welcome to this week’s edition of the brainpickings.org newsletter by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s digest — how freedom strengthens togetherness in long-term relationships, Amanda Palmer reads Adrienne Rich’s tribute to the Hubble Space Telescope, and more — you can catch up right here. And if you are enjoying this labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation – I spend innumerable hours and tremendous resources on it each week, and every little bit of support helps enormously. If you already donate: THANK YOU.
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.”
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.
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.
“Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote as she celebrated the sacredness of public libraries. “A library is a rainbow in the clouds,” Maya Angelou exulted in reflecting on how a library saved her life. It was thanks to the library that James Baldwin read his way from Harlem to the literary pantheon. “You never know what troubled little girl needs a book,” Nikki Giovanni wrote in one of her lovely poems celebrating libraries and librarians.
Among the titans of mind and spirit shaped and saved by libraries was the great neurologist, author, and voracious reader Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015).
In a short essay titled “Libraries,” found in the bittersweet posthumous collectionEverything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (public library), Sacks recalls his childhood in England with the unsentimental sweetness that makes hisautobiographical writings so delicious:
The oak-paneled library was the quietest and most beautiful room in the house, to my eyes, and it vied with my little chemistry lab as my favorite place to be. I would curl up in a chair and become so absorbed in what I was reading that all sense of time would be lost. Whenever I was late for lunch or dinner I could be found, completely enthralled by a book, in the library. I learned to read early, at three or four, and books, and our library, are among my first memories.
But the ur-library, for me, was our local public library, the Willesden library. There I spent many of the happiest hours of my growing-up years — our house was a five-minute walk from the library — and it was there I received my real education.
Like many of us, Sacks found his natural curiosity unstimulated, blunted even, by the industrial model of education into which he was thrust. At the library, where he was master of his own time and mind, he found the antidote — the living substance of learning without the ill-fitting structure of schooling:
On the whole, I disliked school, sitting in class, receiving instruction; information seemed to go in one ear and out the other. I could not be passive — I had to be active, learn for myself, learn what I wanted, and in the way that suited me best. I was not a good pupil, but I was a good learner, and in the Willesden library — and all the libraries that came later — I roamed the shelves and stacks, had the freedom to select whatever I wanted, to follow paths that fascinated me, to become myself. At the library I felt free — free to look at the thousands, tens of thousands, of books; free to roam and to enjoy the special atmosphere and the quiet companionship of other readers, all, like myself, on quests of their own.
But it was at the majestic Oxford libraries that his belonging in place and time came fully abloom in the landscape of literature:
It was in the vaults of the Queen’s College that I really gained a sense of history, and of my own language.
While Sacks found at the library a locus of liberation via self-directed learning, he also found the seeming opposite — a surprising sense of community, which became a lovely complement to his newfound intellectual autonomy:
Though the library was quiet, whispered conversations might start in the stacks — two of you, perhaps, were searching for the same old book, the same bound volumes of Brain from 1890 — and conversations could lead to friendships. All of us in the library were reading our own books, absorbed in our own worlds, and yet there was a sense of community, even intimacy. The physicality of books — along with their places and their neighbors on the bookshelves — was part of this camaraderie: handling books, sharing them, passing them to one another, even seeing the names of previous readers and the dates they took books out.
When Sacks moved to New York City in 1965 and began working on his first book — the epoch-making Migraine, which not only revolutionized our understanding of one of the mind’s most mystifying frontiers but ushered in a whole new aesthetic of lyrical writing about medicine — the library became his escape from the notorious oppressions and privations of a young person’s first New York shoebox:
At that time I had a horrid, poky little apartment in which there were almost no surfaces to read or write on. I was just able, holding an elbow awkwardly aloft, to write some of Migraine on the top of the refrigerator. I longed for spaciousness. Fortunately, the library at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where I worked, had this in abundance. I would sit at a large table to read or write for a while, and then wander around the shelves and stacks. I never knew what my eyes might alight upon, but I would sometimes discover unexpected treasures, lucky finds, and bring these back to my seat.
I have often wondered and worried about what rapturous rewards of such serendipitous discovery we relinquish when we surrender to search, that double-edged glory of the Internet. We may have a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, but they are still appendages of our consciously informed intent — we reach for what we know to reach for. It is an odd question I live with daily, suspended and often sundered between these two strands of knowledge: Brain Pickings exists in the world of the Internet, but draws on the world of “unexpected treasures” found on bookshelves, unlooked for. My experience of it — of how I read what I read and how I write about it — is largely one of serendipitous discovery. It mirrors my childhood experience of pulling an encyclopedia off the shelf of my grandmother’s formidable library in Bulgaria, opening to a random page, learning about something I did not know to wonder about until I discovered it, then telling my parents about it with ecstatic enthusiasm. Sacks experienced this intimately — it was amid the stacks the library that he discovered Edward Liveing’s obscure 1873 book Megrim, which inspired him to write Migraine. Perhaps he never used a computer, not even as he continued to write prolifically into the twenty-first century, not out of some time-stilted Luddism but because he resisted, passionately and to the hilt, the relinquishing of this ecstasy of discovery.
