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A Truly Human Endeavor: Cosmologist Janna Levin on the Transcendence of Science, the Climb Toward Truth, and Why Scientists Do What They Do

“The climb is personal, a truly human endeavor, and the real expedition pixelates into individuals, not Platonic forms.”

A Truly Human Endeavor: Cosmologist Janna Levin on the Transcendence of Science, the Climb Toward Truth, and Why Scientists Do What They Do

“Science makes people reach selflessly for truth and objectivity,” wrote pioneering physicist Lise Meitner, “[and] 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.” Meitner herself was a true scientist who embodied this selfless, joyful reach for truth — she discovered nuclear fission and was denied the Nobel for the discovery, but went on to pave the way for women in science anyway and lived a long life invigorated by the pleasurable pursuit of knowledge. But how do great scientists — like great artists, who share a similar fate in this regard — manage to transcend rejection, failure, and personal disappointment, and remain unflinchingly committed to enlarging our shared store of truth?

But what sounds like a superhuman feat springs, in fact, from the deepest trenches of scientists’ humanity. That’s what cosmologist and novelist Janna Levin illustrates with uncommon grace in Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space (public library) — one of the most fascinating and beautifully written books I’ve ever read, which gave us the story of the tragic hero who followed Einstein’s vision and how astronomer Jocelyn Bell discovered pulsars but was excluded from the Nobel Prize.

Levin, herself a scientist who studies black holes, tells the story of the century-long vision and half-century experimental quest to hear the sound of spacetime by capturing a gravitational wave. With a novelist’s flair for unraveling the universal through the specific, she chronicles this particular scientific triumph in order to tell a larger story of the human spirit, its tenacious ingenuity in the face of myriad obstacles, and the somewhat mysterious, somewhat irrational animating force that compels scientists to devote their entire lives to exploits bedeviled by uncertainty, frequent failure, and meager public appreciation.

Janna Levin (Photography by Béatrice de Géa for the Quanta Magazine profile "Janna Levin’s Theory of Doing Everything" by Natalie Wolchover.)
Janna Levin (Photography by Béatrice de Géa for “Janna Levin’s Theory of Doing Everything” by Natalie Wolchover, Quanta Magazine.)

Interpolating elegantly between her parallel roles as scientist, storyteller, and interviewer throughout the book, Levin finds one answer in her conversation with the iconic physicist Kip Thorne — one of the three architects of LIGO, the colossal instrument that ultimately detected a gravitational wave for the first time exactly a century after Einstein envisioned the possibility, thus accomplishing one of the greatest feats of modern science. Looking back from the fortunate platform of a long and lauded career as a scientist, eighty-something Thorne offers:

The pursuit of science is more than the pursuit of understanding. It is driven by the creative urge, the urge to construct a vision, a map, a picture of the world that gives the world a little more beauty and coherence than it had before.

But as much as that creative urge may reach for something transcendent and larger than oneself, it can only begin in the deepest pit of personhood — something Levin captures in a beautiful analogy for that climb toward truth and transcendence:

Scientists are like those levers or knobs or those boulders helpfully screwed into a climbing wall. Like the wall is some cemented material made by mixing knowledge, which is a purely human construct, with reality, which we can only access through the filter of our minds. There’s an important pursuit of objectivity in science and nature and mathematics, but still the only way up the wall is through the individual people, and they come in specifics — the French guy, the German guy, the American girl. So the climb is personal, a truly human endeavor, and the real expedition pixelates into individuals, not Platonic forms. In the end it’s personal, as much as we want to believe it’s objective.

Complement this fragment of the wholly enthralling Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, which Ben Folds set to music, with Levin on genius and madness and her immeasurably moving Moth story about the unlikely paths that lead us back to ourselves, then revisit Schopenhauer on the essential difference between how art and science illuminate the world.

BP

C.S. Lewis on Equality and Our Core Misconception About Democracy

“The tempter always works on some real weakness in our own system of values: offers food to some need which we have starved.”

