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The Best Science Books of 2015

From Earth’s largest-hearted creature to the interconnectedness of the universe, by way of Einstein and artificial intelligence.

The Best Science Books of 2015

“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time,” E.B. White observed in a wonderful 1969 interview. “You have to write up, not down.” What’s true of great children’s books is true of great science books, which must do three things for the reader — explain, enchant, and elevate. They must tell you what something is and why it matters, captivate you to care about it and tickle you into taking pleasure in understanding it, and leave you in a higher state of awareness regarding whatever subtle or monumental aspect of the world the book had made its subject.

After the best art books of the year, here are the most stimulating science books of 2015, possessing this trifecta of merit.

1. ON THE MOVE

“I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts,” Oliver Sacks wrote in his poignant, beautiful, and courageous farewell to life. In one final gesture of generosity, this cartographer of the mind and its meaning mapped the landscape of his remarkable character and career in On the Move: A Life (public library) — an uncommonly moving autobiography, titled after a line from a poem by his dear friend Thom Gunn: “At worst,” wrote Gunn, “one is in motion; and at best, / Reaching no absolute, in which to rest, / One is always nearer by not keeping still.” Sacks’s unstillness is that of a life defined by a compassionate curiosity — about the human mind, about the human spirit, about the invisibilia of our inner lives.

Oliver Sacks (Photograph: Nicholas Naylor-Leland)

The book, made all the more poignant by Dr. Sacks’s death shortly after its release, is not so much an autobiography in the strict sense as a dialogue with time on the simultaneous scales of the personal (going from world-champion weightlifter to world-renowned neurologist), the cultural (being a gay man looking for true love in the 1960s was nothing like it is in our post-DOMA, beTindered present), and the civilizational (watching horseshoe crabs mate on the beaches of City Island exactly as they did 400 million years ago on the shores of Earth’s primordial seas). This record of time pouring through the unclenched fingers of the mind’s most magnanimous patron saint has become one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life — one I came to with deep reverence for Dr. Sacks’s intellectual footprint and left with deep love for his soul.

Dr. Sacks on the set of the cinematic adaptation of his book Awakenings, with Robin Williams, 1989 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Like Marie Curie, whose wounds and power sprang from the same source, Dr. Sacks’s character springs from the common root of his pain and his pleasure. At eighty, he reflects on a defining feature of his interior landscape:

I am shy in ordinary social contexts; I am not able to “chat” with any ease; I have difficulty recognizing people (this is lifelong, though worse now my eyesight is impaired); I have little knowledge of and little interest in current affairs, whether political, social, or sexual. Now, additionally, I am hard of hearing, a polite term for deepening deafness. Given all this, I tend to retreat into a corner, to look invisible, to hope I am passed over. This was incapacitating in the 1960s, when I went to gay bars to meet people; I would agonize, wedged into a corner, and leave after an hour, alone, sad, but somehow relieved. But if I find someone, at a party or elsewhere, who shares some of my own (usually scientific) interests — volcanoes, jellyfish, gravitational waves, whatever — then I am immediately drawn into animated conversation…

But Dr. Sacks’s intense introversion is also what made him such an astute listener and observer — the very quality that rendered him humanity’s most steadfast sherpa into the strange landscape of how minds other than our own experience the seething cauldron of mystery we call life.

On one particular occasion, the thrill of observation swelled to such proportions that it eclipsed his chronic introversion. He recounts:

I almost never speak to people in the street. But some years ago, there was a lunar eclipse, and I went outside to view it with my little 20x telescope. Everyone else on the busy sidewalk seemed oblivious to the extraordinary celestial happening above them, so I stopped people, saying, “Look! Look what’s happening to the moon!” and pressing my telescope into their hands. People were taken aback at being approached in this way, but, intrigued by my manifestly innocent enthusiasm, they raised the telescope to their eyes, “wowed,” and handed it back. “Hey, man, thanks for letting me look at that,” or “Gee, thanks for showing me.”

In a sense, Dr. Sacks has spent half a century pushing a telescope into our hands and inviting us, with the same innocent and infectious enthusiasm, to peer into an object even more remote and mysterious — the human mindscape — until we wow. And although he may paint himself as a comically clumsy genius — there he is, dropping hamburger crumbs into sophisticated lab equipment; there he is, committing “a veritable genocide of earthworms” in an experiment gone awry; there he is, watching nine months of painstaking research fly off the back of his motorcycle into New York’s densest traffic — make no mistake: This is a man of enormous charisma and grace, revealed as much by the details of his life as by the delight of his writing.

Dr. Sacks’s official portrait as a UCLA resident, taken at the neuropathology lab in 1964 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Dive deeper into this enormously rewarding book here.

2. ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT AND THE INVENTION OF NATURE

No thinker has shaped our understanding of the astounding interconnectedness of the universe more profoundly than the great Prussian naturalist, explorer, and geographer Alexander von Humboldt (September 14, 1769–May 6, 1859), who pioneered the notion that the natural world is a web of intricately entwined elements, each in constant dynamic dialogue with every other — a concept a century ahead of its time. His legacy isn’t so much any single discovery — although he did discover the magnetic equator, invented isotherms, and came up with climate zones — as it is a mindset, a worldview, a singular sensemaking sublimity.

Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806
Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806

Goethe, in his conversations with Eckermann, remarked that a single day with Humboldt enriched him more than years spent alone, enthusing:

What a man he is! … He has not his equal in knowledge and living wisdom. Then he has a many-sidedness such as I have found nowhere else. On whatever point you approach him, he is at home, and lavishes upon us his intellectual treasures. He is like a fountain with many pipes, under which you need only hold a vessel, and from which refreshing and inexhaustible streams are ever flowing.

Darwin asserted that Humboldt’s writings kindled in him a zeal without which he wouldn’t have boarded the Beagle or written On the Origin of Species. Thoreau was an ardent admirer of Humboldt’s “habit of close observation,” without the influence of which there might have been no Walden. Trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, who met Humboldt weeks before his death, marveled in her diary that “no young aspirant in science ever left Humboldt’s presence uncheered,” and his ideas reverberate through her famous assertion that science is “not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.” Emerson, in his essays and lectures, called Humboldt “a man whose eyes, ears, and mind are armed by all the science, arts, and implements which mankind have anywhere accumulated” and saw him as living proof that “a certain vastness of learning, or quasi omnipresence of the human soul in nature, is possible.”

Goethe's diagram of the comparative table elevations of the Old and New World, inspired by Humboldt
Goethe’s diagram of the comparative table elevations of the Old and New World, inspired by Humboldt

In informing and impressing the greatest minds of his time, Humboldt invariably influenced the course of science and its intercourse with the rest of culture in ways innumerable, enduring, and profound. His visionary understanding of nature’s interconnected sparked the basic ecological awareness that gave rise to the environmental movement. His integrated approach to science, incorporating elements of art, philosophy, poetry, politics, and history, provided the last bold counterpoint to the disconnected and dysfunctional “villages” of specialization into which science would fragment a mere generation later. And yet Humboldt, despite his enormous contribution to our most fundamental understanding of life, is largely forgotten today.

In The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (public library), London-based design historian and writer Andrea Wulf sets out to liberate this extraordinary man’s legacy from the grip of obscurity and short-termism, illuminating the myriad threads of influence through which he continues to shape our present thinking about science, society, and life itself.

