The Marginalian Newsletter

This is the weekly email digest of The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings) by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s edition — “The More Loving One,” animated: the science of entropy and the art of alternative endings; Nick Cave on hope, love, and the remedy of despair — you can catch up right here. And if my labor of love enriches your life in any way, please consider supporting it with a donation — for more than fifteen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive (as have I) thanks to reader patronage. If you already donate: I appreciate you more than you know.

We Are Made of Music, We Are Made of Time: Violinist Natalie Hodges on the Poetic Science of Sound and Feeling

In her 1942 book Philosophy in a New Key, the trailblazing philosopher Susanne Langer defined music as “a laboratory for feeling and time.” But perhaps it is the opposite, too — music may be the most beautiful experiment conducted in the laboratory of time.

In “the wordless beginning,” spacetime itself was crumpled and compacted into that spitball of everythingness we call the singularity. Even if sound could exist then — it did not, of course, because sound is made of matter — it would have existed all at once. Infinite numbers of every possible note would have been ringing at the same time — the antithesis of music. It is only because this single point of totality was stretched into a line that time was born and, suddenly, there was continuity. Suddenly, one moment became distinguishable from another — the strange gift of entropy, which makes it possible to have melody and rhythm, chords and harmonies.

Music — with all the mysterious power by which it “enters one’s ears and dives straight into one’s soul, one’s emotional center” — is made not of notes of sound but of atoms of time. And if music is made of time, and if time is the substance we ourselves are made of, then in some profound sense, we are made of music.

Art by Arthur Rackham from a rare 1926 edition of The Tempest. (Available as a print.)

That — the physics and neuroscience of it, the poetry and unremitting wonder of it — is what the science-enchanted classical violinist Natalie Hodges explores in Uncommon Measure: A Journey Through Music, Performance, and the Science of Time (public library). She writes:

Music sculpts time. Indeed, it is a structuring of time, as a layered arrangement of audible temporal events. Rhythm is at the heart of that arrangement, on every scale: the cycling and patterning of repeated sound or movement and the “measured flow” that that repetition creates. The most fundamental rhythm is the beat itself, the pulse that occurs at regular intervals and thus dictates the tempo, keeps musical time. In music, a beat is no fixed thing — it can quicken into smaller intervals (accelerando) and stretch out into longer ones (decelerando), depending on the character of a given musical moment and the feeling or fancy of the performer — but it does remain periodic, predictable, inexorable. Even at the level of pitch, which is really the speed of a given sound wave’s oscillation, we are really hearing the rhythmic demarcation of time, a tiny heart whirring at a beat of x cycles per second.

Yet in every piece of music there are also higher temporal structures at play. Repetition begets pattern, and pattern engenders form, at every scale; thus musical form itself constitutes a macro-rhythm, a pattern of alternations that move the listener through time.

Composition 8 by Wassily Kandinsky, 1920s, inspired by the artist’s experience of listening to a Wagner symphony. (Available as a print.)

Our minds structure time through the detection of patterns and the predictive anticipation of recurring elements. But although this cognitive function unfolds unconsciously, it is not mechanistic, not robotic, but a vital pulse-beat of our humanity, vibrating with the neural harmonics of emotion, suffused with feeling — for all anticipation is a form of hope and all hope can be shattered or redeemed, taking our hearts along with it. Ever since Pythagoras revolutionized the mathematical structure of music by composing the world’s first algorithm, musicians have been deliberately breaking the buildup of patterns or triumphantly completing them in order to orchestrate an emotional response — the sorrow of unmet hope, the elated relief of its redemption.

With an eye to the basic chord progression, rooted in a tonic, and the satisfying resolution of a rondo, revolving around a circular theme, Hodges writes:

Such patterns, formal and harmonic, relate their components to one another in time. The ear can sense the harmonies to come based on the relative intensities of those that came before, or when thematic material will return by the buildup of a cadence at the end of a development section or variation. It is through this higher sense of rhythm, then, that a simple phrase or a complex form becomes a temporal object: time molded in order to manipulate emotion, putting you through the changes of the present only to bring you back to the past, locating you in a moment that is simultaneously familiar and wholly new.

One of William Blake’s paintings for The Book of Job, 1806. (Available as a print.)

