — and yet much of the bodies we live in is not, strictly speaking, alive at all:
Our hair and nails are not alive at all, and that our outer skin, the thin skin, that is, which we tear off when we bark our shins, is fully alive only on the inside. Our “bark” in fact, is very like a tree’s. Each has a soft, thin, living layer on the inside, which grows, hardens, dies, forms a water-tight layer over the rest of the body, cracks into scales, and drops off. Where one forms cork, the other forms horn. Indeed the cork stoppers of our bottles are made from nothing more than an especially thick corky bark of a certain kind of oak, like the especially thick and homy soles of all bare-footed savages and some bare-footed little boys.
With an eye to the biological fallacy at the heart of the famous biblical teaching that the life of every creature is its blood — refashioned in Bram Stoker’s iconic line from Dracula, “The blood is the life!” — Brewster counters:
The blood itself is dead. The watery part is just soup; water and salt and fat and jelly. The minute, coin-like, red blood corpuscles carry the oxygen of the air from the lungs all over the body. But there are similar oxygen-carriers, likewise dead, in bottles in the drug-stores. The corpuscles are dead cells alive once, and like the hard skin cells, a great deal more useful dead than alive.
After delineating how the same holds true of our teeth and the rest of our bones, Brewster draws out his analogy of cells as “living bricks” — with the caveat that even living cells are not fully alive, for the jelly of water and salt coursing through them is “just water and salt” — and adds:
We are, then, built of living bricks, but of living bricks set in dead mortar. We saw that the great trees, complex and long lived, have more wood and bark and other dead substances in them than the shrubs, herbs, and grass. These in turn are less alive than the lowly water plants and yeasts and molds which have no wood or bark at all. The same is true of animals. The jelly-fishes and infusoria have neither skin, hair, bones, nails, nor blood, and are pretty much all alive. So the more a creature’s life is worth, the less of it is alive.
The image of the “living bricks” particularly fascinated the young Turing, but it also struck him as somehow incomplete. Something was missing there, something didn’t add up to the mystery of consciousness, the wonder of what we are. In the mortar of his uncommon imagination, this incompleteness leavened the rise of modern computing. It is impossible to conceive of a Turing machine — that revolutionary mathematical progenitor of artificial intelligence — without brushing up against such elemental questions about the nature of aliveness, as Turing himself did when he gently threw his famous and formidable gauntlet of a test, asking whether a computer could ever “enjoy strawberries and cream, make someone fall in love with it, learn from experience, use words properly, be the subject of its own thought [or] do something really new.” The triumph of history is tracing the roots — ancient and alive — of our present condition in the world. The triumph of self-understanding is tracing the roots of the formative influences that make us who we are, that shape the people who shape the world.
A middle-aged Scottish mathematician rises ahead of the sun to spend a couple of hours with Newton before the day punctuates her thinking with the constant interruptions of mothering four children and managing a bustling household. “A man can always command his time under the plea of business,” Mary Somerville (December 26, 1780–November 28, 1872) would later write in her memoir; “a woman is not allowed any such excuse.”
Growing up, Somerville had spent the daylight hours painting and playing piano. When her parents realized that the household candle supply had thinned because Mary had been staying up at night to read Euclid, they promptly confiscated her candles. “Peg,” she recalled her father telling her mother, “we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a strait jacket one of these days.” Mary was undeterred. Having already committed the first six books of Euclid to memory, she spent her nights adventuring in mathematics in the bright private chamber of her mind.
Despite her precocity and her early determination, it took Somerville half a lifetime to come abloom as a scientist — the spring and summer of her life passed with her genius laying restive beneath the frost of the era’s receptivity to the female mind. When Somerville was forty-six, she published her first scientific paper — a study of the magnetic properties of violet rays — which earned her praise from the inventor of the kaleidoscope, Sir David Brewster, as “the most extraordinary woman in Europe — a mathematician of the very first rank with all the gentleness of a woman.” Lord Brougham, the influential founder of the newly established Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge — with which Thoreau would take issue thirty-some years later by making a case for “the diffusion of useful ignorance,” comprising “knowledge useful in a higher sense” — was so impressed that he asked Somerville to translate a mathematical treatise by Pierre-Simon Laplace, “the Newton of France.” She took the project on, perhaps not fully aware how many years it would take to complete to her satisfaction, which would forever raise the common standard of excellence. All great works suffer from and are saved by a gladsome blindness to what they ultimately demand of their creators.
As the months unspooled into years, Somerville supported herself as a mathematics tutor to the children of the wealthy. One of her students was a little girl named Ada, daughter of the mathematically inclined baroness Annabella Milbanke and the only legitimate child of the sybarite poet Lord Byron — a little girl would would grow to be, thanks to Somerville’s introduction to Charles Babbage, the world’s first computer programmer.
When Somerville completed the project, she delivered something evocative of the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s wonderful notion of “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes… a second original” In The Mechanism of the Heavens, published in 1831 after years of work, Somerville hadn’t merely translated the math, but had expanded upon it and made it comprehensible to lay readers, popularizing Laplace’s esoteric ideas.
The book was an instant success, drawing attention from the titans of European science. John Herschel, whom Somerville considered the greatest scientist of their time and who was soon to coin the word photography, wrote her a warm letter she treasured for the rest of her days:
Dear Mrs. Somerville,
I have read your manuscript with the greatest pleasure, and will not hesitate to add, (because I am sure you will believe it sincere,) with the highest admiration. Go on thus, and you will leave a memorial of no common kind to posterity; and, what you will value far more than fame, you will have accomplished a most useful work. What a pity that La Place has not lived to see this illustration of his great work! You will only, I fear, give too strong a stimulus to the study of abstract science by this performance.