Alexander von Humboldt in his home library at at 67 Oranienburger Strasse, Berlin. Chromolithograph copy of watercolor drawing by Eduard Hildebrant, 1856.
Alexander von Humboldt in his home library at at 67 Oranienburger Strasse, Berlin. Chromolithograph copy of watercolor drawing by Eduard Hildebrant, 1856.

Wulf paints the backdrop for Humboldt’s enduring genius:

Described by his contemporaries as the most famous man in the world after Napoleon, Humboldt was one of the most captivating and inspiring men of his time. Born in 1769 into a wealthy Prussian aristocratic family, he discarded a life of privilege to discover for himself how the world worked. As a young man he set out on a five-year exploration to Latin America, risking his life many times and returning with a new sense of the world. It was a journey that shaped his life and thinking, and that made him legendary across the globe. He lived in cities such as Paris and Berlin, but was equally at home on the most remote branches of the Orinoco River or in the Kazakh Steppe at Russia’s Mongolian border. During much of his long life, he was the nexus of the scientific world, writing some 50,000 letters and receiving at least double that number. Knowledge, Humboldt believed, had to be shared, exchanged and made available to everybody.

But knowledge, for Humboldt, wasn’t merely an intellectual faculty — it was an embodied, holistic presence with life in all of its dimensions. A rock-climber, volcano-diver, and tireless hiker well into his eighties, Humboldt saw observation as an active endeavor and continually tested the limits of his body in his scientific pursuits. For him, mind, body, and spirit were all instruments of inquiry into the nature of the world. Two centuries before Carl Sagan sold us on the idea that “science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe,” Humboldt advocated for this then-radical notion amid a culture that drew a thick line between reason and emotion.

Wulf writes:

Fascinated by scientific instruments, measurements and observations, he was driven by a sense of wonder as well. Of course nature had to be measured and analysed, but he also believed that a great part of our response to the natural world should be based on the senses and emotions. He wanted to excite a “love of nature.” At a time when other scientists were searching for universal laws, Humboldt wrote that nature had to be experienced through feelings.

Out of this integrated approach to knowledge sprang Humboldt’s revolutionary view of life — the scientifically informed counterpart to Ada Lovelace’s famous assertion that “everything is naturally related and interconnected.” Wulf captures his greatest legacy:

Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world. He found connections everywhere. Nothing, not even the tiniest organism, was looked at on its own. “In this great chain of causes and effects,” Humboldt said, “no single fact can be considered in isolation.” With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today.

When nature is perceived as a web, its vulnerability also becomes obvious. Everything hangs together. If one thread is pulled, the whole tapestry may unravel.

Read more here.

3. DARK MATTER AND THE DINOSAURS

Every successful technology of thought, be it science or philosophy, is a time machine — it peers into the past in order to disassemble the building blocks of how we got to the present, then reassembles them into a sensemaking mechanism for where the future might take us. That’s what Harvard particle physicist and cosmologist Lisa Randall accomplishes in Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (public library) — an intellectually thrilling exploration of how the universe evolved, what made our very existence possible, and how dark matter illuminates our planet’s relationship to its cosmic environment across past, present, and future.

Randall starts with a fascinating speculative theory, linking dark matter to the extinction of the dinosaurs — an event that took place in the outermost reaches of the Solar System sixty-six million years ago catalyzed an earthly catastrophe without which we wouldn’t have come to exist. What makes her theory so striking is that it contrasts the most invisible aspects of the universe with the most dramatic events of our world while linking the two in a causal dance, reminding us just how limited our perception of reality really is — we are, after all, sensorial creatures blinded by our inability to detect the myriad complex and fascinating processes that play out behind the doors of perception.

Randall writes:

The Universe contains a great deal that we have never seen — and likely never will.

A 17th-century conception of non-space by the English physician and cosmologist Robert Fludd, found in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time

In Humboldt’s tradition of interconnectedness, Randall weaves together a number of different disciplines — cosmology, particle physics, evolutionary biology, environmental science, geology, and even social science — to tell a larger story of the universe, our galaxy, and the Solar System. In one of several perceptive social analogies, she likens dark matter — which comprises 85% of matter in the universe, interacts with gravity, but, unlike the ordinary matter we can see and touch, doesn’t interact with light — to the invisible but instrumental factions of human society:

Even though it is unseen and unfelt, dark matter played a pivotal role in forming the Universe’s structure. Dark matter can be compared to the under-appreciated rank and file of society. Even when invisible to the elite decision makers, the many workers who built pyramids or highways or assembled electronics were crucial to the development of their civilizations. Like other unnoticed populations in our midst, dark matter was essential to our world.

But the theory itself, original and interesting as it may be, is merely a clever excuse to do two more important things: tell an expansive and exhilarating story of how the universe as we know it came to exist, and invite us to transcend the limits of our temporal imagination and our delusions of omnipotence. How humbling to consider that a tiny twitch caused by an invisible force in the far reaches of the cosmos millions of years ago hurled at our unremarkable piece of rock a meteoroid three times the width of Manhattan, which produced the most massive and destructive earthquake of all time, decimating three quarters of all living creatures on Earth. Had the dinosaurs not died, large mammals may never have come to dominate the planet and humanity wouldn’t be here to contemplate the complexities of the cosmos. And yet in a few billion years, the Sun will retire into the red giant phase of its stellar lifetime and eventually burn out, extinguishing our biosphere and Blake and Bach and every human notion of truth and beauty. Stardust to stardust.

Read more here.

4. THE THRILLING ADVENTURES OF LOVELACE AND BABBAGE

In 1843, Ada Lovelace — the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron — translated a scientific paper by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea titled Sketch of an Analytical Engine, adding seven footnotes to it. Together, they measured 65 pages — two and half times the length of Menabrea’s original text — and included the earliest complete computer program, becoming the first true paper on computer science and rendering Lovelace the world’s first computer programmer. She was twenty-seven.

About a decade earlier, Lovelace had met the brilliant and eccentric British mathematician Charles Babbage who, when he wasn’t busy teaming up with Dickens to wage a war on street music, was working on strange inventions that would one day prompt posterity to call him the father of the computer. (Well, sort of.) The lifelong friendship that ensued between 18-year-old Lovelace and 45-year-old Babbage sparked an invaluable union of software and hardware to which we owe enormous swaths of modern life — including the very act of reading these words on this screen.

The unusual story of this Victorian power-duo is what graphic artists and animator Sydney Padua explores in the immensely delightful and illuminating The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (public library), itself a masterwork of combinatorial genius and a poetic analog to its subject matter — rigorously researched, it has approximately the same footnote-to-comic ratio as Lovelace’s trailblazing paper. The footnote, after all, is proto-hypertext linking one set of ideas to another, and in these analog hyperlinks, Padua draws on an impressive wealth of historical materials — from the duo’s scientific writings and lectures to Lovelace’s letters to Babbage’s autobiography to various accounts by their contemporaries.

Padua begins at the beginning, with Lovelace’s unusual upbringing as the daughter of Lord Byron, a “radical, adventurer, pan-amorist, and poet,” and Anne Isabella Millbanke, a “deeply moral Evangelical Christian and prominent anti-slavery campaigner.”

Determined to shield young Ada from any expression of her father’s dangerous “poetical” influence, her mother instructed the young girl’s nurse:

Be most careful always to speak the truth to her … take care not to tell her any nonsensical stories that will put fancies into her head.

She wasn’t spared the Victorian era’s brutal control mechanisms of women’s minds and bodies. Padua footnotes:

Ada’s upbringing was strict and lonely. She was given lessons while lying on a “reclining board” to perfect her posture. If she fidgeted, even with her fingers, her hands were tied in black bags and she was shut in a closet. She was five years old.

