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Pioneering Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Science and Life: Timeless Wisdom from Her Diaries

“The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.”

Trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) played an enormous and lasting role in paving the way for women in science. The first recognized female astronomer in America and the first woman elected, unanimously, to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Mitchell (whose first name is pronounced, unlike mine, mə-RYE-əh) is also considered the first woman employed for a non-domestic specialized skill by the U.S. federal government. She was paid $300 a year for her job as a “computer of Venus” for the United States Nautical Almanac, a mathematically heavy endeavor requiring that she synthesize complex calculations into charts that predicted Venus’s position in the sky for years ahead — information that sailors all over the world used for critical celestial navigation. A champion of civil rights and women’s education, Mitchell reached worldwide celebrity by the time she was forty. Her brilliant mind and scientific genius were eclipsed only by her enormous kindness and her unrelenting humility.

Culled here from Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library | free ebook) is Mitchell’s most timeless wisdom on science, society, and life.

Maria Mitchell. Portrait by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists project.

On October 31, 1853, Mitchell writes in her diary:

People have to learn sometimes not only how much the heart, but how much the head, can bear.

(More than half a century later, Zelda Fitzgerald would come to echo the lament in her own private writings.)

A month later, she writes:

There is said to be no up or down in creation, but I think the world must be low, for people who keep themselves constantly before it do a great deal of stooping!

In September of 1854, her journal bespeaks her remarkable work ethic — of which Tchaikovsky and Jack White would be proud, as would Isabel Allende, E. B. White, and Chuck Close — coupled with her keen self-awareness:

I made observations for three hours last night, and am almost ill to-day from fatigue; still I have worked all day, trying to reduce the places, and mean to work hard again to-night.

[…]

The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not.

On October 17, 1854, as she observes the way her computations reveal both how much she knows and how much she has yet to learn, Mitchell marvels:

The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.

Will it really unroll to us at some future time? Aside from the gratification of the affections in another world, that of the intellect must be great if it is enlarged and its desires are the same.

Like Ptolemy, Mitchell finds enormous revelry and transcendence in astronomy — something Carl Sagan would come to echo more than a century later in his meditation on science and spirituality. Mitchell writes:

One gets attached (if the term may be used) to certain midnight apparitions. The Aurora Borealis is always a pleasant companion; a meteor seems to come like a messenger from departed spirits; and the blossoming of trees in the moonlight becomes a sight looked for with pleasure.

Aside from the study of astronomy, there is the same enjoyment in a night upon the housetop, with the stars, as in the midst of other grand scenery; there is the same subdued quiet and grateful seriousness; a calm to the troubled spirit, and a hope to the desponding.

And later:

Nothing comes out more clearly in astronomical observations than the immense activity of the universe. ‘All change, no loss, ’tis revolution all.’

In fact, Mitchell harbored enormous admiration for the early astronomers, framed by her appreciation of how knowledge evolves:

They were wonderful men, the early astronomers. That was a great conception, which now seems to us so simple, that the earth turns upon its axis, and a still greater one that it revolves about the sun (to show this last was worth a man’s lifetime, and it really almost cost the life of Galileo). Somehow we are ready to think that they had a wider field than we for speculation, that truth being all unknown it was easier to take the first step in its paths. But is the region of truth limited? Is it not infinite?… We know a few things which were once hidden, and being known they seem easy; but there are the flashings of the Northern Lights — ‘Across the lift they start and shift;’ there is the conical zodiacal beam seen so beautifully in the early evenings of spring and the early mornings of autumn; there are the startling comets, whose use is all unknown; there are the brightening and flickering variable stars, whose cause is all unknown; and the meteoric showers — and for all of these the reasons are as clear as for the succession of day and night; they lie just beyond the daily mist of our minds, but our eyes have not yet pierced through it.

Mitchell — who, by the end of her life, greatly prided herself on having earned a salary for 50 uninterrupted years — had her first job as a librarian at Nantucket’s legendary Atheneum. There, she further cultivated the love of books amidst which she had grown up. In a diary entry from January of 1855, she captures with remarkable eloquence the greatest — and, today, tragically forgotten — responsibility of the true librarian (or writer, or editor, or curator): To invite people beyond the frontiers of their existing knowledge, to elevate them, to broaden their curiosity rather than catering to their familiar wants:

I do not suppose that such works as those issued by the Smithsonian regents are appreciated by all who turn them over, but the ignorant learn that such things exist; they perceive that a higher cultivation than theirs is in the world, and they are stimulated to strive after greater excellence. So I steadily advocate, in purchasing books for the Atheneum, the lifting of the people. ‘Let us buy, not such books as the people want, but books just above their wants, and they will reach up to take what is put out for them.’