Somerville received another radiant fan letter from the famed novelist Maria Edgeworth, who wrote after devouring The Mechanism of the Heavens:
I was long in the state of the boa constrictor after a full meal — and I am but just recovering the powers of motion. My mind was so distended by the magnitude, the immensity, of what you put into it!… I can only assure you that you have given me a great deal of pleasure; that you have enlarged my conception of the sublimity of the universe, beyond any ideas I had ever before been enabled to form.
Edgeworth was particularly taken with a “a beautiful sentence, as well as a sublime idea” from Somerville’s section on the propagation of sound waves:
At a very small height above the surface of the earth, the noise of the tempest ceases and the thunder is heard no more in those boundless regions, where the heavenly bodies accomplish their periods in eternal and sublime silence.
Years later, Edgeworth would write admiringly of Somerville that “while her head is up among the stars, her feet are firm upon the earth.”
In 1834, Somerville published her next major treatise, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences — an elegant and erudite weaving together of the previously fragmented fields of astronomy, mathematics, physics, geology, and chemistry. It quickly became one of the scientific best sellers of the century and earned Somerville pathbreaking admission into the Royal Astronomical Society the following year, alongside the astronomer Caroline Herschel — the first women admitted as members of the venerable institution.
When Maria Mitchell — America’s first professional female astronomer and the first woman employed by the U.S. government for a professional task — traveled to Europe to meet the Old World’s greatest scientific luminaries, her Quaker shyness could barely contain the thrill of meeting her great hero. She spent three afternoons with Somerville in Scotland and left feeling that “no one can make the acquaintance of this remarkable woman without increased admiration for her.” In her journal, Mitchell described Somerville as “small, very,” with bright blue eyes and strong features, looking twenty years younger than her seventy-seven years, her diminished hearing the only giveaway of her age. “Mrs. Somerville talks with all the readiness and clearness of a man, but with no other masculine characteristic,” Mitchell wrote. “She is very gentle and womanly… chatty and sociable, without the least pretence, or the least coldness.”
Months after the publication of Somerville’s Connexion, the English polymath William Whewell — then master of Trinity College, where Newton had once been a fellow, and previously pivotal in making Somerville’s Laplace book a requirement of the university’s higher mathematics curriculum — wrote a laudatory review of her work, in which he coined the word scientist to refer to her. The commonly used term up to that point — “man of science” — clearly couldn’t apply to a woman, nor to what Whewell considered “the peculiar illumination” of the female mind: the ability to synthesize ideas and connect seemingly disparate disciplines into a clear lens on reality. Because he couldn’t call her a physicist, a geologist, or a chemist — she had written with deep knowledge of all these disciplines and more — Whewell unified them all into scientist. Some scholars have suggested that he coined the term a year earlier in his correspondence with Coleridge, but no clear evidence survives. What does survive is his incontrovertible regard for Somerville, which remains printed in plain sight — in his review, he praises her as a “person of true science.”
Whewell saw the full dimension of Somerville’s singular genius as a connector and cross-pollinator of ideas across disciplines. “Everything is naturally related and interconnected,” Ada Lovelace would write a decade later. Maria Mitchell celebrated Somerville’s book as a masterwork containing “vast collections of facts in all branches of Physical Science, connected together by the delicate web of Mrs. Somerville’s own thought, showing an amount and variety of learning to be compared only to that of Humboldt.” But not everyone could see the genius of Somerville’s contribution to science in her synthesis and cross-pollination of information, effecting integrated wisdom greater than the sum total of bits of fact — a skill that becomes exponentially more valuable as the existing pool of knowledge swells. One obtuse malediction came from the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who proclaimed that Somerville had never done anything original — a remark that the young sculptor Harriet Hosmer, herself a pioneer who paved the way for women in art, would tear to shreds. In a letter defending Somerville, she scoffed:
To the Carlyle mind, wherein women never played any conspicuous part, perhaps not, but no one, man or woman, ever possessed a clearer insight into complicated problems, or possessed a greater gift of rendering such problems clear to the mind of the student, one phase of originality, surely.
Somerville’s uncommon gift for seeing clearly into complexity came coupled with a deep distaste for dogma and the divisiveness of religion, the supreme blinders of lucidity. She recounted that as religious controversies swirled about her, she had “too high a regard for liberty of conscience to interfere with any one’s opinions.” She chose instead to live “on terms of sincere friendship and love with people who differed essentially” in their religious views. In her memoir, she encapsulated her philosophy of creed: “In all the books which I have written I have confined myself strictly and entirely to scientific subjects, although my religious opinions are very decided.”
Above all, Somerville possessed the defining mark of the great scientist and the great human being — the ability to hold one’s opinions with firm but unfisted fingers, remaining receptive to novel theories and willing to change one’s mind in light of new evidence. Her daughter recounted:
It is not uncommon to see persons who hold in youth opinions in advance of the age in which they live, but who at a certain period seem to crystallise, and lose the faculty of comprehending and accepting new ideas and theories; thus remaining at last as far behind, as they were once in advance of public opinion. Not so my mother, who was ever ready to hail joyfully any new idea or theory, and to give it honest attention, even if it were at variance with her former convictions. This quality she never lost, and it enabled her to sympathise with the younger generation of philosophers, as she had done with their predecessors, her own contemporaries.
Shortly after the publication of Somerville’s epoch-making book, the education reformer Elizabeth Peabody — who lived nearly a century, introduced Buddhist texts to America, and coined the term Transcendentalism — echoed the sentiment in her penetrating insight into middle age and the art of self-renewal.