But the best control strategy for the disorderly tendencies of the poetical mind, it was determined, was thorough immersion in mathematics — which worked, but only to a degree.

Lovelace was eventually introduced to Babbage by the great Scottish mathematician, science writer, and polymath Mary Somerville — for whom, incidentally, the word “scientist” was coined.

And so one of history’s most paradigm-shifting encounters took place.

Implicit to the story is also a reminder that genius is as much the product of an individual’s exceptional nature as it is of the culture in which that individual is nourished. Genius leaps from the improbable into the possible — the courage of the leap is the function of individual temperament, but the horizons of possibility are to a large extent determined by the culture and the era.

Lovelace lived in an age when it was not only uncommon but even discouraged for women to engage in science, let alone authoring scientific paper themselves. In another illuminating footnote, Padua quotes from Babbage’s autobiography, capturing Lovelace’s dance with this duality of possibility and limitation perfectly:

The late Countess of Lovelace informed me that she had translated the memoir of Menabrea. I asked why she had not herself written an original paper on a subject with which she was so intimately acquainted? To this Lady Lovelace replied that the thought had not occurred to her.

And yet groundbreaking thoughts that hadn’t occurred to others did occur to Lovelace.

See more here.

5. THE BLUE WHALE

“The world is blue at its edges and in its depths,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her beautiful meditation on the color of distance and desire. No creature compresses the edgeless grandeur of our Pale Blue Dot into a single body as perfectly as the blue whale — an animal absolutely awesome in the true sense of the word. That awe-striking being is what London-based illustrator Jenni Desmond celebrates in the marvelous nonfiction children’s book The Blue Whale (public library) — a loving science lullaby about our planet’s biggest creature, and a beautiful addition to the finest children’s books celebrating science.

Alongside Desmond’s immeasurably warm and largehearted illustrations is her simply worded, deeply intelligent synthesis of what marine biologists know about this extraordinary mammal — in fact, she worked closely with Diane Gendron, a marine biologist who studies blue whales. At the heart of the book is a compassionate curiosity about the beings with whom we share this world, effecting what the great Mary Oliver called a “sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world.”

Indeed, despite the gaping disparity of scales, we have more in common with this gentle giant of the ocean than we realize — the blue whale, like us, is a highly intelligent mammal and one of the few creatures with a lifespan comparable to our own.

There is a charming meta touch to the story — the protagonist, a little boy with a crown that evokes Maurice Sendak’s Max, is learning and dreaming about blue whales by reading this very book, which he is seen holding in a number of the scenes.

Although the whaling industry of yore may have inspired some legendary art, more than 360,000 blue whales were killed in the first half of the twentieth century as these magnificent creatures were being reduced to oil, blubber, baleen, and meat. A global ban on whale hunting made them a protected species in 1966, but other forms of our arrogant anthropocentrism are putting them in danger anew as our our commercial fishing entangles them in its indiscriminate nets, our passenger ships pollute their habitats, and our general human activity continues to raise ocean temperatures.

And yet it isn’t with alarmism or bitter lamentation but with love befitting this largest-hearted of earthly creatures — its heart alone weighs around 1,300 pounds — that Desmond invites us into the world of the blue whale. She writes in the preface:

Blue whales are magnificent and intelligent creatures, and like all of the natural world they deserve our admiration and care. It is only then that they will flourish and multiply in their native ocean home.

And so it is with admiration and care that Desmond opens our eyes to the glory of this beautiful and intelligent creature — a creature whose own eye measures only six inches wide.

Look closer here.

6. THE PHYSICIST & THE PHILOSOPHER

“It is the insertion of man with his limited life span that transforms the continuously flowing stream of sheer change … into time as we know it,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her brilliant inquiry into time, space, and our thinking ego. A generation earlier, Virginia Woolf contemplated how this insertion engenders the astonishing elasticity of time; a generation later, Patti Smith pondered the subjectivity of how we experience time’s continuous flow. These reflections, once so radical and now so woven into the cultural fabric, wouldn’t have been possible without a fateful conversation that took place on April 6, 1922, which steered the course of twentieth-century science and shaped our experience of time.

So argues science historian Jimena Canales in The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time (public library) — a masterwork of cultural forensics, dissecting the many dimensions of the landmark conversation between Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson.

einsteinbergson

What makes the encounter particularly notable is that unlike the canon of great public conversations between intellectual titans — including those between David Bohm and Jiddu Krishnamurti, Margaret Mead and James Baldwin, and Matthieu Ricard and Jean-François Revel — where surface disagreements are undergirded by and ultimately reveal a larger shared ethos, Einstein and Bergson clashed completely and vehemently on the subject of their conversation: the nature of time. Einstein insisted that only two types of time existed: physical, the kind measured by clocks, and psychological, the subjective kind Virginia Woolf would later observe. For Bergson, this was a barbaric and reductionist perspective robbing time of the philosophical dimension that permeates nearly every aspect of how we experience its flow.

The debris of that disagreement became the foundation of our present ideas about the fabric of existence.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a rare edition of Alice in Wonderland

What the encounter also reveals is the astounding amount of humanity upon which science, with all of its presumed rationalism and universal objectivity, is built. How pause-giving to think that our present understanding of time is largely the function of the personal differences between two men. Canales writes:

While Einstein searched for consistency and simplicity, Bergson focused on inconsistencies and complexities.

[…]

Bergson was the paradigmatic philosopher of memories, dreams, and laughter.

[…]

Time, he argued, was not something out there, separate from those who perceived it. It did not exist independently from us. It involved us at every level.

Bergson found Einstein’s definition of time in terms of clocks completely aberrant. The philosopher did not understand why one would opt to describe the timing of a significant event, such as the arrival of a train, in terms of how that event matched against a watch. He did not understand why Einstein tried to establish this particular procedure as a privileged way to determine simultaneity. Bergson searched for a more basic definition of simultaneity, one that would not stop at the watch but that would explain why clocks were used in the first place.

At that point, Einstein was busy rattling our understanding of time with his relativity theory. Bergson, one of the most prominent philosophers of the century and a major influence on such luminaries as Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Elliot, and William Faulkner, had advanced a theory of time that explained what the mechanics of clock-time could not, from the malleability of memory to the perplexities of premonitions. A staunch defender of intuition over the intellect, Bergson was sometimes accused, most famously by Bertrand Russell, of anti-intellectualism — but he was undeniably one of the most intelligent and incisive minds of his time. Although today Einstein is the better-known of the two, the opposite was true at the time of their confrontation, the consequences of which were profound and rippled out not only across the scientific community but across all of culture.

Read more here.

7. WHAT TO THINK ABOUT MACHINES THAT THINK

When Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage invented the world’s first computer, their “Analytical Engine” became the evolutionary progenitor of a new class of human extensions — machines that think. A generation later, Alan Turing picked up where they left off and, in laying the foundations of artificial intelligence with his Turing Test, famously posed the techno-philosophical question of whether a computer could ever enjoy strawberries and cream or compel you to fall in love with it.

From its very outset, this new branch of human-machine evolution made it clear that any answer to these questions would invariably alter how we answer the most fundamental questions of what it means to be human.