“The most important knowledge is that which guides the way you lead your life,” mused Seneca in Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom, and Mitchell articulates a parallel sentiment in September of 1855:

To know what one ought to do is certainly the hardest thing in life. ‘Doing’ is comparatively easy; but there are no laws for your individual case — yours is one of a myriad.

During her European tour in 1858, Mitchell visits England’s Greenwich Observatory and presages Brian Cox’s recent meditation on science as a prerequisite for democracy and progress, and observes:

It is singular what a quiet motive-power Science is, the breath of a nation’s progress.

To be sure, Mitchell’s interests — as is typical of most great scientists — spanned well beyond science. She had a profound appreciation for beauty, poetry, and art. As this charming gripe from a diary entry during the same visit indicates, she was also a budding book design critic and indignant defender of literature’s sanctity:

I was vexed when I saw some of our most miserable novels, bound in showy yellow and red, exposed for sale. A friend told me that they had copied from the cheap publications of America. It may be so, but they have outdone us in the cheapness of the material and the showy covers. I never saw yellow and red together on any American book.

Indeed, she saw the appreciation of art as a kind of mental discipline and spiritual hygiene:

Health of body is not only an accompaniment of health of mind, but is the cause; the converse may be true, — that health of mind causes health of body; but we all know that intellectual cheer and vivacity act upon the mind. If the gymnastic exercise helps the mind, the concert or the theatre improves the health of the body.

Mitchell was also a keen observer of human nature. In visiting with a revered elderly Cambridge astronomer who was unable to articulate what steps precipitated his discovery of a new planet, Mitchell observes:

It is always so — you cannot get a man of genius to explain steps, he leaps.

In another journal entry, she considers what modern psychology has since demonstrated and Anaïs Nin has eloquently echoed — the notion that our character and sense of self is a constantly evolving mosaic rather than a static sculpture:

The same individual is not the same at all times; so that between two individuals there is a mean or middle individual, and each individual has a mean or middle self, which is not the man of to-day, nor the man of yesterday, nor the man of to-morrow; but a middle man among these different selves….

In visiting Italy and reflecting on Galileo’s legacy, Mitchell considers the friction between science and religion — a friction bemoaned before her by Galileo himself and after her by Neil deGrasee Tyson and countless contemporary thinkers:

I know of no picture in the history of religion more weakly pitiable than that of the Holy Church trembling before Galileo, and denouncing him because he found in the Book of Nature truths not stated in their own Book of God — forgetting that the Book of Nature is also a Book of God.

It seems to be difficult for any one to take in the idea that two truths cannot conflict.

Mitchell herself found enormous beauty and revelry in her science. In an entry from February of 1853, she writes:

I am just learning to notice the different colors of the stars, and already begin to have a new enjoyment. Betelgeuse is strikingly red, while Rigel is yellow. There is something of the same pleasure in noticing the hues that there is in looking at a collection of precious stones, or at a flower-garden in autumn. Blue stars I do not yet see, and but little lilac except through the telescope.

Two years later, she returns to this sacred source of colorful awe:

I swept around for comets about an hour, and then I amused myself with noticing the varieties of color. I wonder that I have so long been insensible to this charm in the skies, the tints of the different stars are so delicate in their variety. … What a pity that some of our manufacturers shouldn’t be able to steal the secret of dyestuffs from the stars, and astonish the feminine taste by new brilliancy in fashion.

Still, Mitchell’s loyalties remained unflinchingly rooted in the heart of science. Another journal entry:

All their book learning in astronomy should be mathematical. The astronomy which is not mathematical is what is so ludicrously called “Geography of the Heavens” — is not astronomy at all.