Everything in Its Place is a wondrous read in its entirety, irradiating Sacks’s kaleidoscopic curiosity across subjects as varied as the joy of swimming, the pains of first love, the glories of the gingko tree, the surreal turns the mind takes under various rare neurological conditions, and the relationship between gardens and creativity. Complement this particular portion with an illustrated love letter to booksby some of the greatest minds of our time, benefiting the public library system, then revisit Sacks on the building blocks of identity, the three essential elements of creativity, his formative reading list of 121 favorite books, the remarkable story of how he saved his own life by reciting poetry, and his stunning memoir of a life fully lived.
“Mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself. Therein lies our hope and our destiny,” the great marine biologist and author Rachel Carsonaddressed the next generations as she catalyzed the environmental movement with her courageous exposé of the industry-driven, government-concealed chemical assault on nature.
Six months after Carson delivered her poignant and prescient commencement address, another writer of rare courage and humanistic idealism took another stage to deliver a kindred message that reverberates across the decades with astounding relevance today.
On December 10, 1962, John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) took the podium at the Swedish Academy to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.” Two decades after he contemplated the contradictions of human nature and our grounds for lucid hope, the sixty-year-old Steinbeck proceeded to deliver a stunning, sobering, yet resolutely optimistic acceptance speech, later included in Nobel Writers on Writing (public library) — the collection that gave us Bertrand Russell on the four desires driving all human behavior, Pearl S. Buck on the nature of creativity, and Gabriel García Márquez’s vision of a world in which “no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible.”
After some endearing and strangely comforting opening remarks, indicating that even he — one of the world’s most celebrated minds, standing at the podium to receive the Nobel Prize — is bedeviled by impostor syndrome, Steinbeck considers the abiding role of storytelling in human life:
Literature was not promulgated by a pale and emasculated critical priesthood singing their litanies in empty churches — nor is it a game for the cloistered elect, the tin-horn mendicants of low-calorie despair.
Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it and it has not changed except to become more needed. The skalds, the bards, the writers are not separate and exclusive. From the beginning, their functions, their duties, their responsibilities have been decreed by our species.
In a sentiment Iris Murdoch would echo a decade later in her insistence that throughout history “the artist has tended to be a revolutionary or at least an instrument of change in so far as he has tended to be a sensitive and independent thinker with a job that is a little outside established society,” Steinbeck bows to the lineage of great truth-tellers but raises the artist’s duty to a higher plane of humanism, tasked with more than merely exposing fault:
Humanity has been passing through a gray and desolate time of confusion. My great predecessor, William Faulkner, speaking here, referred to it as a tragedy of universal physical fear, so long sustained that there were no longer problems of the spirit, so that only the human heart in conflict with itself seemed worth writing about. Faulkner, more than most men, was aware of human strength as well as of human weakness. He knew that the understanding and the resolution of fear are a large part of the writer’s reason for being.
This is not new. The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.
Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit — for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.
Having witnessed the devastation of the atomic bomb — a gruesome turning point in our civilization’s balancing act of technological ascent and moral grounding — and speaking at the peak of the Cold War, Steinbeck offers a sentiment that has only swelled with poignancy in the half-century since, as we have continually let our technological capacities run unconsidered, outpacing our ethics:
The present universal fear has been the result of a forward surge in our knowledge and manipulation of certain dangerous factors in the physical world. It is true that other phases of understanding have not yet caught up with this great step, but there is no reason to presume that they cannot or will not draw abreast. Indeed, it is part of the writer’s responsibility to make sure that they do. With humanity’s long, proud history of standing firm against all of its natural enemies, sometimes in the face of almost certain defeat and extinction, we would be cowardly and stupid to leave the field on the eve of our greatest potential victory.
With an eye to the dark backstory of how the Nobel Prize was founded, Steinbeck reflects:
Understandably, I have been reading the life of Alfred Nobel; a solitary man, the books say, a thoughtful man. He perfected the release of explosive forces capable of creative good or of destructive evil, but lacking choice, ungoverned by conscience or judgement.
Nobel saw some of the cruel and bloody misuses of his inventions. He may have even foreseen the end result of all his probing — access to ultimate violence, to final destruction. Some say that he became cynical, but I do not believe this. I think he strove to invent a control — a safety valve. I think he found it finally only in the human mind and the human spirit.
To me, his thinking is clearly indicated in the categories of these awards. They are offered for increased and continuing knowledge of man and of his world — for understanding and communication, which are the functions of literature. And they are offered for demonstrations of the capacity for peace — the culmination of all the others.
Echoing Carson, Steinbeck considers the choice before humanity half a century after Alfred Nobel’s death — a choice that remains the same, though posed with exponentially greater urgency, yet another half a century hence:
The door of nature was unlocked and we were offered the dreadful burden of choice. We have usurped many of the powers we once ascribed to God. Fearful and unprepared, we have assumed lordship over the life and death of the whole world of all living things. The danger and the glory and the choice rest finally in man. The test of his perfectibility is at hand.