That’s what Edge founder John Brockman explores in the 2015 edition of his annual question, inviting 192 of today’s most prominent thinkers to tussle with these core questions of artificial intelligence and its undergirding human dilemmas. The answers, collected in What to Think About Machines That Think: Today’s Leading Thinkers on the Age of Machine Intelligence (public library), come from such diverse contributors as physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson, music pioneer Brian Eno, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, Positive Psychology founding father Martin Seligman, computer scientist and inventor Danny Hillis, TED curator Chris Anderson, neuroscientist Sam Harris, legendary curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker, and yours truly.

Art from Neurocomic, a graphic novel about how the brain works

The answers are strewn with a handful of common threads, a major one being the idea that artificial intelligence isn’t some futuristic abstraction but a palpably present reality with which we’re already living.

Beloved musician and prolific reader Brian Eno looks at the many elements of his day, from cooking porridge to switching on the radio, that work seamlessly thanks to an invisible mesh of connected human intelligence — a Rube Goldberg machine of micro-expertise that makes it possible for the energy in a distant oil field to power the stove built in a foreign factory out of components made by scattered manufacturers, and ultimately cook his porridge. In a sentiment that calls to mind I, Pencil — that magnificent vintage allegory of how everything is connected — Eno explains why he sees artificial intelligence not as a protagonist in a techno-dystopian future but as an indelible and fruitful part of our past and present:

My untroubled attitude results from my almost absolute faith in the reliability of the vast supercomputer I’m permanently plugged into. It was built with the intelligence of thousands of generations of human minds, and they’re still working at it now. All that human intelligence remains alive, in the form of the supercomputer of tools, theories, technologies, crafts, sciences, disciplines, customs, rituals, rules of thumb, arts, systems of belief, superstitions, work-arounds, and observations that we call Global Civilization.

Global Civilization is something we humans created, though none of us really know how. It’s out of the individual control of any of us — a seething synergy of embodied intelligence that we’re all plugged into. None of us understands more than a tiny sliver of it, but by and large we aren’t paralyzed or terrorized by that fact — we still live in it and make use of it. We feed it problems — such as “I want some porridge” — and it miraculously offers us solutions that we don’t really understand.

[…]

We’ve been living happily with artificial intelligence for thousands of years.

Art by Laura Carlin for The Iron Giant by Ted Hughes. Click image for more.

In one of the volume’s most optimistic essays, TED curator Chris Anderson, who belongs to the increasingly endangered tribe of public idealists, considers how this “hive mind” of semi-artificial intelligence could provide a counterpoint to some of our worst human tendencies and amplify our collective potential for good:

We all know how flawed humans are. How greedy, irrational, and limited in our ability to act collectively for the common good. We’re in danger of wrecking the planet. Does anyone thoughtful really want humanity to be evolution’s final word?

[…]

Intelligence doesn’t reach its full power in small units. Every additional connection and resource can help expand its power. A person can be smart, but a society can be smarter still…

By that logic, intelligent machines of the future wouldn’t destroy humans. Instead, they would tap into the unique contributions that humans make. The future would be one of ever richer intermingling of human and machine capabilities. I’ll take that route. It’s the best of those available.

[…]

Together we’re semiunconsciously creating a hive mind of vastly greater power than this planet has ever seen — and vastly less power than it will soon see.

“Us versus the machines” is the wrong mental model. There’s only one machine that really counts. Like it or not, we’re all — us and our machines — becoming part of it: an immense connected brain. Once we had neurons. Now we’re becoming the neurons.

Astrophysicist and philosopher Marcelo Gleiser, who has written beautifully about how to live with mystery in a culture obsessed with knowledge, echoes this idea by pointing out the myriad mundane ways in which “machines that think” already permeate our daily lives:

We define ourselves through our techno-gadgets, create fictitious personas with weird names, doctor pictures to appear better or at least different in Facebook pages, create a different self to interact with others. We exist on an information cloud, digitized, remote, and omnipresent. We have titanium implants in our joints, pacemakers and hearing aids, devices that redefine and extend our minds and bodies. If you’re a handicapped athlete, your carbon-fiber legs can propel you forward with ease. If you’re a scientist, computers can help you extend your brainpower to create well beyond what was possible a few decades back. New problems that once were impossible to contemplate, or even formulate, come around every day. The pace of scientific progress is a direct correlate of our alliance with digital machines.

We’re reinventing the human race right now.

Another common thread running across a number of the answers is the question of what constitutes “artificial” intelligence in the first place and how we draw the line between machine thought and human thought. Caltech theoretical physicist and cosmologist Sean Carroll performs elegant semantic acrobatics to invert the question:

We are all machines that think, and the distinction between different types of machines is eroding.

We pay a lot of attention these days, with good reason, to “artificial” machines and intelligences — ones constructed by human ingenuity. But the “natural” ones that have evolved through natural selection, like you and me, are still around. And one of the most exciting frontiers in technology and cognition is the increasingly permeable boundary between the two categories.

Art from Alice in Quantumland by Robert Gilmore, an allegory of quantum physics inspired by Alice in Wonderland

In my own contribution to the volume, I consider the question of “thinking machines” from the standpoint of what thought itself is and how our human solipsism is limiting our ability to envision and recognize other species of thinking:

Thinking isn’t mere computation — it’s also cognition and contemplation, which inevitably lead to imagination. Imagination is how we elevate the real toward the ideal, and this requires a moral framework of what is ideal. Morality is predicated on consciousness and on having a self-conscious inner life rich enough to contemplate the question of what is ideal. The famous aphorism attributed to Einstein — “Imagination is more important than knowledge” — is interesting only because it exposes the real question worth contemplating: not that of artificial intelligence but of artificial imagination.

Of course, imagination is always “artificial,” in the sense of being concerned with the unreal or trans-real — of transcending reality to envision alternatives to it — and this requires a capacity for accepting uncertainty. But the algorithms driving machine computation thrive on goal-oriented executions in which there’s no room for uncertainty. “If this, then that” is the antithesis of imagination, which lives in the unanswered, and often vitally unanswerable, realm of “What if?” As Hannah Arendt once wrote, losing our capacity for asking such unanswerable questions would be to “lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the unanswerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.”

[…]

Will machines ever be moral, imaginative? It’s likely that if and when they reach that point, theirs will be a consciousness that isn’t beholden to human standards. Their ideals will not be our ideals, but they will be ideals nonetheless. Whether or not we recognize those processes as thinking will be determined by the limitations of human thought in understanding different — perhaps wildly, unimaginably different — modalities of thought itself.

See more responses here.

BONUS: THUNDER & LIGHTNING

Although this gem is among the best art books of the year, it is also a project of significant scientific scholarship, so it warrants inclusion among the year’s best science books as well.

“Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer,” E.B. White wrote in his elevating letter of assurance to a man who had lost faith in humanity, adding: “I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly.” Our most steadfast companion since the dawn of our species, the weather seeded our earliest myths, inspired some of our greatest art, affects the way we think, and continues to lend itself to such apt metaphors for the human experience. Its reliable inconstancy constantly assures us that neither storm nor sunshine lasts forever; that however thick the gloom which shrouds today, the sun always rises tomorrow.

That abiding and dimensional relationship with the weather is what artist, Guggenheim Fellow, and American Museum of Natural History artist-in-residence Lauren Redniss explores in the beguiling Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future (public library).

Part encyclopedia and part almanac, the book is a tapestry of narrative threads highlighting various weather-related curiosities, from Eskimo dream mythology to the science of lightning to the economics of hurricanes to Benjamin Franklin’s inclination for “air baths.” Although Redniss’s selections might give the impression of trivia at first brush, make no mistake — these are not random factlets that trivialize their subject but an intentional kaleidoscopic gleam that shines the light of attention onto some of the most esoteric and enchanting aspects of the weather.

