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How Pioneering Physicist Lise Meitner Discovered Nuclear Fission, Paved the Way for Women in Science, and Was Denied the Nobel Prize

“Science makes people reach selflessly for truth and objectivity; it teaches people to accept reality, with wonder and admiration, not to mention the deep joy and awe that the natural order of things brings to the true scientist.”

How Pioneering Physicist Lise Meitner Discovered Nuclear Fission, Paved the Way for Women in Science, and Was Denied the Nobel Prize

In the fall of 1946, a South African little girl aspiring to be a scientist wrote to Einstein and ended her letter with a self-conscious entreatment: “I hope you will not think any the less of me for being a girl!” Einstein responded with words of assuring wisdom that resonate to this day: “I do not mind that you are a girl, but the main thing is that you yourself do not mind. There is no reason for it.”

And yet reasons don’t always come from reason. The history of science, like the history of the world itself, is the history of unreasonable asymmetries of power, the suppressive consequences of which have meant that the comparatively few women who rose to the top of their respective field did so due to inordinate brilliance and tenacity.

Among the most outstanding yet under-celebrated of these pioneering women is the Austrian physicist Lise Meitner (November 7, 1878–October 27, 1968), who led the team that discovered nuclear fission but was excluded from the Nobel Prize for the discovery, and whose story I first encountered in Alan Lightman’s illuminating 1990 book The Discoveries. This diminutive Jewish woman, who had barely saved her own life from the Nazis, was heralded by Einstein as the Marie Curie of the German-speaking world. She is the subject of the excellent biography Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics (public library) by chemist, science historian, and Guggenheim fellow Ruth Lewin Sime.

Lise Meitner, 1906
Lise Meitner, 1906

Meitner was born in Vienna a little more than a year after pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science across the Atlantic, admonished the first class of female astronomers: “No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?” Although Meitner showed a gift for mathematics from an early age, there was little correlation between aptitude and opportunity for women in 19th-century Europe. At the end of her long life, she would recount, not bitterly but wistfully:

Thinking back to … the time of my youth, one realizes with some astonishment how many problems then existed in the lives of ordinary young girls, which now seem almost unimaginable. Among the most difficult of these problems was the possibility of normal intellectual training.

Sime herself, who spent decades as the only woman at her university department, captures the broader cultural necessity of telling Meitner’s story: “I was known as the woman the all-male chemistry department did not want to hire; under such circumstances one becomes, and remains, a feminist.” She writes of Meitner’s Sisyphean rise to stature:

Her schooling in Vienna ended when she was fourteen, but a few years later, the university admitted women, and she studied physics under the charismatic Ludwig Boltzmann. As a young woman she went to Berlin without the slightest prospects for a future in physics, but again she was fortunate, finding a mentor and friend in Max Planck and a collaborator in Otto Hahn, a chemist just her age. Together Meitner and Hahn made names for themselves in radioactivity, and then in the 1920s Meitner went on, independent of Hahn, into nuclear physics, an emerging field in which she was a pioneer. In the Berlin physics community she was, as Einstein liked to say, “our Marie Curie”; among physicists everywhere, she was regarded as one of the great experimentalists of her day… The painfully shy young woman had become an assertive professor — “short, dark, and bossy,” her nephew would tease — and although at times she was haunted by the insecurity of her youth, she never doubted that physics was worth it.

Illustration of Lise Meitner from Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky
Illustration of Lise Meitner from Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky

Meitner never married nor had children and, as far as her personal papers indicate, never had a serious romance. But her life was a full one, warmed by deep human connection — she was an exceptionally devoted friend and surrounded herself with people she cherished, in Meitner’s own words, as “great and lovable personalities” who provided a “magic musical accompaniment” to her life. Above all, she was besotted with science — so much so that she patiently chipped away at and eventually broke through every imaginable obstruction to pursuing her passion.

Meitner conducted her first scientific experiment as a little girl — an application of reason and critical thinking in an empirical defiance of superstition. Sime relays the emblematic incident:

Once, when Lise was still very young, her grandmother warned her never to sew on the Sabbath, or the heavens would come tumbling down. Lise was doing some embroidery at the time and decided to make a test. Placing her needle on the embroidery, she stuck just the tip of it in and glanced anxiously at the sky, took a stitch, waited again, and then, satisfied that there would be no objections from above, contentedly went on with her work. Along with books, summer hikes, and music, a certain rational skepticism was a constant of Lise’s childhood years.

