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In Transit: Neil Gaiman Reads His Touching Tribute to the Lonely Genius Arthur Eddington, Who Confirmed Einstein’s Relativity

“To see the world beyond the skies, to know the mind behind the eyes…”

“You have got a boy mixed of most kindly elements, as perhaps Shakespeare might say. His rapidly and clearly working mind has not in the least spoiled his character,” a school principal wrote at the end of the nineteenth century to the mother of a lanky quiet teenager who would grow up to be the great English astronomer Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington (December 28, 1882–November 22, 1944) and who would catapult Albert Einstein into celebrity by confirming his relativity theory in his historic eclipse expedition of May 29, 1919.

The centennial of that landmark event, which revolutionized science and united a war-torn humanity under one sky of cosmic truth, was the subject of the third Universe in Verse — the charitable celebration of science through poetry I host each spring at Pioneer Works — and as has been our annual tradition, we had the great honor of an original poem for the occasion by one of the great storytellers of our time: Neil Gaiman.

Arthur Eddington

Born into a family descended from the first Quakers and stretching back four generations of farmers, Stanley — as his mother and sister always called him — learned the multiplication table before he could read and tasked himself with counting the letters of the Bible. By the age of ten, this unusual child who was and would remain very much his own person had observed most of the sky with a 3-inch telescope his headmaster had loaned him.

At twenty, after winning a series of mathematics competitions and scholarships, Eddington entered Trinity College, where he was immediately immersed in the cult of Newton. His peers would later remember him as extremely quiet and reserved, exuding formidable powers of concentration. (Later in life, his awkwardness and aloofness would make some of his students perceive him as arrogant.) In 1904, while Einstein was finalizing his special relativity, the 22-year-old Eddington became the first second-year Trinity student to rise to the top of the undergraduate student body in mathematics — a position known as Senior Wrangler and regarded at the time as “the greatest intellectual achievement attainable in Britain.”

Two of Eddington’s photographs from his historic eclipse observation, proving Einstein right and Newton wrong.

At Trinity, Eddington met Charles Trimble. A classmate who also came from a working-class background, this pensive-looking youth with gentle features and neatly combed black hair soon became his most intimate friend. Eddington was an avid cyclist and usually rode alone, but he began going on long rides with Charles, talking about mathematics and literature. Only in Charles’s company, he deviated from his Quaker discipline and took the occasional cheerful drink, smoked the occasional cigarette, went to the theater and the newborn cinema.

Charles eventually took a mathematics post and spiraled into mental illness. Eddington never married, never had another intimate bond. He lived out his days with his sister, Winifred, who also never married. I picture him Turing-like — in his genius, in his misapprehended awkwardness, in his loneliness and heartbreak.

That invisible private side to the public genius is what Gaiman takes up with empathic perceptiveness and great tenderness in his poem, celebrating what he calls these “twin suns” of Eddington’s life and, through the diffraction that is all great art, celebrating the twin suns of the public self and the private self, of genius and loneliness, of intellectual heroism and emotional heartbreak, that shine in varying degrees on every human life.

IN TRANSIT (for Arthur Eddington)
by Neil Gaiman

1.

To find the many in the one
he sweated under foreign skies
to see the stars behind the sun.

So space and time were now undone
reality was undisguised.
We found the many in the one.

There is no photograph, not one,
that shows the mind behind the eyes.
He saw the stars behind the sun.

Not with a sword, or knife, or gun,
a simple picture severed ties.
He found the many in the one.

Light bends around us. So we run,
as gravity reclassifies
the stars we saw behind the sun.

To see the world beyond the skies,
to know the mind behind the eyes,
To find the many in the one
he showed us stars behind the sun.

2.

Unfucked, or anyway retiring,
in the awkward sense. Retirement will never be an option.
The gruff gentleman with the cap who understands
what the numbers mean
remembers a bicycle ride when he was younger.

The smoke of the cigarettes he does not smoke kicks at his lungs
mixing with the buzz of the booze he doesn’t ever drink
a convivial pint after the ride into the country gave him such a thirst.
And afterwards they lay on their back in the stubble
staring up at the stars. Together. All the stars

Countable as the words in a Bible,
countable as the hairs on his friend’s head,
all accountable, and that is why they never truly touched.
The shadow of prison or disgrace perhaps moving between them
like the shadow of an eclipse.

And, in another life, at another time,
to see the stars behind the sun,
he takes his photographs
fighting the cloud cover. Becoming
the thing that happened in Principe.
when he proved that the German was right,
that light had weight,
half a year after the Armistice.
A populariser, but not courting popularity.

