The latest strip from Calamities of Nature.
Late last night, I received a link to this video from one of my former students, and as my daughter and I have been spending a great deal of time looking at the heavens through our telescope lately, it seemed perfectly appropriate and too good not to pass along.
In this short clip Neil deGrasse Tyson answers the question, “What is the most astounding fact that you can share with us about the Universe?” His answer reminds us that we a part of this magnificent and incredible universe… all of us. It’s the same message that Sagan had when he said that “we are star-stuff,” or when said that “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself. We are creatures of the cosmos and always hunger to know our origins, to understand our connection with the universe.”
When I look up at the night sky, and I know that, yes, we are part of this Universe, we are in this Universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up – many people feel small, ’cause they’re small and the Universe is big, but I feel big because my atoms came from those stars.
So as Jack Horkheimer used to say “keep looking up!” And when you do, feel big.
I woke up this morning convinced it was Friday. Needless to say, the realization it was only Wednesday threatened to undo the little bit of sanity that I’ve been holding onto this week, and that was quickly exacerbated by the first new story I came across on my Facebook feed “Asteroid 2011 AG5 My Pose Threat to Earth in 2040.” A long week and threat of annihilation from above? And all of this before coffee? So in an attempt to “rebalance” before facing today (and the rest of the week), I turned to a little comedy.
Here’s a clip from Ricky Gervais’ “Science” show, where he tackles the inconsistencies in Noah’s Ark. It’s very funny stuff (and I typically don’t like stand-up). I’ve decided to pass it along, in case you, too read about the asteroid or woke up this morning thinking it was Friday.
This Thirty Day Book Challenge is turning out to be significantly more, well, challenging, than I had initially thought. I have spent the last few days giving today’s topic some serious thought…
There is no one, single book that has “changed my life.” No magic moment upon reading a book that as I finished it I knew that I was forever different. What there has been, however, is a series of books, from different authors and at different times, that have forced me to look at the world, my life, my ideas and my beliefs in new and different ways. This group of books, once I really began to think about them, have quite a lot in common. They are all in some way “academic” as opposed to more popular fiction, and all have an undeniable philosophical component, although some more than others. Perhaps what the strongest common thread between all of these texts is that they have all, in their own way, helped me form my intellectual curiosities, my personal philosophical outlook, my moral and ethical grounding, and my general sense of what life should be about.
A more honest way of framing today’s post would be to admit that it’s not necessarily books that have impacted me so strongly, rather thinkers and writers. If I were to list a few, I would include as varied a group as David Hume, Carl Sagan, Thomas Kuhn, Bertrand Russell, Isaiah Berlin, Erwin Schrödinger, Sigmund Freud, Aldous Huxley, Charles Darwin, and Michel Foucault. If I were to count fiction as well, then I would also include Umberto Eco, Aldous Huxley again, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Tom Robbins. If I included poetry, then the list would have to expand to also include William Blake and Allen Ginsberg. In other words, there is no way that I could sit and discuss a single text, or even a single author in regards to how they have changed my life.
I’ve been reading for a lifetime, and for that lifetime these thinkers and writers have had a certain and cumulative effect. They have, together, taught me to think critically and embrace reason, and to revel in questions instead of becoming entrenched in apparent answers. They have reminded me to never fail to pay attention to beauty that surrounds me, and to live curiously, openly, and passionately. They have taught me that a vigorous intellect is nothing to be ashamed of. Together they have reinforced the idea that kindness and generosity are the highest virtues, and that our significance is measured by how we love, how we think, and how our actions affect those around us. They have opened my eyes to the wonders of this universe, as well as the magnificence of our minds and our hearts. In short, they set me on the path to become the woman who I am, and every time I read anything by these scientists, writers, poets, and thinkers, I see a little of myself reflected in their words.
Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive as there are authors whose influence, although subtle, was nevertheless significant, and other authors who as a result of time have simply been forgotten, although their impact surely remains. Morevoer, and perhaps most importantly, I have not stopped reading. I encounter writers, historians, scientists, and philosophers who, on a daily basis, push me out of my intellectual comfort zone and cause me to rethink my ideas and question my realities, and I hope that this will forever be the case.
