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Amanda Palmer Reads “Einstein’s Mother” by Tracy K. Smith

“Was he mute a while, or all tears. Did he raise his hands to his ears so he could scream scream scream.”

Amanda Palmer Reads “Einstein’s Mother” by Tracy K. Smith

The forces of chance that chisel reality out of the bedrock of possibility — this improbable planet, this improbable life — leave ghostly trails of what-ifs, questions asked and unanswered, unanswerable. Why do you, this particular you, exist? Why does the universe? And once the dice have fallen in favor of existence, there are so many possible points of entry into life, so many possible fractal paths through it — so many ways to live and die even the most ordinary life, a life of quiet and unwitnessed beauty, washed unremembered into the river of time after this chance constellation of atoms disbands into stardust. There are, after all, infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.

Every once in a very long while, chance deals a life out of the ordinary, islanded in the rapids of collective memory as one of lasting and profound legacy — a life that has seen far beyond the horizon of its own creaturely limits, into the deepest truths of the universe. Such lives are exceedingly rare — think how few of the billions of humans who ever lived are remembered and studied and revered a mere hundred years hence, how few the Euclids and Shakespeares and Sapphos.

Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) lived one such life. Yet in such rare lives, the shimmering public contribution eclipses the private darknesses of life’s living, filling the opacity with our guesses, some generous and some not, none of which verifiable. We hardly know ourselves, after all — we can never really know who anyone is in their innermost being, much less how they came to be that way: What was the rarest genius like as a child — one among many in a classroom, in a city, in a civilization? What troubled and thrilled the pliant young mind, that neural bundle of pure potential about to burst into genius?

Art by Vladimir Radunsky from On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne

That is what Pulitzer-winning poet Tracy K. Smith takes up in a short, stunning poem titled “Einstein’s Mother” — a preview of the fourth annual Universe in Verse, streaming worldwide on April 25, 2020. (Smith, whose father worked on the Hubble Space Telescope as one of NASA’s first black engineers, read her gorgeous ode to our longing to know a universe we might never fully know at the inaugural Universe in Verse, shortly before being elected Poet Laureate of the United States.)

Tracy K. Smith (Photograph: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

Smith writes:

I’ve often heard that Albert Einstein struggled as a child. He came to language late, was unsuited to the classroom setting. And yet, in the narrative of Einstein’s life, his genius is often tied to the difficult or confounding features of his child self. My poem bears witness to the occasional challenges of motherhood. Sometimes narratives like Einstein’s offer me hope; more often, I fear they urge me toward a kind of magical, and potentially counterproductive, thinking.

Originally published in the Academy of American Poets’ wondrous lifeline of a newsletter, poem-a-day, “Einstein’s Mother” is read here by Amanda Palmer in the company of her own bundle of pure human potential, with original music by the generous and talented multi-instrumentalist Jherek Bischoff — a quilt of collaboration across the fabric of spacetime Einstein revealed, as the three of us found ourselves scattered tens of thousands of kilometers across the globe in our respective quarantine quarters while stitching The Universe in Verse together.

EINSTEIN’S MOTHER
by Tracy K. Smith

Was he mute a while,
or all tears. Did he raise
his hands to his ears so
he could scream scream
scream. Did he eat only
with his fists. Did he eat
as if something inside of him
would never be fed. Did he
arch his back and hammer
his heels into the floor
the minute there was
something he sought.
And did you feel yourself
caught there, wanting
to let go, to run, to
be called back to wherever
your two tangled souls
had sprung from. Did you ever
feel as though something
were rising up inside you.
A fire-white ghost. Did you
feel pity. And for whom.

Join us for the 2020 Universe in Verse, livestreaming around the world on April 25, for more poems celebrating the science of the universe, the people who make it, and the questions we live with, read by a glorious human constellation, including Neil Gaiman, Patti Smith, Elizabeth Gilbert, Rosanne Cash, astronauts, artists, astrophysicists, and other rare makers of meaning and seekers of truth.