Since her formal schooling had ended at the age of fourteen, Meitner spent a few years repressing her scientific ambitions. But they burned in her with irrepressible ardor. Finally, when Austrian universities began admitting women in 1901, she obtained her high school certification at the age of twenty-three after compressing eight years’ worth of logic, literature, mathematics, Greek, Latin, botany, zoology, and physics into twenty months of study in order to take the examination that would qualify her for university. She received her Ph.D. in 1905, one of a handful of women in the world to have achieved a doctorate in physics by that point.

But when 29-year-old Meitner traveled to Berlin, hoping to study with the great Max Planck, she seemed to have entered a time machine — German universities still had their doors firmly shut to women. She had to ask for a special permission to attend Planck’s lectures.

In the fall of 1907, she met Otto Hahn — a German chemist four months her junior, as interested in radioactivity as she was, and unopposed to working with women. But women were forbidden from entering, much less working at, Berlin’s Chemical Institute, so in order to collaborate, Meitner and Hahn had to work in a former carpentry shop converted into a lab in the basement of the building. Hahn was allowed to climb up the floors, but Meitner was not — a hard fact that fringes on metaphor.

Meitner and Hahn in their basement laboratory, 1913
Meitner and Hahn in their basement laboratory, 1913

The two scientists filled each other’s gaps with their respective aptitudes — Meitner, trained in physics, was a brilliant mathematician who thought conceptually and could design highly original experiments to test her ideas; Hahn, trained in chemistry, excelled at punctilious lab work. Over the thirty years they collaborated, Meitner and Hahn emerged as pioneers in the study of radioactivity. Eventually, Meitner gained independence from Hahn — she published fifty-six papers on her own between 1921 and 1934.

But as her career was taking off, the Nazis began usurping Europe. Meitner and Hahn’s third collaborator, a junior scientist named Fritz Strassmann, had already gotten in trouble for refusing to join Nazi organizations. In 1938, just as the three scientists were performing their most visionary experiments, Nazi troops marched into Austria. Meitner refused to hide her Jewish heritage. Her only remaining option was to leave, but the Nazis had already put anti-Semitic laws in place prohibiting university professors from exiting the country. On July 13, with the help of Hahn and a few other scientist friends, Meitner made a narrow escape across the Dutch border. From Holland, she migrated to Denmark, where she stayed with her friend Niels Bohr. She finally found a permanent home at the Nobel Institute for Physics in Sweden. (Three centuries earlier, Descartes, supreme champion of reason, had also fled to Sweden to avoid the Inquisition after witnessing the trial of Galileo.)

Lise Meitner in 1937
Lise Meitner shortly before her exile

That November, Hahn and Meitner met secretly in Copenhagen to discuss some perplexing results Hahn and Strassmann had obtained: After bombarding the nucleus of a uranium atom (atomic number 92) with a single neutron, they had ended up with the nucleus of radium (atomic number 88), which acted chemically like barium (56), an element with close to half the atomic weight of radium — a seemingly magical transmutation that didn’t make physical sense. That a tiny neutron moving at low speed would destabilize and downright shatter something as robust as an atom, knocking down its atomic number and altering its chemical behavior, seemed as mythic as David taking out Goliath with a slingshot.

At that point, Hahn was one of the world’s best radiochemists and Meitner one of the world’s best physicists. She told him unequivocally that his chemical reaction made no sense on physical grounds and urged him to repeat the experiment.

Meitner herself continued to ponder the perplexity. The epiphany arrived on Christmas day, during a walk with her nephew and collaborator, Otto Robert Frisch. In recounting the occasion in his memoir, Frisch would inadvertently provide the most perfect metaphor for how women make progress in science relative to their male peers:

We walked up and down in the snow, I on skis and she on foot (she said and proved that she could get along just as fast that way).

In making sense of the nonsensical results, Meitner and Frisch came up with what they would call nuclear fission — a word used for the very first time in the seventh paragraph of the paper they published the following month. The notion that a nucleus can split and be transformed into another element was radical — no one had fathomed it before. Meitner had provided the first understanding of how and why this happened.