In my native Bulgaria, the tonal tradition rests upon a pattern dramatically different from that of Western music and its twelve-tone scale. (This is why a Bulgarian folk song was encoded among the handful of sounds representing Earth on the Golden Record that sailed aboard the Voyager in humanity’s most poetic reach for making contact with the cosmos.) But while these underlying structures differ across cultures and epochs, music’s reliance on such patterns for its emotional effect is universal. Hodges observes:

The music of all cultures, each with its own unique rules to be followed and broken, both weaves and rends the tapestry of audible time. Our experience of musical temporality, like our experience of the day-to-day, consists of patterns of recurrence and, sooner or later, their violation.

Yet musical time differs from the quotidian passage of ordinary time, even as it exists within that passage. Or, at least, it manifests how susceptible time is to our conscious perception, as much as the other way around.

In a sentiment consonant with Virginia Woolf’s insight into the strange elasticity of clock-time, she adds:

Duration is not time — that is something different entirely, something utterly dependent on our perception… The malleability of our perception of time is the stuff of music itself. The concept of passage, the way we generally conceptualize time — seconds elapse into minutes, today becomes tomorrow — is of getting through from one thing to another. In music, time is inseparable from sound itself. A piece of music is a multidimensional entity, a creation molded from time’s clay.

Art by Arthur Rackham from a rare 1926 edition of The Tempest. (Available as a print.)

In a passage that affirms anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson’s wonderfully apt word-choice for how we become who we are — by composing a life” — Hodges returns to the elemental matter of music:

Time renders most individual moments meaningless, or at least less important than they originally seemed, but it is only through the passage of time that life acquires its meaning. And that meaning itself is constantly in flux; we are always making it up and then revising as we go along, ordering and reordering our understanding of the past in real time.


Form, in music, is inherently temporal. It gives some shape to time, or at least designates the pace and manner at which we move through a particular piece. Where do we fare forward or cycle back; which moments expand, and which contract? Likewise, memory — that most universal and yet individual of temporal structures — lends form and shape to experience in biographical time. We inhabit simultaneous, concentric timescales: the time line of the past coiled within the immediacy of the present moment unfolding. Memory creates a metonymic congruence between them, melding past with present in such a way that our former selves move forward with us in time.

Echoing the touching defiance at the heart of Auden’s classic hymn of resistance to entropy, Hodges writes:

Implicit in time’s asymmetry, then, is the notion of becoming. The universe unspools itself toward a state of higher entropy; its edges fray, its dust is swept into corners, and this process of degradation and erosion is what separates the future from the past. We think of “becoming” as moving toward something final, evolving into a more perfect and more stable state over time. Yet, by proceeding forward in time, that very process must involve itself in the increasing disorder of the universe. When we seek to become something or someone else, to change our lives and leave the past behind, we necessarily abandon ourselves to entropy: We scatter old pieces of ourselves, willfully smudge our edges and make a mess of things, strive to break free of old symmetries that we feel can no longer contain us. Or, perhaps, that very instinct to change ourselves is a kind of preemptive embrace of the chaos we know is to come, a sign that we have already begun to spin out of control, that time is passing and taking us along with it and that soon nothing will be as it once was.

One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1917 illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. (Available as a print.)

A century after Virginia Woolf was staggered in her garden into her timelessly stunning insight that “behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern… the whole world is a work of art… there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven… no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself” — Hodges considers the elemental truth pulsating beneath our experience of music and of our very lives:

It’s a strange feeling, beautiful but also eerie: not only that you can step into time’s flow, but that you are the flow itself. I suppose at the heart of that feeling, too, lies the real trouble with time: the terrifying prospect that if time is so subjective, then we are necessarily alone in our unique experience of it. But isn’t it because time lives in us that we can shape it, sculpt it into phrases and cadences and giros and ochos; still it if not stop it, bend it if not vanquish it. And share it.

Complement Uncommon Measure — in which Hodges goes on to examine through the lens of music such facets of our temporal experience as grief and creativity — with some symphonic reflections on Bach and the mystery of aliveness, then revisit Nick Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence in the age of artificial intelligence and two centuries of beloved writers on the singular power of music.