Somewhen a boy is counting stars.
Somewhen a man is photographing light.
Somewhen his finger strokes the stubble on another’s cheek,
and for a moment everything is relative.

Complement with Gaiman’s superb original poems from the first two years of The Universe in Verse“The Mushroom Hunters” (2017), a subversive celebration of the history of women in science, which won the Rhysling Award for Best Long Poem; and “After Silence” (2018), a tribute to the life and legacy of Rachel Carson — then revisit the touching, improbable story of how Eddington confirmed relativity.

For more wonder and beauty from The Universe in Verse, savor astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman, and “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by the astronomer, poet, and tragic genius Rebecca Elson, Amanda Palmer reading “Hubble Photographs” by Adrienne Rich, and astronomer Natalie Batalha reading “Renascence” by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

BP

13 Life-Learnings from 13 Years of Brain Pickings

More fluid reflections on keeping a solid center.

On October 23, 2006, Brain Pickings was born as a plain-text email to seven friends. It was then, and continues to be, a labor of love and ledger of curiosity, although the mind and heart from which it sprang have changed — have grown, I hope — tremendously. At the end of the first decade, I told its improbable origin story and drew from its evolution the ten most important things this all-consuming daily endeavor taught me about writing and living — largely notes to myself, perhaps best thought of as resolutions in reverse, that may or may not be useful to others.

Now, as Brain Pickings turns thirteen — the age at which, at least in the Germanic languages, childhood tips to adolescence; the age at which I first competed in the European Math Olympics; the legal marriage age in my homeland; the number of British colonies that germinated the United States; the number of moons revolving around Neptune; a handsome prime number — I feel compelled to add three more learnings from the past three years, which have been in some ways the most difficult and in some ways the most beautiful of my life; the years in which I made the things of which I am proudest: created The Universe in Verse, composed Figuring, and finally published, after eight years of labor, A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

With dad, year 0
With dad, year 0

Here are the initial ten learnings, as published in 2016, which I continue to stand and live by:

  1. Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.
  2. Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. As Paul Graham observed, “prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract from the things that do offer those deeper rewards.
  3. Be generous. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them.
  4. Build pockets of stillness into your life. Meditate. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming, even to boredom. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken. Most important, sleep. Besides being the greatest creative aphrodisiac, sleep also affects our every waking moment, dictates our social rhythm, and even mediates our negative moods. Be as religious and disciplined about your sleep as you are about your work. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of badge of honor that validates our work ethic. But what it really is is a profound failure of self-respect and of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your health and your sanity, from which all else springs?

  5. When people tell you who they are, Maya Angelou famously advised, believe them. Just as important, however, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.
  6. Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
  7. “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.” This is borrowed from the wise and wonderful Debbie Millman, for it’s hard to better capture something so fundamental yet so impatiently overlooked in our culture of immediacy. The myth of the overnight success is just that — a myth — as well as a reminder that our present definition of success needs serious retuning. The flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.
  8. Seek out what magnifies your spirit. Patti Smith, in discussing William Blake and her creative influences, talks about writers and artists who magnified her spirit — it’s a beautiful phrase and a beautiful notion. Who are the people, ideas, and books that magnify your spirit? Find them, hold on to them, and visit them often. Use them not only as a remedy once spiritual malaise has already infected your vitality but as a vaccine administered while you are healthy to protect your radiance.
  9. Don’t be afraid to be an idealist. There is much to be said for our responsibility as creators and consumers of that constant dynamic interaction we call culture — which side of the fault line between catering and creating are we to stand on? The commercial enterprise is conditioning us to believe that the road to success is paved with catering to existing demands — give the people cat GIFs, the narrative goes, because cat GIFs are what the people want. But E.B. White, one of our last great idealists, was eternally right when he asserted half a century ago that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down” — a role each of us is called to with increasing urgency, whatever cog we may be in the machinery of society. Supply creates its own demand. Only by consistently supplying it can we hope to increase the demand for the substantive over the superficial — in our individual lives and in the collective dream called culture.
  10. Don’t just resist cynicism — fight it actively. Fight it in yourself, for this ungainly beast lays dormant in each of us, and counter it in those you love and engage with, by modeling its opposite. Cynicism often masquerades as nobler faculties and dispositions, but is categorically inferior. Unlike that great Rilkean life-expanding doubt, it is a contracting force. Unlike critical thinking, that pillar of reason and necessary counterpart to hope, it is inherently uncreative, unconstructive, and spiritually corrosive. Life, like the universe itself, tolerates no stasis — in the absence of growth, decay usurps the order. Like all forms of destruction, cynicism is infinitely easier and lazier than construction. There is nothing more difficult yet more gratifying in our society than living with sincerity and acting from a place of largehearted, constructive, rational faith in the human spirit, continually bending toward growth and betterment. This remains the most potent antidote to cynicism. Today, especially, it is an act of courage and resistance.