Complement with another preview of the 2020 Universe in Verse — astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson’s sublime poem “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” read by the poetic astrophysicist Janna Levin — then sit back and savor the full recording of the 2019 Universe in Verse (which closed with a poem titled “Einstein’s Daughter”) and Amanda’s soulful readings from universes past: “The Mushroom Hunters” and “After Silence” by Neil Gaiman, originally composed for the 2017 and 2018 shows, and “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” by Adrienne Rich from the 2019 show.

BP

Seasons in a Pandemic: Mary Shelley on What Makes Life Worth Living and Nature’s Beauty as a Lifeline to Regaining Sanity

“There is but one solution to the intricate riddle of life; to improve ourselves, and contribute to the happiness of others.”

Seasons in a Pandemic: Mary Shelley on What Makes Life Worth Living and Nature’s Beauty as a Lifeline to Regaining Sanity

Half a century before Walt Whitman considered what makes life worth living when a paralytic stroke boughed him to the ground of being, Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851) placed that question at the beating heart of The Last Man (free ebook | public library) — the 1826 novel she wrote in the bleakest period of her life: after the deaths of three of her children, two by widespread infectious diseases that science has since contained; after the love of her life, Percy Bysshe Shelley, drowned in a boating accident.

From that fathomless pit of sorrow, on the pages of a novel about a pandemic that begins erasing the human species one by one until a sole survivor — Shelley’s autobiographical protagonist — remains, she raised the vital question: Why live? By her answer, she raised herself from the pit to go on living, becoming the endling of her own artistic species — Mary Shelley outlived all the Romantics, composing prose of staggering poetic beauty and singlehandedly turning her then-obscure husband into the icon he now is by her tireless lifelong devotion to the posthumous editing, publishing, and glorifying of his poetry.

Shelley had set her far-seeing Frankenstein, written a decade earlier, a century into her past; she sets The Last Man a quarter millennium into her future, in the final decade of the twenty-first century, culminating in the year 2092 — the tricentennial of her beloved’s birth.

Mary Shelley. Art from Literary Witches — an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

The novel’s narrator, Lionel Verney — an idealistic young man, more porous than most to both the deepest suffering of living and the most transcendent beauty of life — is the closest Mary Shelley, stoical and guarded, came to painting a psychological self-portrait. As the pandemic sweeps the world and vanquishes his loved ones one by one, Shelley’s protagonist returns home to seek safety “as the storm-driven bird does [to] the nest in which it may fold its wings in tranquillity.” There, in the strange stillness, stripped of the habitual busynesses and distractions of social existence, he finds himself contemplating the essence of life:

How unwise had the wanderers been, who had deserted [the nest’s] shelter, entangled themselves in the web of society, and entered on what men of the world call “life,” — that labyrinth of evil, that scheme of mutual torture. To live, according to this sense of the word, we must not only observe and learn, we must also feel; we must not be mere spectators of action, we must act; we must not describe, but be subjects of description. Deep sorrow must have been the inmate of our bosoms… sickening doubt and false hope must have chequered our days… Who that knows what “life” is, would pine for this feverish species of existence? I have lived. I have spent days and nights of festivity; I have joined in ambitious hopes…: now — shut the door on the world, and build high the wall that is to separate me from the troubled scene enacted within its precincts.

In consonance with Whitman — “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains?” the American poet would ask across space and time, then answer: “Nature remains.” — Shelley’s protagonist finds the meaning of life not in the whirlwind of the human-made world with its simulacra of living but in the simple creaturely presence with nature’s ongoing symphony of life:

Let us… seek peace… near the inland murmur of streams, and the gracious waving of trees, the beauteous vesture of earth, and sublime pageantry of the skies. Let us leave “life,” that we may live.

First Signal by Maria Popova

At the height of the deadly pandemic, nature seems all the more quietly determined to affirm the resilience of life — spring arrives with its irrepressible bursts of beauty, untrammeled by human suffering and a supreme salve for it. It is by observing nature’s unbidden delirium in its littlest expression, by surrendering to its sweep, that Lionel regains his faith not only in survival but in the beauty, the worthiness of life.

