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.