C.S. Lewis on Equality and Our Core Misconception About Democracy

“The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former,” wrote the great French philosopher Simone Weil shortly before her untimely and patriotic death as she contemplated the crucial difference between our rights and our obligations. “A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds.” Nowhere do we muddle these two notions more liberally than in our treatment of democracy and its foundational principle of equality — a basic right to be conferred upon every human being, but also something the upkeep of which demands our active participation and contribution.

That’s what C.S. Lewis (November 29, 1898–November 22, 1963) examines in a superb 1943 essay titled “Equality,” originally published in The Spectator three days after Weil’s death and later included in Present Concerns (public library) — a posthumous anthology of Lewis’s timeless and timely journalistic essays.

C.S. Lewis (Photograph: John Chillingworth)
C.S. Lewis (Photograph: John Chillingworth)

A generation before Leonard Cohen contemplated democracy’s foibles and redemptions, Lewis writes at the peak of WWII as history’s deadliest and most unredeemable failure of democracy is sweeping Europe:

I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. And whenever their weakness is exposed, the people who prefer tyranny make capital out of the exposure… The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Parker Palmer’s notion of democracy as the “politics of the brokenhearted,” Lewis expands upon his counterintuitive case for equality:

I do not think that equality is one of those things (like wisdom or happiness) which are good simply in themselves and for their own sakes. I think it is in the same class as medicine, which is good because we are ill, or clothes which are good because we are no longer innocent… Legal and economic equality are absolutely necessary remedies for the Fall, and protection against cruelty.

In a passage of chilling poignancy and timeliness today, as we witness tyrants rise to power by playing to people’s craving for supremacy as a hedge against insecurity and fear, Lewis writes:

There is no spiritual sustenance in flat equality. It is a dim recognition of this fact which makes much of our political propaganda sound so thin. We are trying to be enraptured by something which is merely the negative condition of the good life. That is why the imagination of people is so easily captured by appeals to the craving for inequality, whether in a romantic form of films about loyal courtiers or in the brutal form of Nazi ideology. The tempter always works on some real weakness in our own system of values: offers food to some need which we have starved.

Just as true generosity lies in mastering the osmosis of giving and receiving, true equality, Lewis argues, requires the parallel desires to be honored and to honor. He writes:

When equality is treated not as a medicine or a safety-gadget but as an ideal we begin to breed that stunted and envious sort of mind which hates all superiority. That mind is the special disease of democracy, as cruelty and servility are the special diseases of privileged societies. It will kill us all if it grows unchecked. The man who cannot conceive a joyful and loyal obedience on the one hand, nor an unembarrassed and noble acceptance of that obedience on the other, the man who has never even wanted to kneel or to bow, is a prosaic barbarian.

[…]

Every intrusion of the spirit that says “I’m as good as you” into our personal and spiritual life is to be resisted just as jealously as every intrusion of bureaucracy or privilege into our politics. Hierarchy within can alone preserve egalitarianism without. Romantic attacks on democracy will come again. We shall never be safe unless we already understand in our hearts all that the anti-democrats can say, and have provided for it better than they.

Complement Present Concerns with Lewis on why we read, the essence of friendship, what it really means to have free will in a universe of fixed laws, his ideal daily routine, and the key to authenticity in writing, then revisit Walt Whitman on how literature bolsters democracy.

BP

Hold Still: Sally Mann on the Treachery of Memory, the Dark Side of Photography, and the Elusive Locus of the Self

“Photographs economize the truth; they are always moments more or less illusorily abducted from time’s continuum.”

Hold Still: Sally Mann on the Treachery of Memory, the Dark Side of Photography, and the Elusive Locus of the Self

“Memory is never a precise duplicate of the original… it is a continuing act of creation,” pioneering researcher Rosalind Cartwright wrote in distilling the science of the unconscious mind.