Illustration from Our Friend the Atom, a 1956 Disney primer on nuclear energy

Nuclear fission would prove to be one of the most powerful — and dangerous — discoveries in the history of humanity, a power that succumbed to our dual capacities for good and evil: It was central to the invention of the deadliest weapon in human history, the atomic bomb. In fact, later in life Meitner was cruelly referred to as “the Jewish mother of the atomic bomb,” even though her discovery was purely scientific, it predated this malevolent application by many years, and once she saw it put into practice to destructive ends, she adamantly refused to work on the bomb. She, like the rest of the world, saw the bomb as a grave turning point for humanity. Years later, she would issue a bittersweet lamentation for the era that ended with its invention:

One could love one’s work and not always be tormented by the fear of the ghastly and malevolent things that people might do with beautiful scientific findings.

The discovery of fission itself was a supreme example of these beautiful scientific findings — a triumph of the human intellect over the mysteries of nature, as well as a testament to interpretation as a creative act. The nonsensical empirical results were Hahn’s, but what extracted meaning from them was Meitner’s interpretation — she had dis-covered, in the proper sense of uncovering something obscured from view, the underlying principle that made sense of the grand perplexity.

Hahn took her groundbreaking insight and ran with it, publishing the discovery without mentioning her name. It is beside the point whether his reasons were personal jealousies or the political cowardice of incensing the Nazi authorities — the point is that Meitner felt deeply betrayed by the injustice. She wrote to her brother Walter:

I have no self confidence… Hahn has just published absolutely wonderful things based on our work together … much as these results make me happy for Hahn, both personally and scientifically, many people here must think I contributed absolutely nothing to it — and now I am so discouraged.

Lise Meitner, 1928
Lise Meitner at age 50

In 1944, the discovery of nuclear fission was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry — to Hahn alone. Sime writes:

The distortion of reality and the suppression of memory are recurrent themes in any study of Nazi Germany and its aftermath. By any normal standard of scientific attribution, there would have been no doubt about Meitner’s role in the discovery of fission. For it is clear from the published record and from private correspondence that this was a discovery to which Meitner contributed from beginning to end — an inherently interdisciplinary discovery that would, without question, have been recognized as such, were it not for the artifact of Meitner’s forced emigration. But nothing about this discovery was untouched by the politics of Germany in 1938. The same racial policies that drove Meitner out of Germany made it impossible for her to be part of Hahn and Strassmann’s publication, and dangerous for Hahn to acknowledge their continuing ties. A few weeks after the discovery was made, Hahn claimed it for chemistry alone; before long, he suppressed and denied not only his hidden collaboration with a “non-Aryan” in exile but the value of nearly everything she had done before as well. It was self-deception, brought on by fear. Hahn’s dishonesty distorted the record of this discovery and almost cost Lise Meitner her place in its history.

Meitner received countless accolades in her lifetime and even had a chemical element, meitnerium, posthumously named after her, but the slight was never righted. Although every imaginable roadblock had been placed before her in pursuing a scientific education, she had survived Nazi persecution, and had endured the anguish of exile, she considered the Nobel omission that most irredeemable sorrow of her life.

Sime writes:

Except for a few brief statements, she did not campaign on her own behalf; she did not write an autobiography, nor did she authorize a biography during her lifetime. Only seldom did she speak of her struggle for education and acceptance, although the insecurity and isolation of her formative years affected her deeply later on. And she almost never spoke of her forced emigration, shattered career, or broken friendships. She would have preferred that the essentials of her life be gleaned from her scientific publications, but she knew that in her case that would not suffice.

[…]

Scientist that she was, she preserved her data. Her rich collection of personal papers, in addition to archival material from other sources, provides the basis for a detailed understanding of her work, her life, and the exceptionally difficult period in which she lived.

Sime considers the more systemic implications of Meitner’s case:

To insist that Meitner contributed nothing to the fission discovery, to imply that Meitner and Frisch had been given an unfair advantage — these were ways of denying that she had been treated unjustly and, in a larger sense, of refusing to confront the injustice and crimes of the Nazi period. Rather than acknowledging that Meitner’s exclusion from fission was political, Hahn and his hangers-on invented spurious scientific reasons for it. Arrogantly, and with misplaced national pride, they denied the injustice, created new injustice — and implicated themselves.