A generation before the young Emily Dickinson delighted in the poetry of spring, Shelley writes:

Winter passed away; and spring, led by the months, awakened life in all nature. The forest was dressed in green; the young calves frisked on the new-sprung grass; the wind-winged shadows of light clouds sped over the green cornfields; the hermit cuckoo repeated his monotonous all-hail to the season; the nightingale, bird of love and minion of the evening star, filled the woods with song; while Venus lingered in the warm sunset, and the young green of the trees lay in gentle relief along the clear horizon.

From this open presence with the non-human world, Shelley’s protagonist extracts the essence of what it means to be human:

There is but one solution to the intricate riddle of life; to improve ourselves, and contribute to the happiness of others.

Mary Shelley

Complement with Rebecca Elson’s stunning poem “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” Shelley’s contemporary Elizabeth Barrett Browning — a trailblazing poet who was dealt an inordinate share of suffering and who made of it inordinate beauty — on what makes life worth living, and the story of how young Isaac Newton’s plague quarantine fomented humanity’s greatest leap in science, then revisit the gorgeous advice on life Shelley’s mother, the trailblazing political philosopher and founding feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, never lived to give her daughter, having died in giving her birth.

BP

The Universe in Verse: Regina Spektor Reads “Theories of Everything” by Astronomer, Poet, and Tragic Genius Rebecca Elson

Lyrical reflections at the crossroads of truth and meaning.

The Universe in Verse: Regina Spektor Reads “Theories of Everything” by Astronomer, Poet, and Tragic Genius Rebecca Elson

In her haunting ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, Adrienne Rich serenaded “the ex-stasis of galaxies / so out from us there’s no vocabulary / but mathematics and optics / equations letting sight pierce through time / into liberations, lacerations of light and dust.” It is a peculiar meta-miracle, to fuse these complementary modes of sensemaking — mathematics, the language of truth, and poetry, the language of meaning — into something that enlarges both, expanding the horizons of beauty and understanding in the mind beholding the fusion.

This miracle is what The Universe in Verse celebrates, and no person embodies it more exquisitely than the Canadian astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999), who belonged to that rare species of genius with extraordinary talent in not just one but two, and thoroughly different, domains of creative endeavor.

The daughter of a geologist, Elson grew up as a keen observer of the natural world, spending large swaths of her childhood exploring the shores of a prehistoric lake. By the age of six, she could distinguish sandstone pebbles from limestone pebbles. By nine, she had grown besotted with the dazzling nocturnal skies of northern Canada, with the way they emanated the infinite question of what it means for the universe to be infinite, beguiled by the cosmic wonders filling that infinity. By sixteen, she was in university, falling further in love with astronomy. Her first glimpse of Andromeda, our sister galaxy, dazed her with its “delicate wisp of milky spiral light floating in what seemed a bottomless well of empty space.”

The spiral galaxy NGC 7331, located in the constellation Pegasus about 45 million light-years from Earth, discovered by William Herschel in 1784. (NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope)

At twenty-six, having completed her Ph.D. at Cambridge — Newton’s hallowed ground — Elson received a postdoctoral research fellowship at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study — Einstein’s hallowed ground — to work with the first data from the Hubble, which was about to launch later that year. But when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded before the grief-stricken eyes of the world, the horizons of space exploration darkened, the launch of the Hubble was delayed, and Elson’s research assignment vanished. Trapped in Princeton’s unwelcoming atmosphere of systemic sexism, without support and without a riveting project at hand, she found herself withdrawing as a researcher.

One thing solaced and perhaps even saved Elson as her astronomical career took this dispiriting dip — the lively Tuesday evening gatherings of poets, whose company and camaraderie she found to be “far more expansive and congenial” than the stranglehold of the scientific patriarchy. Verse opened up new frontiers of inquiry and observation — not of the universe without, but of the universe within. She came to cherish it and practice it with the same passion she had brought to astronomy.

In her twenty-ninth year, just as she began teaching creative writing at Radcliffe-Harvard during a fellowship there and became the youngest astronomer to serve on a decennial review committee in the history of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Elson was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma — a blood cancer that most commonly afflicts people in their sixties and seventies. She transmuted the brutality of the treatment into raw material for poetry — “Not outer space, just space / The light of all the not yet stars,” she writes in “Antidotes to Fear of Death” — and continued pursuing her first and greatest scientific love: galaxy formation and the study of how stars are born, live, and die.