Like Redniss’s previous book — her astonishing visual biography of Marie Curie — this project is enormously ambitious both conceptually and in its execution. Redniss created her illustrations using copperplate etching, an early printmaking technique popular prior to 1820, and typeset the text in an original font she designed herself, which she titled Qanec LR after the Eskimo word for “falling snow.”

Take a closer look here.

Step into the cultural time machine with selections for the best science books of 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011.

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Love, Lunacy, and a Life Fully Lived: Oliver Sacks, the Science of Seeing, and the Art of Being Seen

A touching celebration of the “intense sense of love, death, and transience, inseparably mixed.”

“I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts,” visionary neurologist Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) wrote in his poignant, beautiful, and courageous farewell to life. In one final gesture of generosity, this cartographer of the mind and its meaning maps the landscape of his remarkable character and career in On the Move: A Life (public library) — an uncommonly moving autobiography, titled after a line from a poem by his dear friend Thom Gunn: “At worst,” wrote Gunn, “one is in motion; and at best, / Reaching no absolute, in which to rest, / One is always nearer by not keeping still.” Sacks’s unstillness is that of a life defined by a compassionate curiosity — about the human mind, about the human spirit, about the invisibilia of our inner lives.

The book is not so much an autobiography in the strict sense as a dialogue with time on the simultaneous scales of the personal (going from world-champion weightlifter to world-renowned neurologist), the cultural (being a gay man looking for true love in the 1960s was nothing like it is in our post-DOMA, beTindered present), and the civilizational (watching horseshoe crabs mate on the beaches of City Island exactly as they did 400 million years ago on the shores of Earth’s primordial seas). This record of time pouring through the unclenched fingers of the mind’s most magnanimous patron saint has become one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life — one I came to with deep reverence for Dr. Sacks’s intellectual footprint and left with deep love for his soul.

Dr. Sacks on the set of the cinematic adaptation of his book Awakenings, with Robin Williams, 1989 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Like Marie Curie, whose wounds and power sprang from the same source, Dr. Sacks’s character springs from the common root of his pain and his pleasure. At eighty, he reflects on a defining feature of his interior landscape:

I am shy in ordinary social contexts; I am not able to “chat” with any ease; I have difficulty recognizing people (this is lifelong, though worse now my eyesight is impaired); I have little knowledge of and little interest in current affairs, whether political, social, or sexual. Now, additionally, I am hard of hearing, a polite term for deepening deafness. Given all this, I tend to retreat into a corner, to look invisible, to hope I am passed over. This was incapacitating in the 1960s, when I went to gay bars to meet people; I would agonize, wedged into a corner, and leave after an hour, alone, sad, but somehow relieved. But if I find someone, at a party or elsewhere, who shares some of my own (usually scientific) interests — volcanoes, jellyfish, gravitational waves, whatever — then I am immediately drawn into animated conversation…

But Dr. Sacks’s intense introversion is also what made him such an astute listener and observer — the very quality that rendered him humanity’s most steadfast sherpa into the strange landscape of how minds other than our own experience the seething cauldron of mystery we call life.

On one particular occasion, the thrill of observation swelled to such proportions that it eclipsed his chronic introversion. He recounts:

I almost never speak to people in the street. But some years ago, there was a lunar eclipse, and I went outside to view it with my little 20x telescope. Everyone else on the busy sidewalk seemed oblivious to the extraordinary celestial happening above them, so I stopped people, saying, “Look! Look what’s happening to the moon!” and pressing my telescope into their hands. People were taken aback at being approached in this way, but, intrigued by my manifestly innocent enthusiasm, they raised the telescope to their eyes, “wowed,” and handed it back. “Hey, man, thanks for letting me look at that,” or “Gee, thanks for showing me.”

In a sense, Dr. Sacks has spent half a century pushing a telescope into our hands and inviting us, with the same innocent and infectious enthusiasm, to peer into an object even more remote and mysterious — the human mindscape — until we wow. And although he may paint himself as a comically clumsy genius — there he is, dropping hamburger crumbs into sophisticated lab equipment; there he is, committing “a veritable genocide of earthworms” in an experiment gone awry; there he is, watching nine months of painstaking research fly off the back of his motorcycle into New York’s densest traffic — make no mistake: This is a man of enormous charisma and grace, revealed as much by the details of his life as by the delight of his writing.

Dr. Sacks’s official portrait as a UCLA resident, taken at the neuropathology lab in 1964 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Nowhere does Dr. Sacks’s grace shine most luminously than in the disarming vulnerability — sometimes pensive, often poignant, always profound — with which this great seer discusses the heartbreak of not being seen himself, especially when it comes to the most intimate frontier of the human psyche. He recounts a pivotal conversation with his father as he was about to depart for his university studies at Oxford at the age of eighteen:

“You don’t seem to have many girlfriends,” he said. “Don’t you like girls?”

“They’re all right,” I answered, wishing the conversation would stop.

“Perhaps you prefer boys?” he persisted.

“Yes, I do — but it’s just a feeling — I have never ‘done’ anything,” and then I added, fearfully, “Don’t tell Ma — she won’t be able to take it.” But my father did tell her, and the next morning she came down with a face of thunder, a face I had never seen before. “You are an abomination,” she said. “I wish you had never been born.” Then she left and did not speak to me for several days. When she did speak, there was no reference to what she had said (nor did she ever refer to the matter again), but something had come between us.

Photograph by Oliver Sacks, 1960s (Courtesy of Dr. Sacks for Brain Pickings)

This experience, which left an indelible imprint of shame on young Oliver’s mind, is doubly perplexing and heartbreaking in the context of his parents’ credentials — both were prominent physicians, which would ordinarily imply the unsuperstitious critical thinking that science espouses. In fact, his mother, a female surgeon and anatomist at the dawn of the twentieth century, was a trailblazer for women in science — so much so that his father would jokingly refer to himself as “the husband of the eminent gynecologist Elsie Landau.” And yet even here, Dr. Sacks is able to transcend the personal devastation and perform the great act of empathic inquiry that became the raw material of his work — a dedication to considering the complex reality of another, very different mind:

We are all creatures of our upbringings, our cultures, our times. And I have needed to remind myself, repeatedly, that my mother was born in the 1890s and had an Orthodox upbringing and that in England in the 1950s homosexual behavior was treated not only as a perversion but as a criminal offense. I have to remember, too, that sex is one of those areas — like religion and politics — where otherwise decent and rational people may have intense, irrational feelings.

And herein blooms a vibrant example of the very thing that makes the book so extraordinary — the elegance with which Dr. Sacks bridges the observations of the mind with the tribulations of the heart:

My mother did not mean to be cruel, to wish me dead. She was suddenly overwhelmed, I now realize, and she probably regretted her words or perhaps partitioned them off in a closeted part of her mind. But her words haunted me for much of my life and played a major part in inhibiting and injecting with guilt what should have been a free and joyous expression of sexuality.

That paralyzing inhibition followed him into university, but because guilt is a judgment of reason and the heart has its own emotive will, he eventually found himself falling in love for the first time — in spite of himself, in spite of his mother’s anguishing admonition, in spite of his brother’s well-meaning but woefully misguided effort to alleviate his sexual shyness by introducing him to a kindly French prostitute, who sensed young Oliver’s predicament and instead had “a nice cup of tea” with him.