Given the echo chamber of interpretive opinion we call history, Hahn’s view was readily echoed by his followers and, in turn, by generations of journalists and uncritical commentators on the history of science. The Nobel exclusion was the most obvious, but the egregious erasure of Meitner’s legacy didn’t end there. The fission apparatus — the very instrument she had used in her Berlin laboratory to make her discoveries — was on display at Germany’s premiere science museum for thirty-five years without so much as mentioning her name.

This, of course, was far from the last time that a woman was excluded from a Nobel Prize for a discovery she either made or made possible with her significant contribution: There is, perhaps most famously, Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s discovery of pulsars, to say nothing of Vera Rubin, whose confirmation of the existence of dark matter furnished a major leap in our understanding of the universe and yet remains, decades later, bereft of a Nobel. But as physicist and novelist Janna Levin wrote in her excellent NPR op-ed about the foibles of scientific acclaim, “scientists do not devote their lives to the sometimes lonely, agonizing, toilsome investigation of an austere universe because they want a prize.”

Meitner herself articulated the same sentiment in a speech she gave in Vienna at the age of 75:

Science makes people reach selflessly for truth and objectivity; it teaches people to accept reality, with wonder and admiration, not to mention the deep joy and awe that the natural order of things brings to the true scientist.

Lise Meitner late in life (Photograph: Sara Darling)
Lise Meitner late in life (Photograph: Sara Darling)

Meitner died peacefully in her sleep on October 27, 1968, days before her ninetieth birthday. Otto Robert, one of her dearest friends, chose the inscription for her headstone:

Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity.

Complement the intensely interesting and important Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics with pioneering astrophysicist Vera Rubin on what it’s like to be a woman in science, Margot Lee Shetterly on the untold story of the black women mathematicians who powered space exploration, and this illustrated homage to trailblazing women in science.

BP

The Source of Richard Feynman’s Genius

How the precious scarcity of knowledge imbued one of humanity’s most beloved minds with “the pleasure of finding things out.”

The Source of Richard Feynman’s Genius

In his taxonomy of the two types of geniuses, probability theory pioneer Mark Kac distinguishes between “ordinary geniuses” and “magicians,” pointing to Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988) as a rare example of the latter. One of the most celebrated minds of the past century, Feynman was a champion of scientific knowledge so effective and so beloved that he has generated an entire canon of personal mythology. And yet he held uncertainty at the center of his intellectual and creative life. The pursuit and stewardship of knowledge was his life’s work, but the ecstasy of not-knowing was the wellspring of his magic. “It is imperative,” he wrote, “to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature.”

In his spectacular biography Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (public library), James Gleick examines what seeded this peculiar orientation of mind and spirit, and how it came to shape Feynman’s life and legacy.

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In chronicling Feynman’s childhood in Far Rockaway in the first half of the twentieth century, which unfolded in an era predating television and even the earliest visions of the web, Gleick does what makes him a biographer of such uncommon mastery — through the elements of his subject’s life, he constructs a diorama of an entire cultural epoch and stuns us into appreciating the imperceptible tectonic shifts that drifted us into the world we’ve come to take for granted. He writes:

Knowledge was rarer then. A secondhand magazine was an occasion. For a Far Rockaway teenager merely to find a mathematics textbook took will and enterprise. Each radio program, each telephone call, each lecture in a local synagogue, each movie at the new Gem theater on Mott Avenue carried the weight of something special. Each book Richard possessed burned itself into his memory.

[…]

Even with the radio era in full swing, one’s senses encountered nothing like the bombardment of images and sounds that television would bring—accelerated, flash-cut, disposable knowledge. For now, knowledge was scarce and therefore dear.

It’s easy to imagine how this mismatch between his intellectual voraciousness and the availability of knowledge would enamor young Ritty with “the pleasure of finding things out” — a phrase that grew to be so integral to Feynman’s identity that it became the title of his collected works.

It’s also suddenly easy, and somewhat alarming, to grasp how profoundly we are shaped by our formative environment and how much what we celebrate as genius is not just a function of personhood but of the confluence of person, place, and time. Can there be a comparable “pleasure of finding things out” in our era of informational morass, which burdens us with the deeply unpleasant task of sifting what is worth knowing from the deluge of what is knowable? When Feynman came of age, the cultural landscape was such that everything knowable was worth knowing — and worth going out of one’s way to know. Young Ritty and his friends “traded mathematical tidbits like baseball cards.”