And here are the three new additions, which refine some of the subtler ideas and ideals contemplated above:

  1. A reflection originally offered on the cusp of Year 11, by way of a wonderful poem about pi: Question your maps and models of the universe, both inner and outer, and continually test them against the raw input of reality. Our maps are still maps, approximating the landscape of truth from the territories of the knowable — incomplete representational models that always leave more to map, more to fathom, because the selfsame forces that made the universe also made the figuring instrument with which we try to comprehend it.
  2. Because Year 12 is the year in which I finished writing Figuring (though it emanates from my entire life), and because the sentiment, which appears in the prelude, is the guiding credo to which the rest of the book is a 576-page footnote, I will leave it as it stands: There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.
  3. In any bond of depth and significance, forgive, forgive, forgive. And then forgive again. The richest relationships are lifeboats, but they are also submarines that descend to the darkest and most disquieting places, to the unfathomed trenches of the soul where our deepest shames and foibles and vulnerabilities live, where we are less than we would like to be. Forgiveness is the alchemy by which the shame transforms into the honor and privilege of being invited into another’s darkness and having them witness your own with the undimmed light of love, of sympathy, of nonjudgmental understanding. Forgiveness is the engine of buoyancy that keeps the submarine rising again and again toward the light, so that it may become a lifeboat once more.

And since Brain Pickings is the public record of what I privately think and feel and worry and wonder about daily, here is a time machine of thought and feeling via thirteen of the pieces I have most enjoyed writing these past thirteen years:

  1. The More Loving One


  2. Big Wolf & Little Wolf: A Tender Tale of Loneliness, Belonging, and How Friendship Transforms Us


  3. How to Grow Old: Bertrand Russell on What Makes a Fulfilling Life


  4. The Difficult Art of Giving Space in Love: Rilke on Freedom, Togetherness, and the Secret to a Good Marriage


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


  6. Zadie Smith on Optimism and Despair


  7. Telling Is Listening: Ursula K. Le Guin on the Magic of Real Human Conversation


  8. The Writing of “Silent Spring”: Rachel Carson and the Culture-Shifting Courage to Speak Inconvenient Truth to Power


  9. Susan Sontag on Storytelling, What It Means to Be a Moral Human Being, and Her Advice to Writers


  10. Emily Dickinson’s Electric Love Letters to Susan Gilbert


  11. Patti Smith on Time, Transformation, and How the Radiance of Love Redeems the Rupture of Loss


  12. Salvation by Words: Iris Murdoch on Language as a Vehicle of Truth and Art as a Force of Resistance to Tyranny


  13. A Brave and Startling Truth: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Maya Angelou’s Stunning Humanist Poem That Flew to Space, Inspired by Carl Sagan


BP

Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads “The Weighing” by Jane Hirshfield: An Ode to Resilience

A well to the groundwater of our strength.

Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads “The Weighing” by Jane Hirshfield: An Ode to Resilience

“All you have is what you are, and what you give,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in a philosophical novel contemplating suffering and getting to the other side of pain. “If equal affection cannot be / Let the more loving one be me,” W.H. Auden wrote in a philosophical poem contemplating the courage to love more, to give more, in the face of even the most heartbreaking and elemental disparity of passions.

Perhaps the deepest measure of our character, of our very humanity, is how much we go on giving when what we most value is taken from us — when a loved one withholds their love, when the world withdraws its mercy. That is what Jane Hirshfield — herself a rare poet with a philosopher’s eye to existence, and an ordained Buddhist — explores in her stunning poem “The Weighing,” originally published in 1994, later included in her soul-salving poetry collection The Beauty (public library), and read here by astrophysicist and poetic thinker Janna Levin:

THE WEIGHING
by Jane Hirshfield

The heart’s reasons
seen clearly,
even the hardest
will carry
its whip-marks and sadness
and must be forgiven.

As the drought-starved
eland forgives
the drought-starved lion
who finally takes her,
enters willingly then
the life she cannot refuse,
and is lion, is fed,
and does not remember the other.