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Octopus Empire: An Animated Poem

This is the eighth of nine installments in the animated interlude season of The Universe in Verse in collaboration with On Being, celebrating the wonder of reality through stories of science winged with poetry. See the previous installments here.


The “blind intelligence” by which a tree orients to the light in order to survive is a kind of hard-wired sentience, intricate and interconnected and aglow with wonder we are only just beginning to discover. But it is not consciousness as we understand it — that miraculous emergent phenomenon arising somewhere along the spectrum of sentience to endow creatures with the ability not only to be aware of our surroundings, not only to react to them with automated actions, but to respond to them with some measure of foresight, which presupposes some measure of hindsight, which in turn presupposes some measure of self-awareness, which culminates in qualia — the set of subjective experience that is the central fact of consciousness, the fundament of our lives.

For the vast majority of the evolutionary history of our species, we have assumed that humans alone have consciousness. Descartes, who so greatly leapt the scientific method forward by pioneering empiricism, also paralyzed our understanding of the mind with his dogmatic declamation that non-human animals are automata — fleshy robots governed by mechanistic reflexes, insentient and incapable of feeling. It took four centuries for this dogma to be upended after a young primatologist began her paradigm-shifting work in Gombe National Forest in 1960. Despite the tidal wave of dismissal and derision from the scientific establishment, Jane Goodall persisted, revolutionizing our understanding of consciousness and of our place in the family of life.

More than half a century later, some of the world’s leading neuroscientists composed and co-signed the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, asserting that a vast array of non-human animals are also endowed with consciousness. The list named only one invertebrate species.

Art from Cephalopod Atlas, 1909. (Available as a print and as a cutting board, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

The octopus branched from our shared vertebrate lineage some 550 million years ago to evolve into one of this planet’s most alien intelligences, endowed with an astonishing distributed nervous system and capable of recognizing others, of forming social bonds, of navigating mazes. It is the Descartes of the oceans, learning how to live in its environment by trial and error — that is, by basic empiricism.

Meanwhile, in those 550 million years, we evolved into creatures that placed themselves at the center of the universe and atop the evolutionary ladder, only to find ourselves in an ecological furnace of our making and to reluctantly consider that we might not, after all, be the pinnacle of Earthly intelligence.

Art from Cephalopod Atlas, 1909. (Available as a print and as a cutting board, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

That is what Marilyn Nelson explores with great playfulness and poignancy in her poem “Octopus Empire,” originally published in the Academy of American Poets’ poem-a-day lifeline of a newsletter and now brought to life here, for this seventh installment in the animated Universe in Verse, in a reading by Sy Montgomery (author of the enchantment of a book that is The Soul of an Octopus) with life-filled art by Edwina White, set into motion by her collaborator James Dunlap, and set into soulfulness by Brooklyn-based cellist and composer Topu Lyo.

OCTOPUS EMPIREby Marilyn Nelson

What if the submarineis praying for a wayit can poison the air,in which some of them haveleaped for a few seconds,felt its suffocatingrejected buoyancy.Something floats above theirknown world leading a wakeof uncountable death.What if they organizedinto a rebellion?

Now scientists have founda group of octopuseswho seem to have a senseof community, wholive in dwellings made ofgathered pebbles and shells,who cooperate, whodefend an apparentborder. Perhaps they’ll havea plan for the planetin a millenniumor two. After we’re gone.

Previously in the series: Chapter 1 (the evolution of life and the birth of ecology, with Joan As Police Woman and Emily Dickinson); Chapter 2 (Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and the human hunger to know the cosmos, with Tracy K. Smith); Chapter 3 (trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell and the poetry of the cosmic perspective, with David Byrne and Pattiann Rogers); Chapter 4 (dark matter and the mystery of our mortal stardust, with Patti Smith and Rebecca Elson); Chapter 5 (a singularity-ode to our primeval bond with nature and each other, starring Toshi Reagon and Marissa Davis); Chapter 6 (Emmy Noether, symmetry, and the conservation of energy, with Amanda Palmer and Edna St. Vincent Millay); Chapter 7 (the science of entropy and the art of alternative endings, with Janna Levin and W.H. Auden).