Gleick writes:

It was the same for scientists. The currency of scientific information had not yet been devalued by excess. For a young student, that meant that the most timely questions were surprisingly close to hand. Feynman recognized early the special, distinctive feeling of being close to the edge of knowledge, where people do not know the answers.

One of Richard Feynman’s little-known sketches

This feeling, Gleick intimates, is also what led Feynman to consistently feel out the frontiers of competence by teaching himself a wide and wild array of skills, always romancing the intoxicating uncertainty of not-quite-knowing:

Democratically, as if he favored no skill above any other, he taught himself how to play drums, to give massages, to tell stories, to pick up women in bars, considering all these to be crafts with learnable rules.

[…]

He made islands of practical knowledge in the oceans of personal ignorance that remained: knowing nothing about drawing, he taught himself to make perfect freehand circles on the blackboard; knowing nothing about music, he bet his girlfriend that he could teach himself to play one piece, “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” and for once failed dismally; much later he learned to draw after all, after a fashion, specializing in sweetly romanticized female nudes and letting his friends know that a concomitant learned skill thrilled him even more — how to persuade a young woman to disrobe. In his entire life he could never quite teach himself to feel a difference between right and left, but his mother finally pointed out a mole on the back of his left hand, and even as an adult he checked the mole when he wanted to be sure. He taught himself how to hold a crowd with his not-jazz, not-ethnic improvisational drumming; and how to sustain a two-handed polyrhythm of not just the usual three against two and four against three but — astonishing to classically trained musicians — seven against six and thirteen against twelve. He taught himself how to write Chinese, a skill acquired specifically to annoy his sister and limited therefore to the characters for “elder brother also speaks.” … He taught himself how to discourage autograph seekers and refuse lecture invitations; how to hide from colleagues with administrative requests; how to force everything from his field of vision except for his research problem of the moment; how to hold off the special terrors of aging that shadow scientists; then how to live with cancer, and how to surrender to it.

After he died several colleagues tried to write his epitaph. One was Schwinger, in a certain time not just his colleague but his preeminent rival, who chose these words:

“An honest man, the outstanding intuitionist of our age, and a prime example of what may lie in store for anyone who dares to follow the beat of a different drum.” … When Feynman was gone, he had left behind — perhaps his chief legacy — a lesson in what it meant to know something in this most uncertain of centuries.

Complement Gleick’s thoroughly fantastic Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman with the great physicist on science vs. religion, how his father taught him about the most important thing, why everything is connected to everything else, and the universal responsibility of scientists.

BP

A Loving Illustrated Homage to Virginia Woolf’s Remarkable Life and Legacy

“I will not be ‘famous,’ ‘great.’ I will go on adventuring, changing, opening my mind and my eyes, refusing to be stamped and stereotyped.”

A Loving Illustrated Homage to Virginia Woolf’s Remarkable Life and Legacy

“Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern,” Virginia Woolf wrote in recounting the sublime epiphany in which she knew she was an artist. “The whole world is a work of art… There is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”

In Virginia Woolf: An Illustrated Biography (public library) — a fine addition to these favorite illustrated biographies of luminaries and one of four wonderful picture-books about the creative life I recently reviewed for The New York Times — writer Zena Alkayat and artist Nina Cosford pull back the cotton wool of Woolf’s own remarkable life and explore the thing itself with equal parts concision, compassion, and unsentimental reverence.

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From her childhood, marked by literature and loss from an early age — the two great constants of her life — to her emergence as one of the most singular and significant artistic voices of the past century, the story follows Woolf’s creative development and unearths the building blocks of her formidable legacy.

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While her brothers were away at school, Virginia would read and write obsessively. Her older sister Vanessa spent hours at her easel.

They went on to devote their lives to each other.

Woven into the story are unforgettably electrifying lines from Woolf’s books, journals, and letters. Woolf writes in her diary in October of 1933:

I will not be ‘famous,’ ‘great.’ I will go on adventuring, changing, opening my mind and my eyes, refusing to be stamped and stereotyped.