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.

For more of Hirshfield’s resuscitory poetics, savor her wisdom on creativity and her poems “Optimism” and “On the Fifth Day,” then revisit Janna Levin reading “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, “Hymn to Time” by Ursula K. Le Guin, and “The More Loving One” by W.H. Auden.

BP

The Universe in Verse: Bill T. Jones Performs Poet Ross Gay’s Ode to Our Highest Human Potentialities

“…scream and scream and scream until you break the back of one injustice…”

The Universe in Verse: Bill T. Jones Performs Poet Ross Gay’s Ode to Our Highest Human Potentialities

“Before I was born out of my mother, generations guided me,” Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself, envisioning his unborn self as the product of myriad potentialities converging since the dawn of time — “the nebula cohered to an orb” and “the long, slow strata piled” to make it possible.

A century and a half after Whitman, Ross Gay — another poet of uncommon sensitivity to our shared longings and largehearted wonderment at the universe in its manifold expressions — inverted the generational telescope and considered the future potentialities contained in his own self in his “Poem to My Child, If Ever You Shall Be,” found in his altogether magnificent 2011 collection Bringing the Shovel Down (public library). An act of imaginative projection, the poem is concerned not with the biological question of what makes a life — on that, I stand with Italo Calvino — but with the existential question of what makes life worth living: love, kindness, the devotion to justice, the unselfconscious surrender to joy, the willingness to do the difficult, delicate work of rising to our highest human potential.

Bill T. Jones at the 2019 Universe in Verse. (Photograph: Maria Popova.)

Legendary choreographer and New York Live Arts artistic director Bill T. Jones, subject of the inspiring forthcoming documentary Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters, stole the show with his electrifying performance of Gay’s poem at the third annual Universe in Verse — please enjoy:

POEM TO MY CHILD, IF EVER YOU SHALL BE
by Ross Gay

       —after Steve Scafidi

The way the universe sat waiting to become,
quietly, in the nether of space and time,

you too remain some cellular snuggle
dangling between my legs, curled in the warm

swim of my mostly quietest self. If you come to be —
And who knows? — I wonder, little bubble

of unbudded capillaries, little one ever aswirl
in my vascular galaxies, what would you think

of this world which turns itself steadily
into an oblivion that hurts, and hurts bad?

Would you curse me my careless caressing you
into this world or would you rise up

and, mustering all your strength into that tiny throat
which one day, no doubt, would grow big and strong,

scream and scream and scream until you break the back of one injustice,
or at least get to your knees to kiss back to life

some roadkill? I have so many questions for you,
for you are closer to me than anyone

has ever been, tumbling, as you are, this second,
through my heart’s every chamber, your teeny mouth

singing along with the half-broke workhorse’s steady boom and gasp.
And since we’re talking today I should tell you,

though I know you sneak a peek sometimes
through your father’s eyes, it’s a glorious day,

and there are millions of leaves collecting against the curbs,
and they’re the most delicate shade of gold

we’ve ever seen and must favor the transparent
wings of the angels you’re swimming with, little angel.

And as to your mother — well, I don’t know —
but my guess is that lilac bursts from her throat

and she is both honeybee and wasp and some kind of moan to boot
and probably she dances in the morning —

but who knows? You’ll swim beneath that bridge if it comes.
For now let me tell you about the bush called honeysuckle

that the sad call a weed, and how you could push your little
sun-licked face into the throngs and breathe and breathe.

Sweetness would be your name, and you would wonder why
four of your teeth are so sharp, and the tiny mountain range

of your knuckles so hard. And you would throw back your head
and open your mouth at the cows lowing their human songs

in the field, and the pigs swimming in shit and clover,
and everything on this earth, little dreamer, little dreamer

of the new world, holy, every rain drop and sand grain and blade
of grass worthy of gasp and joy and love, tiny shaman,

tiny blood thrust, tiny trillion cells trilling and trilling,
little dreamer, little hard hat, little heartbeat,

little best of me.

Complement with Maya Angelou’s letter to the daughter she never had and this lovely French picture-book imagining a better world from the perspective of a yet-unborn child, then revisit other highlights from The Universe in Verse: astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Angelou’s “A Brave and Startling Truth,” Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her tribute to Stephen Hawking, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie.

If you are, or would like to place yourself, in New York City on October 26, join me for The Astronomy of Walt Whitman — a very special pop-up edition of The Universe in Verse, celebrating Whitman’s bicentennial and the endeavor to build the city’s first public observatory.

BP

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