I recently came across this letter by Albert Einstein, written to Erik Gutkind, in 1954. Einstein had just read Gutkind’s book Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt, and this letter was his response.
Translated Transcript (from Letters of Note):
Princeton, 3. 1. 1954
Dear Mr Gutkind,
Inspired by Brouwer’s repeated suggestion, I read a great deal in your book, and thank you very much for lending it to me … With regard to the factual attitude to life and to the human community we have a great deal in common. Your personal ideal with its striving for freedom from ego-oriented desires, for making life beautiful and noble, with an emphasis on the purely human element … unites us as having an “American Attitude.”
Still, without Brouwer’s suggestion I would never have gotten myself to engage intensively with your book because it is written in a language inaccessible to me. The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. … For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstition. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong … have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything “chosen” about them.
In general I find it painful that you claim a privileged position and try to defend it by two walls of pride, an external one as a man and an internal one as a Jew. As a man you claim, so to speak, a dispensation from causality otherwise accepted, as a Jew of monotheism. But a limited causality is no longer a causality at all, as our wonderful Spinoza recognized with all incision…
Now that I have quite openly stated our differences in intellectual convictions it is still clear to me that we are quite close to each other in essential things, i.e. in our evaluation of human behavior … I think that we would understand each other quite well if we talked about concrete things.
With friendly thanks and best wishes,
The letter was sold at auction in May of 2008, and not surprisingly one of the bidders was Richard Dawkins.
The same site had other interesting letters by Einstein on religion. Here are the links, and all are worth a read.
Earlier today, I wrote about Ian McEwan’s book Atonement in my “Day 4″ post of the Thirty Day Book Challenge. In an attempt to shake off the melancholy that writing that post had inevitably brought on, I went through my archives of saved videos for this one, an interview of McEwan by Dawkins. McEwan is keenly intelligent and deeply insightful as to human nature, characteristics which surely contribute to his wonderful writing, but which also show so beautifully in this interview. When you have a few minutes to spare, sit and watch, you will be glad you did.
In further celebration of Darwin Day (yes, this may go on all week), I want to share the first of a series of videos by Richard Dawkins titled The Genius of Charles Darwin. As Dawkins states at the very start,
I want to show you how Darwin opened our eyes to the extraordinary reality of our world.
I’m too sick, and my head too fuzzy with medication, so instead of attempting to construct coherent sentences, I’m going to let thirty others, who are known for their eloquence, speak about a subject that comes up in this blog every now and again… religion, and its counterpart, skepticism.
Dr. Jonathan Pararajasingham, a British neurosurgeon, created a series of videos regarding the debate between belief and atheism. The first two videos feature academics and theologians discussing both belief and disbelief, with the aim illustrating his central argument that “the more scientifically literate, intellectually honest and objectively skeptical a person is, the more likely the are to disbelieve in anything supernatural, including god.”
In the third video of the series, which I came across on this site, Dr. Pararajasingham compiled video of thirty renown authors discussing atheism. My favorite has to be Ian McEwan (starting at 9:28), although Douglas Adams and Christopher Hitchens are pretty outstanding, too.
Here are the authors included in the video, in order of appearance.
1. Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Science Fiction Writer
2. Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Laureate in Literature
3. Professor Isaac Asimov, Author and Biochemist
4. Arthur Miller, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Playwright
5. Wole Soyinka, Nobel Laureate in Literature
6. Gore Vidal, Award-Winning Novelist and Political Activist
7. Douglas Adams, Best-Selling Science Fiction Writer
8. Professor Germaine Greer, Writer and Feminist
9. Iain Banks, Best-Selling Fiction Writer
10. José Saramago, Nobel Laureate in Literature
11. Sir Terry Pratchett, NYT Best-Selling Novelist
12. Ken Follett, NYT Best-Selling Author
13. Ian McEwan, Man Booker Prize-Winning Novelist
14. Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate (1999-2009)
15. Professor Martin Amis, Award-Winning Novelist
16. Michel Houellebecq, Goncourt Prize-Winning French Novelist
17. Philip Roth, Man Booker Prize-Winning Novelist
18. Margaret Atwood, Booker Prize-Winning Author and Poet
19. Sir Salman Rushdie, Booker Prize-Winning Novelist
20. Norman MacCaig, Renowned Scottish Poet
21. Phillip Pullman, Best-Selling British Author
22. Dr Matt Ridley, Award-Winning Science Writer
23. Harold Pinter, Nobel Laureate in Literature
24. Howard Brenton, Award-Winning English Playwright
25. Tariq Ali, Award-Winning Writer and Filmmaker
26. Theodore Dalrymple, English Writer and Psychiatrist
27. Roddy Doyle, Booker Prize-Winning Novelist
28. Redmond O’Hanlon FRSL, British Writer and Scholar
29. Diana Athill, Award-Winning Author and Literary Editor
30. Christopher Hitchens, Best-Selling Author, Award-Winning Columnist
One of the benefits of being sick with this miserable cold has been that I’ve only had the energy to read and not do much else. Last night, after deciding to go to bed at an unusually early hour, I looked at my shelves and decided that Bertrand Russell would make for good company on the plague ship (as I have now re-named my bedroom), and provide a nice counter-point to the darkness of the German Romantics that I’ve been reading too much of lately.