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We meet Woolf’s sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, and their Bloomsbury posse of artists and intellectuals; Woolf’s husband, Leonard, and their pet marmoset Mitz, a mascot of the Bloomsbury group; her beloved nephews, Quentin and Julian, with whom she collaborated on a humorous family newspaper; her lover Vita Sackville-West, the inspiration for Woolf’s gender-bending, genre-bending, groundbreaking novel Orlando, which Sackville-West’s son rightly called “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.”

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Leonard had spent seven years working for the Colonial Civil Service in Ceylon. He was a writer, an intellectual, and a perfectionist.

He was also tall and dark with blue eyes and trembling hands.

[…]

Leonard would call her “mandrill.” Virginia would call him “mongoose.”

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While enjoying London’s party scene, Virginia met the aristocratic Vita Sackville-West.

Vita’s life was scandalous. She had an open marriage, passionate lesbian affairs, and a penchant for cross-dressing. She was also a mother, a writer, and a poet.

As their relationship bubbled and fizzled, Virginia wrote To the Lighthouse. It was an ode to her parents.

There is struggle — it takes fifteen years for Woolf’s debut novel to sell 2,000 copies, and in those years she survives a World War and a severe bout of depression that nearly takes her life. There is also joy — the seemingly idyllic Charleston retreat of the Bloomsbury set, and the simple joys of dogs and gardening and the ocean.

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Every great biography, in telling the story of a particular personhood, recreates the texture of the era in which that personhood unfolded. Intersecting the line of Woolf’s life are cultural milestones, events both triumphant and tragic.

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The suffrage movement paves the way for women’s intellectual, creative, and sexual emancipation as young Virginia is finding that room of her own.

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When the war comes, we see Virginia and Leonard crouching in their coal cellar, where they take shelter night after nightmarish night.

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On March 28, 1941, Virginia fills her overcoat pockets with rocks, leaves Leonard a poignant farewell letter, walks into the River Ouse behind their house, and drowns. Measured by its end, her life is undeniably tragic. Measured by its substance, a sort of creative aliveness which few artists have matched in the entire history of humanity, it is undeniably triumphant. The book is a reminder — perhaps uncomfortable, but very much necessary and ultimately jubilant — that complexity and contradiction are the raw material of life, and that an extraordinary life contains an extraordinary dosage of both.

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Complement Alkayat and Cosford’s marvelous Virginia Woolf, which is part of their series of illustrated biographies of exceptional women, with notable picture-books celebrating Louise Bourgeois, e.e. cummings, Pablo Neruda, Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, and Nellie Bly, then revisit Woolf on how to read a book, why the best mind is the androgynous mind, the paradox of the soul, and the creative benefits of keeping a diary.

Illustrations © Nina Cosford courtesy of Chronicle Books; photographs by Maria Popova

BP

Rebecca Solnit on Hope in Dark Times, Resisting the Defeatism of Easy Despair, and What Victory Really Means for Movements of Social Change

“This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.”

Rebecca Solnit on Hope in Dark Times, Resisting the Defeatism of Easy Despair, and What Victory Really Means for Movements of Social Change

“There is no love of life without despair of life,” wrote Albert Camus — a man who in the midst of World War II, perhaps the darkest period in human history, saw grounds for luminous hope and issued a remarkable clarion call for humanity to rise to its highest potential on those grounds. It was his way of honoring the same duality that artist Maira Kalman would capture nearly a century later in her marvelous meditation on the pursuit of happiness, where she observed: “We hope. We despair. We hope. We despair. That is what governs us. We have a bipolar system.”

In my own reflections on hope, cynicism, and the stories we tell ourselves, I’ve considered the necessity of these two poles working in concert. Indeed, the stories we tell ourselves about these poles matter. The stories we tell ourselves about our public past shape how we interpret and respond to and show up for the present. The stories we tell ourselves about our private pasts shape how we come to see our personhood and who we ultimately become. The thin line between agency and victimhood is drawn in how we tell those stories.

The language in which we tell ourselves these stories matters tremendously, too, and no writer has weighed the complexities of sustaining hope in our times of readily available despair more thoughtfully and beautifully, nor with greater nuance, than Rebecca Solnit does in Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (public library).

Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)

Expanding upon her previous writings on hope, Solnit writes in the foreword to the 2016 edition of this foundational text of modern civic engagement:

Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away. And though hope can be an act of defiance, defiance isn’t enough reason to hope. But there are good reasons.