Although I lack early childhood memories, I do have one rather eidetic recollection: I remember standing before the barren elephant yard at the Sofia Zoo in Bulgaria, at age three or so, clad in a cotton polka-dot jumper. I remember squinting into a scowl as the malnourished elephant behind me swirls dirt into the air in front of her communism-stamped concrete edifice. I don’t remember the temperature, though I deduce from the memory of my outfit that it must have been summer. I don’t remember the smell of the elephant or the touch of the blown dirt on my skin, though I remember my grimace.

For most of my life, I held onto that memory as the sole surviving mnemonic fragment of my early childhood self. And then, one day in my late twenties, I discovered an old photo album tucked into the back of my grandmother’s cabinet in Bulgaria. It contained dozens of photographs of me, from birth until around age four, including one depicting that very vignette — down to the minutest detail of what I believed was my memory of that moment. There I was, scowling in my polka-dot jumper with the elephant and the cloud of dust behind me. In an instant, I realized that I had been holding onto a prosthetic memory — what I remembered was the photograph from that day, which I must have been shown at some point, and not the day itself, of which I have no other recollection. The question — and what a Borgesian question — remains whether one should prefer having such a prosthetic memory, constructed entirely of photographs stitched together into artificial cohesion, to having no memory at all.

That confounding parallax of personal history is what photographer Sally Mann explores throughout Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs (public library) — a lyrical yet unsentimental meditation on art, mortality, and the lacuna between memory and myth, undergirded by what Mann calls her “long preoccupation with the treachery of memory” and “memory’s truth, which is to scientific, objective truth as a pearl is to a piece of sand.”

Sally Mann as a girl
Sally Mann as a child

In a sentiment that calls to mind Oliver Sacks’s exquisite elucidation of how memory works, Mann writes:

Whatever of my memories hadn’t crumbled into dust must surely by now have been altered by the passage of time. I tend to agree with the theory that if you want to keep a memory pristine, you must not call upon it too often, for each time it is revisited, you alter it irrevocably, remembering not the original impression left by experience but the last time you recalled it. With tiny differences creeping in at each cycle, the exercise of our memory does not bring us closer to the past but draws us farther away.

I had learned over time to meekly accept whatever betrayals memory pulled over on me, allowing my mind to polish its own beautiful lie. In distorting the information it’s supposed to be keeping safe, the brain, to its credit, will often bow to some instinctive aesthetic wisdom, imparting to our life’s events a coherence, logic, and symbolic elegance that’s not present or not so obvious in the improbable, disheveled sloppiness of what we’ve actually been through.

Photograph: Sally Mann
Photograph: Sally Mann

Nearly half a century after Italo Calvino observed that “the life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself,” Mann traces this cultural pathology — now a full epidemic with the rise of the photo-driven social web — to the dawn of the medium itself. Reflecting on the discovery of a box of old photographs in her own family’s attic, she echoes Teju Cole’s assertion that “photography is at the nerve center of our paradoxical memorial impulses” and writes:

As far back as 1901 Émile Zola telegraphed the threat of this relatively new medium, remarking that you cannot claim to have really seen something until you have photographed it. What Zola perhaps also knew or intuited was that once photographed, whatever you had “really seen” would never be seen by the eye of memory again. It would forever be cut from the continuum of being, a mere sliver, a slight, translucent paring from the fat life of time; elegiac, one-dimensional, immediately assuming the amber quality of nostalgia: an instantaneous memento mori. Photography would seem to preserve our past and make it invulnerable to the distortions of repeated memorial superimpositions, but I think that is a fallacy: photographs supplant and corrupt the past, all the while creating their own memories. As I held my childhood pictures in my hands, in the tenderness of my “remembering,” I also knew that with each photograph I was forgetting.