Oliver Sacks in Oxford in 1953 (Photograph: David Drazin)

At Oxford, he met a young fellow named Richard Selig — a Rhodes scholar of enormous “vitality and love of life,” who “bore himself like a lion.” Dr. Sacks recounts those first flutterings of love:

We got talking; I suspect that it was he who started a conversation, for I was always too shy to initiate any contact and his great beauty made me even shyer… His knowledge of the world was far greater than mine, even given the disparity of age (he was twenty-four; I was twenty), far greater than that of most undergraduates who had gone straight from school to university with no experience of real life in between. He found something interesting in me, and we soon became friends — and more, for I fell in love with him. It was the first time in my life I had fallen in love. I fell in love with his face, his body, his mind, his poetry, everything about him. He would often bring me just-written poems, and I would give him some of my physiology essays in return.

[…]

We would go on long walks together, talking about poetry and science. Richard loved to hear me wax enthusiastic about chemistry and biology, and I lost my shyness when I did so. While I knew that I was in love with Richard, I was very apprehensive of admitting this; my mother’s words about “abomination” had made me feel that I must not say what I was. But, mysteriously, wonderfully, being in love, and in love with a being like Richard, was a source of joy and pride to me, and one day, with my heart in my mouth, I told Richard that I was in love with him, not knowing how he would react. He hugged me, gripped my shoulders, and said, “I know. I am not that way, but I appreciate your love and love you too, in my own way.” I did not feel rebuffed or brokenhearted. He had said what he had to say in the most sensitive way, and our friendship continued, made easier now by my relinquishing certain painful and hopeless longings.

But just as young Oliver was making peace with the fact that he and Richard will only ever be friends — lifelong friends, perhaps — life took one of its cruel turns. One day, Richard showed up in Oliver’s room, concerned about a lump in his groin and asked his friend — since he was a medical student — to take a look. Oliver’s fears were confirmed — it was a malignant tumor. Richard was told he had no more than two years to live, and he never spoke to Oliver again. “I was the first to recognize the deadly import of his tumor,” Dr. Sacks writes with wistfulness so palpably and heartbreakingly unmitigated by the lapse of six decades, “and perhaps he saw me now as a sort of messenger or symbol of death.”

He was so devastated that his studies began to suffer and his parents decided it was best for him to take a leave from Oxford and spend some time in “a friendly and supportive community with hard physical work from dawn till dusk” — so, in 1955, he joined a kibbutz. The experience was transformative in not just the intended ways:

I had gone to the kibbutz as a pallid, unfit 250 pounds, but when I left it three months later, I had lost nearly 60 pounds and, in some deep sense, felt more at home in my own body.

Oliver Sacks in Greenwich Village in 1961, on his new BMW R60 (Photograph: Douglas White)

This was the start of Dr. Sacks’s love affair with the world of physique and strength training — a deeply personal proto-demonstration of something he’d later come to demonstrate as a pioneering neurologist: that the mind is indivisible from the body. In the years that followed, as he returned to clinical work, he also began weight training with a clinician’s systematic rigor. Eventually, he sliced through the country on the back of his beloved motorbike, armed with a camera and a newfound love for landscape photography — this, it bears repeating, is a man of ample talents — and made his way to Venice’s famous Muscle Beach. There, he came to be known as Dr. Squat for squatting with a gobsmacking 600 pounds — a feat by which he set the California state record in 1961. (Having done bodybuilding myself in a past life, my admiration for Dr. Sacks doubled.)

Dr. Squat setting the California state record in 1961

Eventually, Dr. Squat traded in his bike leathers and weightlifting belt for the white coat of Dr. Sacks. He fell in love again with a young man named Mel, only to have his heart broken by Mel’s conflicted rejection:

We enjoyed each other’s company for a year — the year of my internship at Mount Zion. We would go on weekend motorbike rides together, camping out, swimming in ponds and lakes, and sometimes wrestling together. There was an erotic frisson here for me, and perhaps for Mel too. Erotic with the urgent opposition of our bodies, though there was no explicit sexual element, nor would an observer have thought we were anything more than a couple of young men wrestling together. Both of us were proud of our washboard abdominals and would do sets of sit-ups, a hundred or more at a time. Mel would sit astride me, punching me playfully in the stomach with each sit-up, and I would do the same with him.

This I found sexually exciting, and I think he did too; Mel was always saying, “Let’s wrestle,” “Let’s do abs,” though it was not a purposively sexual act. We could work our abdominals or wrestle and get pleasure from it, at one and the same time. So long as things went no further.

I felt Mel’s fragility, his not fully conscious, lurking fear of sexual contact with another man, but also the special feeling he had for me, which, I dared to think, might transcend these fears. I realized I would have to go very gently.

But like those of us who have experienced the devastating disappointment of failing to dissolve another’s private conflictedness by the sheer force of love, Dr. Sacks discovered that all the gentleness in the world was hapless against the hard edges of Mel’s inner inhibitions. When the erotic and romantic tension between them became too much to bear, Mel left, leaving behind the cold ashes of a could-have-been. Its unlived potentiality — like all great unrealized longings — reveals itself as scar tissue of the soul as Dr. Sacks looks back a lifetime later:

I had had dreams, in our “honeymoon” period, that we would spend our lives together, even into a happy old age; I was all of twenty-eight at the time. Now I am eighty, trying to reconstruct an autobiography of sorts. I find myself thinking of Mel, of us together, in those early, lyrical, innocent days, wondering what happened to him, whether he is still alive… I wonder if he will read what I have just written and think more kindly of our ardent, young, very confused selves.

Photograph by Oliver Sacks, 1960s (Courtesy of Dr. Sacks for Brain Pickings)

The heartbreak of this almost-romance catapulted Dr. Sacks into a harrowing bout of amphetamine addiction, which he barely survived. After a couple of other short-lived infatuations, he entered a somewhat undeliberate period of celibacy that would last nearly four decades. What he didn’t find in romantic love he found in his work with patients — a profound sense of purpose and a deep love for how his work touched human lives. He writes:

It was crucial for me to find something with meaning, and this, for me, was seeing patients… I found my patients fascinating, and I cared for them. I started to taste my own clinical and therapeutic powers and, above all, the sense of autonomy and responsibility which I had been denied when I was still a resident in training.

Over the decades that followed, that fusion of fascination and love propelled Dr. Sacks into becoming the most influential neurologist of our time, irrevocably changing our understanding of the human mind and how it shapes the spirit. And because life has a way of dancing with its own strangeness, it was through the love of his work that Dr. Sacks finally found the love of his life. (As some wise friends have memorably advised, “If you are looking for the love of your life, stop; they will be waiting for you when you start doing things you love.”) Dr. Sacks writes:

Shortly after my seventy-fifth birthday in 2008, I met someone I liked. Billy, a writer, had just moved from San Francisco to New York, and we began having dinners together. Timid and inhibited all my life, I let a friendship and intimacy grow between us, perhaps without fully realizing its depth. Only in December of 2009, still recuperating from knee and back surgeries and racked with pain, did I realize how deep it was. Billy was going to Seattle to spend Christmas with his family, and just before he went, he came to see me and (in the serious, careful way he has) said, “I have conceived a deep love for you.” I realized, when he said this, what I had not realized, or had concealed from myself before — that I had conceived a deep love for him too — and my eyes filled with tears. He kissed me, and then he was gone.

[…]

There was an intense emotionality at this time: music I loved, or the long golden sunlight of late afternoon, would set me weeping. I was not sure what I was weeping for, but I would feel an intense sense of love, death, and transience, inseparably mixed.