I first read Russell in high school; it was his essay, “How I Write.” I remember liking it, but the stronger memory is of my literature teacher getting into trouble for assigning that reading. It was a Catholic school, after all, and Russell was not known for being kind to religion. That incident only served to pique my interest all the more, and by the time I started college, I had read a substantial amount of his work, including last night’s read, Why I Am Not a Christian.
By the time I first read him, I must have been in my junior year of high school, and I had certainly already started to question my faith. As I previously wrote, that process of questioning started in the early eighties after watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. A question that always plagued me during those early years of questioning, however, dealt with morality. As someone raised Roman Catholic, morality was something relatively external; there were a set of rules you lived by, and if you transgressed, you were a sinner. If you had no religion, how would you know what was good? I found my answer in Russell, before I was even able to crack the spine of the book, in the preface.
The world that I should wish to see would be one freed from the virulence of group hostilities and capable of realizing that happiness for all is to be derived rather from cooperation than from strife. I should wish to see a world in which education aimed at mental freedom rather than at imprisoning the minds of the young in a rigid armor of dogma calculated to protect them through life against the shafts of impartial evidence. The world needs open hearts and open minds, and it is not through rigid systems, whether old or new, that these can be derived.
Needless to say, a thorough reading of the book and its many essays (especially “What I Believe”) drove the point home that morality, true morality, did not have to come from a preset set of rules, but that it was and should be something internal. According to Russell, morality sprang from a confluence of love and knowledge, or as he states, “love guided by knowledge.”
So this morning, as my daughter watched her cartoons and I ran around the house singing the Spiderman theme song (thanks Marc), I remembered a BBC interview with Russell that I watched a while back. There was a part of it where he was asked what he would say to future generations, what hopes he would have for us and our children. I was lucky enough to find the exact clip, and here it is. Everyone must watch this.
The full interview can be found here, and is definitely worth the watch. He is a beautiful mind and a beautiful man. “Love is wise, hatred is foolish.” Indeed.
While reading the Huffington Post’s Book section yesterday, my attention was quickly grabbed by a piece from Carolyn Vega about Percy Bysshe Shelley’s essay (or essay fragment) “On Life.” In a seeming instance of serendipity, this essay struck me as being the perfect thing to bring together so much of what has been on my mind, and by extension, what has appeared on this blog, this last month or more.
My initial intention when I started this blog a few months back was to discuss the books that I read; not quite as proper reviews, but as a way to express my insights, thoughts, and experiences of those books. It began that way, to be sure, but quickly it got off track, and I have to admit that I’m happy it did.
This blog has become a much clearer reflection of my intellectual life; of what feeds my nearly insatiable curiosity or of what leaves me awestruck, whether through the written word, conventional or unconventional art, photography of the furthest reaches of space, or recent discoveries in the realms of science. Although the breadth of the blog has certainly grown, I think the general thread that ties it all together has become clearer. If nothing else, its become a better reflection of where my intellectual curiosity comes from, and that’s from taking, as Shelley writes, “an intense delight” in the world and universe around me.