Solnit — one of the most singular, civically significant, and poetically potent voices of our time, emanating echoes of Virginia Woolf’s luminous prose and Adrienne Rich’s unflinching political conviction — originally wrote these essays in 2003, six weeks after the start of Iraq war, in an effort to speak “directly to the inner life of the politics of the moment, to the emotions and preconceptions that underlie our political positions and engagements.” Although the specific conditions of the day may have shifted, their undergirding causes and far-reaching consequences have only gained in relevance and urgency in the dozen years since. This slim book of tremendous potency is therefore, today more than ever, an indispensable ally to every thinking, feeling, civically conscious human being.

Solnit looks back on this seemingly distant past as she peers forward into the near future:

The moment passed long ago, but despair, defeatism, cynicism, and the amnesia and assumptions from which they often arise have not dispersed, even as the most wildly, unimaginably magnificent things came to pass. There is a lot of evidence for the defense… Progressive, populist, and grassroots constituencies have had many victories. Popular power has continued to be a profound force for change. And the changes we’ve undergone, both wonderful and terrible, are astonishing.

[…]

This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.

Illustration by Charlotte Pardi from Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved

With an eye to such disheartening developments as climate change, growing income inequality, and the rise of Silicon Valley as a dehumanizing global superpower of automation, Solnit invites us to be equally present for the counterpoint:

Hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them and addressing them by remembering what else the twenty-first century has brought, including the movements, heroes, and shifts in consciousness that address these things now.

Enumerating Edward Snowden, marriage equality, and Black Lives Matter among those, she adds:

This has been a truly remarkable decade for movement-building, social change, and deep, profound shifts in ideas, perspective, and frameworks for broad parts of the population (and, of course, backlashes against all those things).

With great care, Solnit — whose mind remains the sharpest instrument of nuance I’ve encountered — maps the uneven terrain of our grounds for hope:

It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.

Solnit’s conception of hope reminds me of the great existential psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom’s conception of meaning: “The search for meaning, much like the search for pleasure,” he wrote, “must be conducted obliquely.” That is, it must take place in the thrilling and terrifying terra incognita that lies between where we are and where we wish to go, ultimately shaping where we do go. Solnit herself has written memorably about how we find ourselves by getting lost, and finding hope seems to necessitate a similar surrender to uncertainty. She captures this idea beautifully:

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.

Illustration from The Harvey Milk Story, a picture-book biography of the slain LGBT rights pioneer

Amid a 24-hour news cycle that nurses us on the illusion of immediacy, this recognition of incremental progress and the long gestational period of consequences — something at the heart of every major scientific revolution that has changed our world — is perhaps our most essential yet most endangered wellspring of hope. Solnit reminds us, for instance, that women’s struggle for the right to vote took seven decades:

For a time people liked to announce that feminism had failed, as though the project of overturning millennia of social arrangements should achieve its final victories in a few decades, or as though it had stopped. Feminism is just starting, and its manifestations matter in rural Himalayan villages, not just first-world cities.

She considers one particularly prominent example of this cumulative cataclysm — the Arab Spring, “an extraordinary example of how unpredictable change is and how potent popular power can be,” the full meaning of and conclusions from which we are yet to draw. Although our cultural lore traces the spark of the Arab Spring to the moment Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in an act of protest, Solnit traces the unnoticed accretion of tinder across space and time:

You can tell the genesis story of the Arab Spring other ways. The quiet organizing going on in the shadows beforehand matters. So does the comic book about Martin Luther King and civil disobedience that was translated into Arabic and widely distributed in Egypt shortly before the Arab Spring. You can tell of King’s civil disobedience tactics being inspired by Gandhi’s tactics, and Gandhi’s inspired by Tolstoy and the radical acts of noncooperation and sabotage of British women suffragists. So the threads of ideas weave around the world and through the decades and centuries.

In a brilliant counterpoint to Malcolm Gladwell’s notoriously short-sighted view of social change, Solnit sprouts a mycological metaphor for this imperceptible, incremental buildup of influence and momentum:

After a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many do so from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. What we call mushrooms mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork — or underground work — often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values also result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists, and participants in social media. It seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.

Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed. How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising: it recalls the mainstream when the mainstream was, say, rabidly homophobic or racist in a way it no longer is; and it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of center stage. Our hope and often our power.