Oliver Sacks (Photograph: Nicholas Naylor-Leland)

On the Move, the dedication page of which reads simply “for Billy,” is unsynthesizably transcendent in its totality — so immensely rewarding, so rich in private human truth and shared human wisdom, that compressing it into anything less than the full 416 pages is an injustice. As Dr. Sacks bids the world adieu, he leaves us with this miracle of a book — the ultimate gift of “love, death, and transience, inseparably mixed.”

Photographs courtesy of Oliver Sacks; special thanks to Kate Edgar

BP

Turning Trauma into Power: Marina Abramović on How Her Harrowing Childhood Became the Raw Material for Her Art

“You know you are an artist if you have to do art — it’s like breathing and you have no choice. Nothing should be able to stop you.”

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Although creative history is littered with tortured geniuses who survived terrible childhoods full of abuse and violence — take Franz Kafka’s abusive father or Maya Angelou’s rape or Eve Ensler’s trauma — and although my own early years contain elements of these experiences (sans the subsequent genius), I am not one who romanticizes pain, upheaval, and adversity as prerequisites for success. That said, I do find tremendous value in reading about celebrated creators who persevered through traumatic childhoods — first, because to anyone who has ever been stymied by crushing circumstances, these stories offer assurance that it is possible to have a deeply fulfilling life despite the cards one has been dealt; secondly, because these personal accounts yank into question the privilege narrative of our almost automatic assumption that those who have attained public recognition and its capitalist byproduct of financial success must be living charmed, untroubled lives. These stories are, above all, a sometimes jarring, sometimes gentle reminder to heed the words of 19th-century Scottish writer and theologian Ian Maclaren (often misattributed to Plato): “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

This is why I found myself at once deeply moved and hugely heartened by artist Marina Abramović’s contribution to Getting There: A Book of Mentors (public library) — a stimulating compendium by lawyer, photographer, and writer Gillian Zoe Segal, illustrating the notion that “success comes in a potpourri of flavors” through a tasting menu of wildly diverse success-stories by such cultural icons as inventor Craig Venter, mayor extraordinaire Mike Bloomberg, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, composer Hans Zimmer, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp, and billionaire-philanthropist Warren Buffet. (I’d be remiss not to point out that only a quarter of these featured success-models are women and only one is a person of color — a fact stated not as self-righteous criticism, for I did enjoy the volume, but as an unrelenting reminder that we can and, in fact, must do better if we are to have a truly diverse and inclusive cultural rhetoric of success.)

Marina Abramović, ‘The Artist Is Present,’ performance, 2010; Museum of Modern Art, New York. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives.

Abramović was born in Belgrade in 1946, shortly after the end of WWII. Her formative years, while heartbreaking, are not entirely unusual for those of us raised in Eastern Europe — while Abramović’s experience is undoubtedly a function of her parents’ particular personalities, it also reflects more general cultural pathologies related to discipline and the chronic denial of emotional reality. She recounts:

My parents were both partisans and national heroes. They were very hard-core and were so busy with their careers that I lived with my grandmother until I was six. Until then, I hardly even knew who my parents were. They were just two strange people who would visit on Saturdays and bring presents. When I was six, my brother was born, and I was sent back to my parents. From that point on, my childhood was very unhappy. I grew up with incredible control, discipline, and violence at home. Everything was extreme. My mother never kissed me. When I asked why, she said, “Not to spoil you, of course.” She had a bacteria phobia so she didn’t allow me to play with other children out of fear that I might catch a disease. She even washed bananas with detergent. I spent most of my time alone in my room. There were many, many rules. Everything had to be in perfect order. If I slept messily in bed, my mother would wake me in the middle of the night and order me to sleep straight.

Illustrating just how reality-warping such parenting is and how hungry for affectionate care such systematic deprivation leaves the child, Abramović relays the reverse reaction she had to an experience most children would find utterly distressing:

When one of my baby teeth fell out and the bleeding wouldn’t stop, everyone thought I might have hemophilia so I was put in the hospital for a year. That was the happiest, most wonderful time of my life. Everybody was taking care of me and nobody was punishing me. I never felt at home in my own home and I never feel at home anywhere.

And yet under these harsh conditions, Abramović had no choice but to cultivate a skill fundamental for creativity — that vital capacity for “fertile solitude” and ability to do nothing all alone with oneself.

Illustration by Sophie Blackall from ‘Pecan Pie Baby’ by Jacqueline Woodson. Click image for details.

Isolated from other children and condemned to forced aloneness, she began drawing daily — one of the few activities her mother supported — when she was only three. Drawing became a lens through which she saw and understood the world. She relays one particularly formative experience:

One day I was lying on the ground looking up and a few supersonic planes flew over me and made these incredible lines, like drawings. I watched them appear, form, then disappear; and then the sky was blue again. It was incredible. I immediately went to the military base and asked friends of my father’s if they could give me twelve supersonic planes to make a drawing in the sky. They called my father and said, “Get your daughter out of here. She is completely nuts!” But after that, I never went to the studio again. It was almost like a spiritual experience, and I realized that I could make art from practically nothing. I could use water, fire, earth, wind, myself. It’s the concept that matters. This was the beginning of performance for me.

Her first steps in performance — something that wasn’t considered a form of art at the time — were often public stumbles. But despite frequent ridicule and criticism from the press, she continued to push her physical and mental limits, putting on provocative performances that challenged our core assumptions about what art is supposed to be. (As Neil Gaiman urged in his fantastic commencement address on courage and the creative life: “When things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art… IRS on your trail — make good art. Cat exploded — make good art. Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before — make good art.”)

Meanwhile, already well into her twenties, Abramović was still living with her parents and was still being constantly punished by her mother, who continued to beat her and even burned art she made. In a sentiment painfully familiar to those who come from similar circumstances and cultures, Abramović reflects:

It never even crossed my mind to leave. At the time there was really no other choice. Several generations in the same house was how people lived in Eastern Europe.

Illustration by Pascal Lemaitre from ‘The Book of Mean People’ by Toni and Slade Morrison. Click image for details.

And then something literally life-changing happened: On her twenty-ninth birthday, Abramović received an invitation to perform on a Dutch television show. She recounts:

When I arrived at the airport in Amsterdam, I was met by another artist, a man named Ulay, who was to be my guide. We discovered that we had the same birthday and much more than that in common. We immediately fell terribly in love. I returned to Belgrade, but we got lovesick and planned to meet in Prague, which is between Amsterdam and Belgrade. We decided we would live together in Amsterdam and work together too. It was one of those magical moments where everything comes together. So at twenty-nine I ran away from home to live with Ulay. I literally escaped. My mother went to the police, told them that I was missing, and gave them a description of me. The police officer said, “But how old is she?” When he learned I was twenty-nine, he made my mother leave.

Invoking Kierkegaard’s assertion that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes,” Abramović considers how deeply the human spirit is imprinted by those early experiences and how challenging it is to inhabit one’s freedom once the despot is removed from the picture — something as true politically, for countries newly liberated from dictatorship, as it is personally, for those who break free from abusive relationships:

At first, I had trouble adjusting to my newfound freedom. While on one level I hated and rebelled against all my restrictions in Belgrade, both the political control and my home life, I also fed on them. In Amsterdam I felt the need to create my own restrictions and started building instructions for myself in my performances. To this day, every performance I do is based on discipline and specific instructions that have to be executed in front of the public. It’s become the frame I make my work within.