After the Civil War, Mitchell was invited to teach at the prestigious new Vassar College, where she was the only woman on the faculty. Frustrated with the conservative mindset of even an institution as liberal as Vassar, Mitchell writes in her diary on October 31, 1866:

We wait and ask for precedent. If the earth had waited for a precedent, it never would have turned on its axis!

Mitchell laments in a diary entry from 1866:

The phrase ‘popular science’ has in itself a touch of absurdity. That knowledge which is popular is not scientific.

She later adds:

One of the unfavorable results of the attempt to popularize science is this: the reader of popular scientific books is very likely to think that he understands the science itself, when he merely understands what some writer says about science.

(How proud and thrilled she would’ve been to see the work of such revered science-popularizers as Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Brian Cox, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.)

In a sentiment Feynman himself would come to echo in his meditation on the role of scientific culture in modern society, Mitchell laments:

This ignorance of the masses leads to a misconception in two ways; the little that a scientist can do, they do not understand, — they suppose him to be godlike in his capacity, and they do not see results; they overrate him and they underrate him — they underrate his work.

And yet Mitchell did very much believe in inviting “the masses” into the whimsy of science:

It is always difficult to teach the man of the people that natural phenomena belong as much to him as to scientific people.

But perhaps she saw the challenge of engaging with science as one of will, not acumen — in another diary entry, she writes:

Great is the self-denial of those who follow science.

In 1871, she extols the critical role of imagination in science:

We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.

Mitchell brings her generosity of spirit, her humility, and optimistic curiosity to her travels, debunking the American-abroad stereotype. Visiting Prussia, she writes:

I try, when I am abroad, to see in what they are superior to us, — not in what they are inferior.

Our great idea is, of course, freedom and self-government; probably in that we are ahead of the rest of the world, although we are certainly not so much in advance as we suppose; but we are sufficiently inflated with our own greatness to let that subject take care of itself when we travel. We travel to learn; and I have never been in any country where they did not do something better than we do it, think some thoughts better than we think, catch some inspiration from heights above our own — as in the art of Italy, the learning of England, and the philosophy of Germany.

In her typical fashion of observing a small circumstance and extrapolating from it a grand truth about life, Mitchell writes while encountering travel difficulties due to two warring railroads in Russia:

War, no matter where or when it occurs, means ignorance and stupidity.

And yet Mitchell was a relentless optimist when it came to the capacity of the human mind and spirit. In a diary entry, chronicling her observation of the Denver solar eclipse in 1878, she writes:

We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire; the more we see, the more are we capable of seeing.

Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals is absolutely fantastic in its entirety, a remarkable glimpse of a remarkable mind that shaped modern society in ways we’re only just beginning to fully realize. Do yourself a favor and grab the free download.

UPDATE: Find more of Maria Mitchell, her unusual life, and her far-reaching legacy, in my book Figuring.

BP

Little Big Books: The Secrets of Great Children’s Book Illustration

“The picture book serves as a personal, private art gallery, held in the hand, to be revisited over and over again.”

Looking back on the best children’s books of the year raises the inevitable question, “What makes a great picture-book?” — a question all the more essential given the formative role picture-books play in our emotional, psychological, social, and aesthetic development. That’s precisely what the fine folks of Gestalten — who have previously brought us Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language, one of the best art and design books of 2011 — explore in Little Big Books: Illustrations for Children’s Picture Books (public library). The lavish large-format volume documents some of the best contemporary children’s book illustration, examining the trends, images, concepts, and materials that define the genre’s design and conceptual aesthetic today through the work of more than 100 artists and illustrators, including favorites like Rambharos Jha, Blexbolex, Bhajju Shyam, Durga Bai and Ram Singh Urveti, Oliver Jeffers, and Rilla Alexander.

‘Semidisegnitelodico’ by Philip Giordano
‘Waterlife’ by Rambharos Jha
‘A Little Lost’ by Chris Haughton
‘Y recuerda…’ (Brothers Grimm) by Juanjo G. Oller

Sonja Commentz writes in the introduction:

Attuned to these changing tastes, narratives, and market movements, open-eyed editors and perceptive publishing houses continue to play a vital role in the discovery and cultivation of budding artists — and the resulting creative process tends to be a two-way street. Often taking a welcome long-term approach and vie, outstanding editors — like Harper & Row’s legendary Ursula Nordstrom who cherished, nurtured, and defended beloved recalcitrant geniuses like Maurice Sendak and Tomi Ungerer, among others — serve as headstrong and softhearted yet pivotal enablers who can set the stage and direction for an entire generation of picture books. And yet there is trouble afoot: pandering to economic trends in the growing — and increasingly competitive — picture-book market, actual contents, creativity, and originality might lose out, right down to the point where bookstores dedicate entire pink-clad corners to a monoculture of princess books.