[…]

Change is rarely straightforward… Sometimes it’s as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution. Even things that seem to happen suddenly arise from deep roots in the past or from long-dormant seeds.

One of Beatrix Potter’s little-known scientific studies and illustrations of mushrooms

And yet Solnit’s most salient point deals with what comes after the revolutionary change — with the notion of victory not as a destination but as a starting point for recommitment and continual nourishment of our fledgling ideals:

A victory doesn’t mean that everything is now going to be nice forever and we can therefore all go lounge around until the end of time. Some activists are afraid that if we acknowledge victory, people will give up the struggle. I’ve long been more afraid that people will give up and go home or never get started in the first place if they think no victory is possible or fail to recognize the victories already achieved. Marriage equality is not the end of homophobia, but it’s something to celebrate. A victory is a milestone on the road, evidence that sometimes we win, and encouragement to keep going, not to stop.

Solnit examines this notion more closely in one of the original essays from the book, titled “Changing the Imagination of Change” — a meditation of even more acute timeliness today, more than a decade later, in which she writes:

Americans are good at responding to crisis and then going home to let another crisis brew both because we imagine that the finality of death can be achieved in life — it’s called happily ever after in personal life, saved in politics — and because we tend to think political engagement is something for emergencies rather than, as people in many other countries (and Americans at other times) have imagined it, as a part and even a pleasure of everyday life. The problem seldom goes home.

[…]

Going home seems to be a way to abandon victories when they’re still delicate, still in need of protection and encouragement. Human babies are helpless at birth, and so perhaps are victories before they’ve been consolidated into the culture’s sense of how things should be. I wonder sometimes what would happen if victory was imagined not just as the elimination of evil but the establishment of good — if, after American slavery had been abolished, Reconstruction’s promises of economic justice had been enforced by the abolitionists, or, similarly, if the end of apartheid had been seen as meaning instituting economic justice as well (or, as some South Africans put it, ending economic apartheid).

It’s always too soon to go home. Most of the great victories continue to unfold, unfinished in the sense that they are not yet fully realized, but also in the sense that they continue to spread influence. A phenomenon like the civil rights movement creates a vocabulary and a toolbox for social change used around the globe, so that its effects far outstrip its goals and specific achievements — and failures.

Invoking James Baldwin’s famous proclamation that “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” Solnit writes:

It’s important to emphasize that hope is only a beginning; it’s not a substitute for action, only a basis for it.

What often obscures our view of hope, she argues, is a kind of collective amnesia that lets us forget just how far we’ve come as we grow despondent over how far we have yet to go. She writes:

Amnesia leads to despair in many ways. The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable, and invulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view. In other words, when you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change.

Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from Mr. Gauguin’s Heart by Marie-Danielle Croteau, the story of how Paul Gauguin used the grief of his childhood as a catalyst for a lifetime of art

This lack of a long view is perpetuated by the media, whose raw material — the very notion of “news” — divorces us from the continuity of life and keeps us fixated on the current moment in artificial isolate. Meanwhile, Solnit argues in a poignant parallel, such amnesia poisons and paralyzes our collective conscience by the same mechanism that depression poisons and paralyzes the private psyche — we come to believe that the acute pain of the present is all that will ever be and cease to believe that things will look up. She writes:

There’s a public equivalent to private depression, a sense that the nation or the society rather than the individual is stuck. Things don’t always change for the better, but they change, and we can play a role in that change if we act. Which is where hope comes in, and memory, the collective memory we call history.

A dedicated rower, Solnit ends with the perfect metaphor:

You row forward looking back, and telling this history is part of helping people navigate toward the future. We need a litany, a rosary, a sutra, a mantra, a war chant for our victories. The past is set in daylight, and it can become a torch we can carry into the night that is the future.

Hope in the Dark is a robust anchor of intelligent idealism amid our tumultuous era of disorienting defeatism — a vitalizing exploration of how we can withstand the marketable temptations of false hope and easy despair. Complement it with Camus on how to ennoble our minds in dark times and Viktor Frankl on why idealism is the best realism, then revisit Solnit on the rewards of walking, what reading does for the human spirit, and how modern noncommunication is changing our experience of time, solitude, and communion.

BP

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