One essential commonality emerges between artists who struggled before finding success. Like Patti Smith, who was homeless and starving for years and yet thought of herself not as a homeless person but as an artist who hasn’t yet found her muse, Abramović made no compromises about being a full-time artist:

All I wanted to do was be an artist. I didn’t want to work in a restaurant or do any other job, so Ulay and I decided to live together in a van. It was the most radical but also the simplest decision I have ever made. It was really the only way we could exist. We had no money and the performances we did hardly paid. We lived like that for five years and it was bliss!

And yet this ecstatic romance eventually came undone and the couple began to drift apart. The heartbreak of the farewell and its actual performance were commensurate with the magnitude of how their love had begun:

For eight years Ulay and I had been requesting permission to do a performance piece on the Great Wall of China. Our plan was to start at opposite ends, walk toward each other, and get married when we met. By the time the Chinese finally said yes, our relationship was over. I have never been one to give up a good opportunity, so we decided to still walk toward each other but say good-bye instead when we met. It was extremely painful. To make things worse, I knew at the time that Ulay had made his Chinese guide pregnant and would soon be having a child with her.

What began as a fairy-tale romance ended in a nightmare. Abramović was forty and even though she felt “fat, ugly, and unwanted,” she had only one choice in order to go on — make good art. She brings the journey full-circle to the determinative experiences of her childhood, attesting to the fact that great artists spend a lifetime making power from their wounds:

When I was growing up, my private life was not valued. The noblest thing one could do in my family was to sacrifice everything for a cause. Art became my cause and it’s still everything to me. I dedicate all the energy in my body to my work and have completely sacrificed a more conventional personal life for it. I have no partner and no children, but I’m very proud of myself for always doing what I want, no matter what the cost and no matter how long it’s taken… I wake up in the morning with this urge to create; it’s almost like I am in a fever. Every single day is structured. I work, work, work, and my curiosity never ends.

Illustration for ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

With the wry self-awareness of those who have found a way to transmute their vulnerability into art — “Maybe all of our coping mechanisms are our artwork,” my dear friend Wendy MacNaughton once said to me — Abramović adds:

I’m also like a clinical case: If you don’t get love from your family, you turn to other things to get it. I get the love I need from my audience. Without the public, my performances wouldn’t exist because I am not motivated to perform alone. The public completes my work and has become the center of my world.

And yet that public love and its tangible material rewards are — must be — only a byproduct of the private passion driving the artist. Echoing Sherwood Anderson’s magnificent letter of life-advice to his son when the young man was headed to art school, Abramović cautions:

When a young artist comes to me and says, “I want to be famous and rich,” I ask him to leave because this is not the reason to make art. Those things are just side effects that you may be lucky enough to achieve. Your reason for doing art should be much deeper. You know you are an artist if you have to do art — it’s like breathing and you have no choice. Nothing should be able to stop you.

Noting that art is sometimes rejected not because it is bad but because it is “ahead of society” — “the function of the artist in a disturbed society,” she has asserted elsewhere, “[is] to ask the right questions, to open consciousness and elevate the mind.” — Abramović adds:

The success of an artist is generally measured by how much he can sell his work for, especially in America. This is shocking to me. How can you measure people like that?

Complement Getting There with wisdom on life from the sagest commencement addresses of all time and some timeless resolutions from humanity’s greatest mentors, then revisit some of the most celebrated artists of our time — including Abramović herself — on courage, criticism, success, and what it really means to be an artist.

BP

Nobel-Winning Playwright Eugene O’Neill on Happiness and the True Measure of Success in a Letter to His Unmotivated Young Son

“Any fool knows that to work hard at something you want to accomplish is the only way to be happy.”

By the time he was fifty, playwright Eugene O’Neill had just about every imaginable cultural accolade under his belt, including three Pulitzers and a Nobel Prize. But the very tools that ensured his professional success — dogged dedication to his work, an ability to block out any distraction, razor-sharp focus on his creative priorities — rendered his personal life on the losing side of a tradeoff. Thrice married, he fathered three children with his first two wives. His youngest son, Shane, was a sweet yet troubled boy who worshipped his father but failed to live up to his own potential.

In the summer of 1939, as O’Neill completed his acclaimed play The Iceman Cometh, Shane was expelled from yet another school. Frustrated with the boy’s track record of such dismissals over the course of his academic career, O’Neill sent his 19-year-old son a magnificent letter epitomizing tough love, found in Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (public library) — the wonderful anthology that gave us Albert Einstein’s advice to his son on the secret to learning anything, Sherwood Anderson on the key to the creative life, Benjamin Rush on travel and life, Lincoln Steffens on the power of not-knowing, and some of history’s greatest motherly advice. While heavy on the love, O’Neill’s letter is also unflinchingly honest in its hard truths about life, success, and the key to personal fulfillment.

O’Neill doesn’t take long to cut to the idea that an education is something one claims, not something one gets. With stern sensitivity, he issues an admonition that would exasperate the archetypal millennial (that archetype being, of course, merely another limiting stereotype) and writes:

All I know is that if you want to get anywhere with it, or with anything else, you have got to adopt an entirely different attitude from the one you have had toward getting an education. In plain words, you’ve got to make up your mind to study whatever you undertake, and concentrate your mind on it, and really work at it. This isn’t wisdom. Any damned fool in the world knows it’s true, whether it’s a question of raising horses or writing plays. You simply have to face the prospect of starting at the bottom and spending years learning how to do it.

O’Neill’s son seems to suffer from Fairy Godmother Syndrome — the same pathology afflicting many young people today, from aspiring musicians clamoring to be on nationally televised talent competitions that would miraculously “make” their career to online creators nursing hopes of being “discovered” with a generous nod from an established internet goddess or god. O’Neill captures this in a beautiful lament:

The trouble with you, I think, is you are still too dependent on others. You expect too much from outside you and demand too little of yourself. You hope everything will be made smooth and easy for you by someone else. Well, it’s coming to the point where you are old enough, and have been around enough, to see that this will get you exactly nowhere. You will be what you make yourself and you have got to do that job absolutely alone and on your own, whether you’re in school or holding down a job.

O’Neill points to finding one’s purpose, and the inevitable work ethic it requires, as the surest way to attain fulfillment in life:

The best I can do is to try to encourage you to work hard at something you really want to do and have the ability to do. Because any fool knows that to work hard at something you want to accomplish is the only way to be happy. But beyond that it is entirely up to you. You’ve got to do for yourself all the seeking and finding concerned with what you want to do. Anyone but yourself is useless to you there.

[…]

What I am trying to get firmly planted in your mind is this: In the really important decisions of life, others cannot help you. No matter how much they would like to. You must rely on yourself. That is the fate of each one of us. It can’t be changed. It just is like that. And you are old enough to understand this now.

And that’s all of that. It isn’t much help in a practical advice way, but in another way it might be. At least, I hope so.

Toward the end of the letter, O’Neill makes a sidewise remark that might well be his most piercing and universally valuable piece of wisdom:

I’m glad to know of your doing so much reading and that you’re becoming interested in Shakespeare. If you really like and understand his work, you will have something no one can ever take from you.

Complement Posterity with more enduring fatherly wisdom on life, including Ted Hughes on nurturing one’s eternal inner child, F. Scott Fitzgerald on what is worth worrying about in life, Charles Dickens on cultivating kindness, and Jackson Pollock on falling in love, then revisit Anton Chekhov — whose sensibility O’Neill’s is often likened to — on the eight qualities of cultured people in a letter of advice to his younger brother.

BP

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