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Anaïs Nin on the Meaning of Life & the Dangers of the Internet (1946)

“We believe we are in touch with a greater amount of people… This is the illusion which might cheat us of being in touch deeply with the one breathing next to us.”

Last week’s widely reverberating meditations on the meaning of life by cultural icons like Charles Bukowski, Annie Dillard, Arthur C. Clarke, and John Cage reminded me of a passage from the altogether sublime The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947 (public library) — the same tome that gave us this poignant reflection on why emotional excess is essential to creativity.

In an entry from May 1946, Anaïs Nin once again challenges our presentism bias by thinking deeply and timelessly about issues we tend to believe we’re brushing up against for the very first time, from the pitfalls of always-on communication technology to the pace of modern life to the venom of procrastination.

Even more interesting than the striking similarity between what Nin admonishes against and the present dynamics of the internet is the fact that she essentially describes Marshall McLuhan’s seminal concept of the global village… a decade and a half before he coined it.

The secret of a full life is to live and relate to others as if they might not be there tomorrow, as if you might not be there tomorrow. It eliminates the vice of procrastination, the sin of postponement, failed communications, failed communions. This thought has made me more and more attentive to all encounters, meetings, introductions, which might contain the seed of depth that might be carelessly overlooked. This feeling has become a rarity, and rarer every day now that we have reached a hastier and more superficial rhythm, now that we believe we are in touch with a greater amount of people, more people, more countries. This is the illusion which might cheat us of being in touch deeply with the one breathing next to us. The dangerous time when mechanical voices, radios, telephones, take the place of human intimacies, and the concept of being in touch with millions brings a greater and greater poverty in intimacy and human vision.

For more on Nin’s timeless insights on life, see Lisa Congdon’s stunning hand-lettered diary quotes.

BP

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Scientific Literacy, Education, and the Poetry of the Cosmos

“Science is a way of equipping yourself with the tools to interpret what happens in front of you.”

“People,” lamented Richard Feynman in 1964, “I mean the average person, the great majority of people, the enormous majority of people — are woefully, pitifully, absolutely ignorant of the science of the world that they live in.” In the half-century since, we’ve sequenced the human genome, put a man on the moon and rovers on Mars, confirmed the existence of the Higgs “God particle” boson, and achieved innumerable scientific miracles, small and large, that enhance our daily lives in fundamental ways. And yet, bad science spreads, good science journalism is fighting an uphill battle against media reductionism and distortion, and the general public remains as just as woefully and pitifully distrustful of or, worse yet, unconcerned with science as in the Feynman days.

In this fantastic conversation with Stephen Colbert, Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson — passionate crusader for space exploration, eloquent champion of the whimsy of the cosmos, modern-day Richard “Great Explainer” Feynman — brings his characteristic blend of sharp insight, quick wit, and unapologetic opinion to the issue of scientific literacy and how it relates to everything from education to government spending to morality.

Highlights below, though the entire hour-long conversation — including the most brilliant and hilarious James Cameron Titanic critique you’ll ever hear — is more than worth the time.

On the ethics of discovery vs. the broader morality of application:

We are collectively part of a society that is using or not using, to its benefit or its detriment, the discoveries of science. And at the end of the day, a discovery itself is not moral — it’s our application of it that has to pass that test.

On the misunderstanding of science:

[Science] is distrusted not because of what it can do, but because people don’t understand how it does what it can do — and that absence of understanding, or misunderstanding, of the power of science is what makes people afraid. … Just because you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it’s bad for you — go figure out how it works! That’s why we need a scientifically literate electorate — so that when you go to the polls, you can make an informed judgment and you can draw your own conclusions rather than tune into a particular TV station to have your conclusions handed to you.

On the poetry of astrophysics:

Some of the greatest poetry is revealing in the reader the beauty of something that is so simple you had taken it for granted. That, I think, is the job of the poet. The simplicity of the universe, if it doesn’t drive you to poetry it drives you to bask in the majesty of the cosmos.

On what’s wrong with education:

Our academic system rewards people who know a lot of stuff and, generally, we call those people ‘smart.’ But at the end of the day, who do you want: The person who can figure stuff out that they’ve never seen before, or the person who can rabble off a bunch of facts?