(Indeed, Nordstrom herself lamented half a century ago that too many decisions in children’s publishing were being made by “mediocre ladies in influential positions.” Sadly, little seems to have changed in the mainstream publishing world.)

‘The Night Life of Trees’ by Bhajju Shyam, Durga Bai and Ram Singh Urveti
‘Lady René’ by Laura Varsky
‘Her Idea’ by Rilla Alexander

In the postscript to the introduction, Commentz offers a delightful disclaimer:

It order to really appreciate the depth of a story, its accord of image and text, narrative and spell-binding atmosphere, and to grasp just how some of the more radical an abstract samples truly work, there is no quick fix or detour. Just get the book, grab a willing child, find a seat, and read the entire story together: turning the pages, cover to cover. And then start again at the beginning!

‘No Man’s Land’ by Blexbolex
‘Along a Long Road’ by Frank Viva

In one of the interviews included in the volume, celebrated English illustrator Martin Salisbury — who co-authored the wonderful Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling — offers some practical guidelines to the art of the picture book and addresses the most pervasive pitfalls of the creative process:

There are many common mistakes made by those setting out to create a picture book for the first time. The first is the belief that it is easy. More than most areas, picture-book creation suffers from the ‘I could do that’ perception. There are many obvious mistakes, e.g., trying to write a narrative or sequence in words and then illustrating it in a way that means the words and pictures are saying the same thing. usually, the process of ‘writing’ or making a picture book has to be one that involves thinking about words AND pictures right from the start. A very common mistake is to make perfect pictorial double-page compositions and then ask yourself, ‘Right , now where shall I put the words?’ Right from the start, the words need to be an integral part of the shape of the layout — a visual element that is as important as anything else that appears on the page. The spread’s composition should seem ‘wrong’ before the text is added.

[…]

The process of ‘reading’ pictorial narrative from left to right (in the West at least) means that the rhythm, pace, and ebb and flow of the picture book need to be plotted carefully around this format and the act of page-turning within it — a form of stage direction if you will. In a way, the picture book becomes a theater where the maker is the director, stage manager, actor… and in total artistic control!

‘La fata Però nel bosco dei pini Perché’ by Simona Mulazzani
‘La Reina Mab, el hada de las pesadillas’ by Cristian Turdera
‘Plein soleil’ by Antoine Guilloppé

Salisbury stresses the formative role picture books play in cultivating aesthetic literacy:

After all, this is often a child’s first introduction to the visual arts: the picture book serves as a personal, private art gallery, held in the hand, to be revisited over and over again.

‘Stuck’ by Oliver Jeffers

‘Mac & Mamma’ by Gerry Turley

On the psychology of children’s response to picture books, Salisbury makes an important distinction between picture books and digital media and echoes Maurice Sendak in turning an eye towards censorship:

One of the problems of trying to research young children’s responses to imagery is the fact that they don’t have the language to express what they are experiencing. And of course they are just like us, individuals — with equally individual tastes and responses. But it seems clear that they develop the ability to process pictorial sequences very early on. In fact, this seems to be an ability that we — quite often — have to relearn as adults! My guess is that, even if everything in the images is unfamiliar, children are making their own sense of things. on a basic but important level, a picture book will allow time for the eye to travel around the page and explore shape, color and form. The key thing is that the speed is not dictated externally, as with many screen-based media.

[…]

Children seem to have a limitless capacity to absorb and handle all manner of thins that we might worry about. In recent generations, we have become much more protective and censorious. While we would not wish to return to the days when children’s books promoted the chopping off of thumbs if they were being sucked, I think a lot depends on the done with which such cruelty is portrayed. Roald Dahl’s enormous popularity reflects his complete absence of patronizing language and joy in the ‘incorrectness’ that children adore. I think we could afford, certainly in the West, to be a little less protective.