Having taken God-like power, we must seek in ourselves for the responsibility and the wisdom we once prayed some deity might have. Man himself has become our greatest hazard and our only hope. So that today, saint John the Apostle may well be paraphrased: In the end is the Word, and the Word is Man, and the Word is with Man.
Couple with the visionary scientist and poet Lewis Thomas, writing another two decades later, on the wonders of possibility of this very choice — a choice that is still before us, and it is not too late for us to make wisely — then revisit Steinbeck onkindness, the discipline of writing, the crucible of creativity, and his timeless advice on falling in love.
Government of India
Vice President’s Secretariat
04 MAY 2019 7:16PM by PIB Delhi
The Vice President, Shri M. Venkaiah Naidu has called upon public representatives to always strive for fulfilling the aspirations of the people and uphold the dignity of institutions they represent. He wanted public representatives to fulfill the responsibility bestowed upon them by people and make optimum use of their tenure as MPs, MLAs and members of local bodies in nation-building.
Addressing the gathering after releasing a Telugu book titled, “Grameena Prajavani- Sunkara Satyanarayana Shasana Mandali Prasangalu” (Speeches of Sunkara Satyanarayana in Legislative Council of Andhra Pradesh) by Raitu Nestam Publications in New Delhi today, Shri Naidu said that people like Sri Satyanarayana raised the level of debates through their oratory skills and commitment to the cause of people.
The Vice President went down the memory lane and recollected his days as a legislator in Andhra Pradesh Assembly. He wanted the younger generation to listen to past speeches of eminent legislative members like Shri Tenneti Viswanadham, Shri Gouthu Latchanna, Shri Puchalapalli Sundarayya and Shri Sunkara Satyanaraya and learn from their erudition.
Shri Naidu appealed to all those in public life to raise matters of crucial importance such as agriculture, education, rural development, healthcare and effective implementation of schemes.
He called upon political parties, members of parliament and legislators to reorient their approach towards making a constructive role and said that there was every need to raise the level of debate in legislatures. He emphasized that it was the sacred duty of public representatives to maintain the sanctity of institutions such as Parliament and state legislatures.
While expressing his concern over the increasing disruptions of proceedings of parliament and assemblies, Shri Naidu appealed all political parties to evolve a code of conduct for their members ensure that meaningful debates take place in legislatures.
The Vice President wanted media to highlight constructive debate on crucial issues concerning the people, especially those living in remote areas.
The judge of the Supreme Court of India, Justice L. Nageswara Rao, Shri K. V. Chowdary, Central Vigilance Commissioner, Shri Dr. Lakshmi Prasad, Shri K Hari Babu, Member of Parliament, Dr. Surya Rao, Shri Karnati Venkateswar Rao and others.
NCMC reviews rescue and relief operations in cyclone hit areas of Odisha, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh
Government of India
Ministry of Home Affairs
04 MAY 2019 2:30PM by PIB Delhi
Cabinet Secretary Sh. P. K. Sinha today reviewed rescue and relief measures in the cyclone affected areas of Odisha, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh with the States and Central Ministries/Agencies concerned in the aftermath of cyclone FANI.
Odisha informed that extensive damage to telecommunications and power infrastructure had been caused in Puri, Bhubaneswar and other areas. However, due to advance precautionary measures taken and large scale evacuation, the loss of human lives was minimal. West Bengal reported mild impact of the cyclone while Andhra Pradesh informed of heavy rainfall and some damage to crops and roads in Srikakulam district.
Cabinet Secretary directed Ministry of Power and Department of Telecommunications to immediately assist Odisha Government by providing electrical poles, gang workmen and Diesel Generator sets of varying capacities for quick restoration of power supply. The transmission line supplying power to Bhubaneswar is expected to be restored by today. Department of Telecommunications indicated that mobile services would be restored partially by today. The Railways, which suffered major damages to its infrastructure, have cleared the mainline and would start part of operations using Diesel operated locomotives by today. Flights to Bhubaneswar would resume operations by this afternoon. No damages to ports and refinery installations were reported. NDRF has moved 16 additional teams for rescue and relief work in Odisha and has removed fallen trees and other obstacles on most of the roads.
Health Ministry has decided to postpone the NEET exam in Odisha scheduled for May 5th based on the advice of Odisha Government. It is also moving teams of public health experts to assist the State Government in preventing outbreak of any epidemic.
Reviewing the relief efforts, Cabinet Secretary directed that officers of Central Ministries/ Agencies should remain in close touch with Odisha State Government and provide all required assistance expeditiously. Enough supplies of food, medicines, drinking water and other essential supplies have been kept in readiness to be airlifted as per the requirements projected by the States. Railways and Civil Aviation Ministries have made arrangements for free transportation of relief material to the cyclone affected areas.
Chief Secretaries/Principal Secretaries of Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal participated in the NCMC Meeting through Video Conference. Senior Officers from the PMO, Ministries of Home Affairs, Defence, Shipping, Civil Aviation, Railways, Petroleum and Natural Gas, Power, Telecommunications, Steel, Drinking Water and Sanitation, Food Processing, Health, Fisheries, IMD, NDMA and NDRF also attended the meeting.