A brilliant addition to history’s best definitions of science:

[Science] is a way of equipping yourself with the tools to interpret what happens in front of you.

On our broken yardsticks for assessing the value of scientific research:

Today, you hear people say, ‘Why are we spending money up there when we’ve got problems on Earth?’ And people don’t connect the time-delay between the frontier of scientific research and how it’s going to transform your life later down the line. All they want is a quarterly report that shows the part that comes out of it — that is so short-sighted that it’s the beginning of the end of your culture.

He goes on to point out that people grossly misperceive how much is actually being spent “up there,” assuming anywhere between 10 and 15% of taxpayer money, whereas the real number is a mere 6/10 of a penny on the tax dollar, or 0.6%. The solution:

The greatest need is to be able to have the foresight necessary to make investments on the frontier of science even if, at the time you make those investments, you cannot figure out how that might make you rich tomorrow.

Finally, when Colbert asks the grandest cosmic question of all — why there is something instead of nothing — Tyson answers with a brilliant haiku-esque retort that hints at the power of ignorance as a tool of science:

Words that make questions
May not be questions
At all

Tyson’s latest book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier (public library), is a must-read.

Swiss-Miss

BP

F. Scott Fitzgerald Responds to Hate Mail

“The Rosseaus, Marxes, Tolstois — men of thought, mind you, ‘impractical’ men, ‘idealist’ have done more to decide the food you eat and the things you think + do than all the millions of Roosevelts and Rockerfellars.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald — literary legend, master of the muse, star of early book ads, and one amazing dad — was born on September 24, 1896.

In 1920, shortly after the publication of his debut novel, This Side of Paradise, he received a piece of “hate mail” criticizing the book as an affront to the respectable members of society, particularly those in power. Fitzgerald’s feisty, brilliant response, found in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters (public library), pulls into question — just as his fiction famously does — the superficial values high society holds so dear, touching on everything from education to ethics to politics to creative legacy with equal parts insight and irreverence.

TO: Robert D. Clark
38 W 59th St.
New York City

Feb 9th 1920

Dear Bob:

Your letter riled me to such an extent that I’m answering immediatly. Who are all these ‘real people’ who ‘create business and politics’? and of whose approval I should be so covetous? Do you mean grafters who keep sugar in their ware houses so that people have to go without or the cheap-jacks who by bribery and high-school sentiment manage to controll elections. I can’t pick up a paper here without finding that some of these ‘real people’ who will not be satisfied only with ‘a brilliant mind’ (I quote you) have just gone up to Sing Sing for a stay — Brindell and Hegerman, two pillars of society, went this morning.

Who in hell ever respected Shelley, Whitman, Poe, O. Henry, Verlaine, Swinburne, Villon, Shakespeare ect when they were alive. Shelley + Swinburne were fired from college; Verlaine + O Henry were in jail. The rest were drunkards or wasters and told generally by the merchants and petty politicians and jitney messiahs of their day that real people wouldn’t stand it And the merchants and messiahs, the shrewd + the dull, are dust — and the others live on.

Just occasionally a man like Shaw who was called an immoralist 50 times worse than me back in the 90ties, lives on long enough so that the world grows up to him. What he believed in 1890 was heresy then — by by now its almost respectable. It seems to me I’ve let myself be dominated by ‘authorities’ for too long — the headmaster of Newman, S.P. A, Princeton, my regiment, my business boss — who knew no more than me, in fact I should say these 5 were all distinctly my mental inferiors. And that’s all that counts! The Rosseaus, Marxes, Tolstois — men of thought, mind you, ‘impractical’ men, ‘idealist’ have done more to decide the food you eat and the things you think + do than all the millions of Roosevelts and Rockerfellars that strut for 20 yrs. or so mouthing such phrases as 100% American (which means 99% village idiot), and die with a little pleasing flattery to the silly and cruel old God they’ve set up in their hearts.

Sample the wholly excellent F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters further with the celebrated author on the secret of great writing, then revisit his boyhood diary.

BP

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