Sally Mann on her beloved horse as a girl
Young Sally Mann on her beloved horse

Mann, whose memoir is strewn with an extraordinary sensitivity to language, anchors into the perfect word the perfect analogy for how the living of life impresses itself upon our memory:

When an animal, a rabbit, say, beds down in a protecting fencerow, the weight and warmth of his curled body leaves a mirroring mark upon the ground. The grasses often appear to have been woven into a birdlike nest, and perhaps were indeed caught and pulled around by the delicate claws as he turned in a circle before subsiding into rest. This soft bowl in the grasses, this body-formed evidence of hare, has a name, an obsolete but beautiful word: meuse. (Enticingly close to Muse, daughter of Memory, and source of inspiration.) Each of us leaves evidence on the earth that in various ways bears our form.

Over and over, Mann returns with palpable unease to the parasitic relationship between photography and memory, culminating in this unadorned indictment:

I believe that photographs actually rob all of us of our memory.

More than that, photographs disquiet our already unnerving relationship with time — a relationship which Borges, the poet laureate of memory’s perplexities, captured with memorable brilliance. Mann writes:

Photographs economize the truth; they are always moments more or less illusorily abducted from time’s continuum.

Photograph: Sally Mann
Photograph: Sally Mann

This dislocation of mnemonic truth into photographs is as rooted in time as it is in space. Mann, whose work is heavily animated by the life of landscape, once again draws on language to explore the nuances of the relationship between photography, memory, and place:

In an immigrant society like this one, we are often divided from our forebears less by distance than by language, generations before us having thought, sung, made love, and argued in dialects unknown to us now. In Wales, for example, Welsh is spoken by barely 20 percent of the population, so we can only hope that the evocative Welsh word hiraeth will somehow be preserved. It means “distance pain,” and I know all about it: a yearning for the lost places of our past, accompanied in extreme cases by tuneful lamentation (mine never got quite that bad). But, and this is important, it always refers to a near-umbilical attachment to a place, not just free-floating nostalgia or a droopy houndlike wistfulness or the longing we associate with romantic love. No, this is a word about the pain of loving a place.

[…]

Contemporary Welsh-speakers have continued that expression, linking memory and landscape most vividly in R. W. Parry’s sonnet in which the longed-for landscape communicates to the human heart, “the echo of an echo… the memory of a memory past.”

With an eye to her own heritage as a displaced Southerner, Mann adds:

Looking through my long photographic and literary relationship with my own native soil I can perceive a definite kinship with those fakelorish bards wailing away about their place-pain.

Photograph: Sally Mann
Photograph: Sally Mann

A generation after Susan Sontag admonished against the “aesthetic consumerism” of photography, Mann invites us to confront these commodifications of memory that we have come to take for granted:

Before the invention of photography, significant moments in the flow of our lives would be like rocks placed in a stream: impediments that demonstrated but didn’t diminish the volume of the flow and around which accrued the debris of memory, rich in sight, smell, taste, and sound. No snapshot can do what the attractive mnemonic impediment can: when we outsource that work to the camera, our ability to remember is diminished and what memories we have are impoverished.

Contemplating mortality, that ultimate end-point of memory, Mann writes in a Whitman-like meditation on the ever-elusive locus of the self:

Where does the self actually go? All the accumulation of memory — the mist rising from the river and the birth of children and the flying tails of the Arabians in the field — and all the arcane formulas, the passwords, the poultice recipes, the Latin names of trees, the location of the safe deposit key, the complex skills to repair and build and grow and harvest — when someone dies, where does it all go?

In a sentiment evocative of Meghan O’Rourke’s beautiful assertion that “the people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created,” Mann adds:

Proust has his answer, and it’s the one I take most comfort in — it ultimately resides in the loving and in the making and in the living of every present day.

Hold Still is an intensely beautiful and layered read in its totality. Complement this particular facet with Virginia Woolf on how memory threads our lives together, neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin on how the famous amnesiac H.M. illuminates the paradoxes of memory and the self, and Susan Sontag on how photography mediates our relationship with life and death.

BP

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