Upon returning to Cambridge in her early thirties, with her illness in remission, Elson and her team used the deepest image of space the Hubble had ever taken to determine the limits of how much regular stars contribute to the mysterious halo of dark matter enveloping the Milky Way — a major contribution to our understanding of the universe and a bittersweet metaphor for Elson’s life and body of work, hovering in that liminal space between limit and possibility, darkness and light.

Rebecca Elson, 1987

Elson returned her stardust to the universe at only thirty-nine, leaving behind 56 scientific papers, a slender, sublimely beautiful book of poetry titled A Responsibility to Awe (public library), and the devastating question of what else a person of such uncommon genius would have given the world had chance granted her a longer life.

At the third annual Universe in Verse, I invited Regina Spektor, one of the most intensely poetic songwriters of our time, to honor Elson’s singular, tragic, transcendent genius with a lovely reading of her poem “Theories of Everything” — a meditation on our eternal struggle to discern the unfeeling laws of the universe, over which we have no control and by which we must abide, and to project ourselves onto them, creating cosmoses of beauty and meaning within their indifferent parameters, all the while ourselves remaining mere projections of these very laws.

THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
(When the lecturer’s shirt matches the painting on the wall)

He stands there speaking without love
Of theories where, in the democracy
Of this universe, or that,
There could be legislators
Who ordain trajectories for falling bodies,
Where all things must be dreamed with indifference,
And purpose is a momentary silhouette
Backlit by a blue anthropic flash,
A storm on the horizon.

But even the painting on the wall behind,
Itself an accident of shattered symmetries,
Is only half eclipsed by his transparencies
Of hierarchy and order,
And the history of thought.

And what he cannot see is this:
Himself projected next to his projections
Where the colours from the painting
Have spilled onto his shirt,
Their motion stilled into a rigorous
Design of lines and light.

A Responsibility to Awe is a breathtaking read in its slim totality.

For other highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her stirring homage to Stephen Hawking, U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie, then revisit Regina Spektor reading “The Everyday Enchantment of Music” by Mark Strand — one of the most beautiful things ever written about the power of music.

BP

The Science of How Alive You Really Are: Alan Turing, Trees, and the Wonder of Life

“The more a creature’s life is worth, the less of it is alive.”

The Science of How Alive You Really Are: Alan Turing, Trees, and the Wonder of Life

When the young Alan Turing (June 23, 1912–June 7, 1954) lost the love of his life, Christopher, to a bacterium contracted from cow’s milk, the grief-savaged future father of computing comforted his beloved’s grief-savaged mother by telling her that “the body provides something for the spirit to look after and use.” For the remainder of his life, he never ceased contemplating this binary code of body and spirit — a preoccupation fanned by this leveling loss in young adulthood, but ignited in childhood, by a book he had been given at age ten, a book he later told his own mother was what opened his mind and heart to science.

Alan Turing (far left) with classmates at Waterloo Station on the way to the school carriage. (Turing Digital Archive)

Published the year Turing was born, impishly described by its author as being “mostly about things that you do not learn in school,” Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know (public library) by Edwin Tinney Brewster invited young minds to step through the portal of science and contemplate not why life is — the domain of Sunday school theology — but what life is and how it came to be that way. Before there were scientists, it fell on the “natural philosophers” — men (for they were only men) typically trained in theology — to make sense of nature’s phenomena and processes. Brewster was born in the middle of the nineteenth century, only a generation after the person for whom the word scientist was coined — the polymathic Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville — and he devoted his life to aiding humanity’s great migration from the epoch of religion to the epoch of reality.

Light distribution on soap bubble from a 19th-century French science textbook. Available as a print and as a face mask.

The young Turing was captivated by Brewster’s playful analogies and his elegantly reasoned expositions of biological realities, worded so simply as to border on the poetic. How the chicken gets inside the egg, why we grow and grow old, what plants know — these wonders of life impressed the boy’s imagination with a lifelong passion: Unbeknownst to most, the father of modern computing devoted a substantial portion of his mind to an obscure branch of the biology of life known as morphogenesis — the process by which living organisms take their shape — which he illustrated in a series of hauntingly beautiful hand-drawn diagrams.