‘Een griezelmeisje’ by Isabelle Vandenabeele
‘Rikki-tikki-tavi’ by Isidro Ferrer

Salisbury offers a thoughtful meditation on the future of picture books in the digital age, emphasizing the increasing allure of children’s books as exquisite artifacts:

Of course, one of the main preoccupations right now is the role of downloadable apps and e-books in the picture-book market. At the moment, no one seems to know quite what their impact will be, but everyone is running around saying, ‘We should be doing something.’ One thing, however, is clear: printed picture books are becoming increasingly beautiful in their production with ever greater attention to the physical, tactile, ‘holding’ quality of the books as artifacts, in gloriously varied sizes and shapes. This process is carving out the territory of the book as a beautiful thing; a thing distinct from the screen that provides us with information but doesn’t allow us to own, feel, or interact with tit in the same way. Until very recently, most picture book apps were rather banal in their conception, concentrating on trying to shoehorn commercially proven books into an alien format with minor digital bells and whistles. It reminds me of the period immediately after the arrival of Photoshop when everything looked the same as designers decided they were no illustrators. Once the people who were most resistant to it (i.e., the ones who weren’t seduced by technology ) began to learn to use the program, however, things started to get interesting.

Complement Little Big Books: Illustrations for Children’s Picture Books with Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling, which examines the present as well as the past of the genre, including the legacy of such icons as Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, and Bruno Munari.

BP

Hermann Hesse on What Trees Teach Us About Belonging and Life

“When we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.”

Hermann Hesse on What Trees Teach Us About Belonging and Life

I woke up this morning to discover a tiny birch tree rising amidst my city quasi-garden, having overcome unthinkable odds to float its seed over heaps of concrete and glass, and begin a life in a meager oasis of soil. And I thought, my god*, what a miracle. What magic. What a reminder that life does not await permission to be lived.

This little wonder reminded me of a beautiful passage by Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) — one of the most beautiful I’ve ever read — from his 1920 collection of fragments, Wandering: Notes and Sketches (public library).

For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. . . . Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.

Artwork by Bryan Nash Gill from his book Woodcut.

* As Anaïs Nin wrote in her correspondence with Henry Miller, “I spell ‘god’ with a small ‘g’ because I do not believe in him, but I love to swear by him.”

BP

Waterlife: Exquisite Illustrations of Marine Creatures Based on Indian Folk Art

From walls to paper, or what the eye of the octopus has to do with swans and women’s role in the arts.

I’ve been a longtime fan of independent Indian publisher Tara Books, who for the past 16 years has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on remarkable handmade books, including I Like Cats, Do!, and Tara’s crown jewel, The Night Life of Trees. But now comes what’s positively the most exquisite book I’ve ever held in my hands: Waterlife (public library) by artist Rambharos Jha, who explores the marine wonderland through vibrant Mithila art, a form of folk painting from Bihar in eastern India.

‘The Lobster’s Secret’
‘Crocodile Smile’
‘Snake Festival’

Jha writes:

I was born in the culture-rich district of Darbanga, in the Mithila region. But my father moved along with all of us to Madhubani, where he started work in a government-supported art and cultural project. This project sought to breathe new life into local art traditions and also to help artists earn a living. Since women had traditionally decorated walls and courtyards, they participated in this project in large numbers…

Living as we did in Madhubani, I had a chance to look at what they were painting. I would spend hours watching them work. I had not known of this art earlier and wondered why I was drawn to it, and what purpose there could be in my being attracted to these lines and shapes? Mixing colours and ideas, the women drew pictures that took hold of my mind.

Jha eventually learned to draw himself, initially drawing on stories from Hindu mythology and eventually moving on to more secular subjects, pursuing his own creative impulse but remaining deeply inspired by tradition.

Mithila art was originally painted on the walls of houses during festival season, but in the late 1970s, it migrated from walls to paper.

The book comes in a limited edition of 3,000 hand-numbered copies and, like all handmade Tara gems, is screen-printed by local artisans in Chennai using traditional Indian dyes, whose earthy scent you can smell as you leaf through the thick, textured pages.

Waterlife was among 10 books I curated for the TED 2012 Bookstore and is, without a shadow of exaggeration, among the most beautiful books I’ve ever laid eyes on. The screen does it no justice whatsoever.

BP

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