So far, I’ve explored that “delight” through the writing of Eco, Calvino, and Borges (among others), and in the poetry of the Romantics and the Beats. I’ve sought that sense of astonishment through the lessons of scientists, in the humbling images of deep space, in whimsical photographs of the moon, and in the art of the streets. And last night, when I read this Shelley essay, I realized that he expressed that feeling that I get far better and more beautifully than I ever could. He writes,
LIFE and the world, or whatever we call that which we are and feel, is an astonishing thing. The mist of familiarity obscures from us the wonder of our being. We are struck with admiration at some of its transient modifications, but it is itself the great miracle. What are changes of empires, the wreck of dynasties, with the opinions which supported them; what is the birth and the extinction of religious and of political systems, to life? What are the revolutions of the globe which we inhabit, and the operations of the elements of which it is composed, compared with life? What is the universe of stars, and suns, of which this inhabited earth is one, and their motions, and their destiny, compared with life? Life, the great miracle, we admire not, because it is so miraculous. It is well that we are thus shielded by the familiarity of what is at once so certain and so unfathomable, from an astonishment which would otherwise absorb and overawe the functions of that which is its object.
If any artist, I do not say had executed, but had merely conceived in his mind the system of the sun, and the stars, and planets, they not existing, and had painted to us in words, or upon canvas, the spectacle now afforded by the nightly cope of heaven, and illustrated it by the wisdom of astronomy, great would be our admiration. Or had he imagined the scenery of this earth, the mountains, the seas, and the rivers; the grass, and the flowers, and the variety of the forms and masses of the leaves of the woods, and the colours which attend the setting and the rising sun, and the hues of the atmosphere, turbid or serene, these things not before existing, truly we should have been astonished, and it would not have been a vain boast to have said of such a man, “Non merita nome di creatore, sennon Iddio ed il Poeta.” But now these things are looked on with little wonder, and to be conscious of them with intense delight is esteemed to be the distinguishing mark of a refined and extraordinary person. The multitude of men care not for them. It is thus with Life—that which includes all.
And there it is in the last couple of lines. Far too many of us live our lives all too focused on our individual microcosms, so consumed with the minute to minute troubles that life invariably throws at us that we rarely look outside of ourselves, and if we do, our vision is too clouded by all of those things to allow us to really see how beautiful this world can be. Or we become cynical and jaded, or maybe simply complacent, and relegate that sense of magic and awe as belonging only to children. We look at things “with little wonder,” or as Hawking so perfectly states, we spend far too much time looking at our feet instead of at the stars. We should all be striving to be that “extraordinary person” that Shelley describes in this essay, and every time I write I am reminded of this, and hope to be reminding you, too.
Let us recollect our sensations as children. What a distinct and intense apprehension had we of the world and of ourselves!
Shelly continues in the essay, in his Hymn to Intellectual Beauty (which has always seemed to be a continuation of this bit of prose), and other later works, to embrace the existence of an “unseen force” or power that pervades the universe, and he links it to our sense of astonishment, and it is here where our ideas diverge, although not with hostility. Whereas I suppose that I am more grounded in a rationalist and scientific understanding of the world around me, I am not immune to the enormous power that the universe has to awe and inspire. Although Shelley rejects materialism and rationality as an obstacle to wonder, I’m convinced that knowledge, science, and a rational mind can allow us to see beauty in the world in a way that is unique. Richard Feynman, the physicist, explained it best in this anecdote about the relationship of science and beauty,
I have a friend who’s an artist and he’s sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree, I think. And he says’ “you see, I, as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.” And I think he’s kind of nutty.
First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me, too, I believe, although I might not be quite as refined as theoretically as he is. But I can appreciate the beauty of a flower.
At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions, which also have a beauty. I mean, it’s not just beauty at this dimension of one centimeter, there is also beauty at a smaller dimensions. The inner structure, also the processes, the fact that the colors in the flower are evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting. It means that insects can see the color.
It adds a question – does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms that… why is it aesthetic… all kinds of interesting questions which with science, knowledge, only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.
The bottom line is, that no matter what road one chooses to take, be it through science, or any other way you choose to know and live in the world, let it be one that allows you to always experience the beauty and wonder of reality.
The full text of Shelley’s essay “On Life” can, and should, be accessed here.