Alan Turing’s little-known diagrams of morphogenesis.(Turing Digital Archive)

The book’s most captivating chapter, titled “How Much of Us Is Alive,” explores not the existential puzzlement of the question — that is best left to the poets and the artists of life — but the science, the staggering and counterintuitive reality, of aliveness. Brewster writes:

How much of a tree is alive? Certainly not the outer bark. That falls off in dry scales, or can be scraped off down to the white layers within, and the tree be none the worse. Certainly not the wood. One often comes across old trees that have lost limbs or been carelessly pruned, which are entirely decayed out on the inside, so that nothing is left but a thin shell next the bark. Yet these trees grow as vigorously as ever, and bear leaves and fruit like a solid tree. The bark is dead; and the wood is dead. Between the two is a thin layer, perhaps a quarter inch thru, which is alive. On one side, it is changing into dead wood. On the other side, it is changing into dead bark. The new wood is alive, and the new bark. Between them is something neither wood nor bark, but just living tree-stuff. The green leaves also are alive, and the green twigs, and the blossoms, and the growing buds. But at least half of every living tree is already dead; while the larger and longer lived a tree is, the smaller proportion of it is alive at one time.

Art by Arthur Rackham for a rare edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

What is true of trees, Brewster observes, is true of us. (And not only because we see so much of ourselves in trees.) We exert vast portions of our anxious creative energy on devising antidotes to our elemental fear of death — some mightier than others — and yet much of the bodies we live in is not, strictly speaking, alive at all:

Our hair and nails are not alive at all, and that our outer skin, the thin skin, that is, which we tear off when we bark our shins, is fully alive only on the inside. Our “bark” in fact, is very like a tree’s. Each has a soft, thin, living layer on the inside, which grows, hardens, dies, forms a water-tight layer over the rest of the body, cracks into scales, and drops off. Where one forms cork, the other forms horn. Indeed the cork stoppers of our bottles are made from nothing more than an especially thick corky bark of a certain kind of oak, like the especially thick and homy soles of all bare-footed savages and some bare-footed little boys.

With an eye to the biological fallacy at the heart of the famous biblical teaching that the life of every creature is its blood — refashioned in Bram Stoker’s iconic line from Dracula, “The blood is the life!” — Brewster counters:

The blood itself is dead. The watery part is just soup; water and salt and fat and jelly. The minute, coin-like, red blood corpuscles carry the oxygen of the air from the lungs all over the body. But there are similar oxygen-carriers, likewise dead, in bottles in the drug-stores. The corpuscles are dead cells alive once, and like the hard skin cells, a great deal more useful dead than alive.

After delineating how the same holds true of our teeth and the rest of our bones, Brewster draws out his analogy of cells as “living bricks” — with the caveat that even living cells are not fully alive, for the jelly of water and salt coursing through them is “just water and salt” — and adds:

We are, then, built of living bricks, but of living bricks set in dead mortar. We saw that the great trees, complex and long lived, have more wood and bark and other dead substances in them than the shrubs, herbs, and grass. These in turn are less alive than the lowly water plants and yeasts and molds which have no wood or bark at all. The same is true of animals. The jelly-fishes and infusoria have neither skin, hair, bones, nails, nor blood, and are pretty much all alive. So the more a creature’s life is worth, the less of it is alive.

The image of the “living bricks” particularly fascinated the young Turing, but it also struck him as somehow incomplete. Something was missing there, something didn’t add up to the mystery of consciousness, the wonder of what we are. In the mortar of his uncommon imagination, this incompleteness leavened the rise of modern computing. It is impossible to conceive of a Turing machine — that revolutionary mathematical progenitor of artificial intelligence — without brushing up against such elemental questions about the nature of aliveness, as Turing himself did when he gently threw his famous and formidable gauntlet of a test, asking whether a computer could ever “enjoy strawberries and cream, make someone fall in love with it, learn from experience, use words properly, be the subject of its own thought [or] do something really new.” The triumph of history is tracing the roots — ancient and alive — of our present condition in the world. The triumph of self-understanding is tracing the roots of the formative influences that make us who we are, that shape the people who shape the world.

Alan Turing as a young man
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