The Building Blocks of Peace: Pioneering X-Ray Crystallographer and Activist Kathleen Lonsdale’s Quiet Masterpiece on Moral Courage and Our Personal Power

The thrill of childlike wonder never left Kathleen Lonsdale (January 28, 1903–April 1, 1971), who often ran the last few yards to her laboratory and took her mathematical calculations into the maternity ward where her children were born.

The tenth child in a Quaker household without electricity, she was born in Ireland the year the Wright brothers built and flew the world’s first successful flying machine heavier than air. Her home was still lit by gas when she first began studying science — in a school for boys, because no such subjects figured into the curriculum of the local girls’ school. By the time she was a teenager, living outside London, she watched gas-filled Zeppelins rain bombs and death from the air. She watched them go down in flames, shot down by British weapons. She watched her mother cry with the knowledge that piloting them were German boys not much older than Kathleen.

Trained as a physicist, Kathleen Lonsdale went on to become the pioneering X-ray crystallographer who illuminated the shape, dimensions, and atomic structure of the benzene ring that had mystified chemists since Michael Faraday discovered benzene a century earlier. She was still in her twenties. The chemistry of benzene would come to fuel the twentieth century. J.D. Bernal — the visionary scientist who first applied X-ray crystallography to the molecules of life and whose laboratory group she joined — came to see how beneath Lonsdale’s quiet, unassuming manner lay “such an underlying strength of character that she became from the outset the presiding genius of the place.”

Dame Kathleen Lonsdale. (Photograph: Walter Stoneman. National Portrait Gallery.)

Lonsdale became the first woman tenured at London’s most venerated research university and the first female president of both the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the International Union of Crystallography.

She also became one of the twentieth century’s most lucid, impassioned, and indefatigable activists against our civilizational cult of war and the military industrial complex funding its planet-sized house of worship. When the next World War broke out, Lonsdale — by then one of the world’s most preeminent scientists — was imprisoned as a conscientious objector to military conscription. She went on to become one of Europe’s most influential prison reformers, having seen how the prison industrial complex — a term then yet to be coined — is the price societies governed by the military industrial complex pay for the inequalities and injustices stemming from that foundational cult.

In 1957, as part of a Penguin series that invited some of the era’s most lucid and luminous minds to explore some the era’s most urgent questions, Lonsdale composed a slender, exquisitely reasoned and deeply felt book titled Is Peace Possible? (public library), now out of print. In it, she writes:

History teaches us that time can bring about reconciliations that seemed at another time impossible, but only when violence has ceased, whether by agreement or through exhaustion.

Art by the American pacifist Rockwell Kent from Wilderness, written and painted in the final months of WWI. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

A quarter century after Einstein and Freud’s little-known correspondence about war, human nature, why we fight, and how to stop, Lonsdale challenges the misconception of pacifism as the simplistic idea that a perfect and peaceful world is merely a matter of individuals refusing to fight. “Truism based on Utopias are poor arguments,” she observes, instead invoking the style of pacifism native to the Quaker tradition and its original formulation in 1660 as the refusal to partake of “all outward wars and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatever.” Bridging the spiritual ethos of her upbringing with the scientific worldview of her calling and training, she writes:

The man or woman is sure, whether through the guidance of the Spirit of Christ or the guidance of their reasoning powers or both, that war is spiritually degrading, that it is the wrong way to settle disputes between classes or nations, the wrong way to meet aggression or oppression, the wrong way to preserve national or personal ideals: that man or woman who is sure of this must obviously take no part in war and indeed must actively oppose it. Most civilized nations are beginning to realize that there is such a thing as a genuinely conscientious objection to personal participation in war, even if they do not regard it as expedient to encourage young people to think along these lines or take this stand.

One of teenage artist Virginia Frances Sterrett’s century-old illustrations for classic French fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

With empathic sensitivity to the confusions and intuitions that lead otherwise goodhearted people to see some applications of war as justified, she adds:

Most people, however, are not sure of anything… They are not sure that it is wrong to fight, if by fighting one can alter intolerable conditions, or prevent large-scale communal crime, or get rid of a dangerous dictator before he gains too much power, or stand up to international blackmail, or ward off an armed attack. In terms of reason, they find it arguable — as it is — to say that although every possible way to avoid war must be sought, yet until men are perfect there will always be some who want to grab more than their share. They see no reason why this should be permitted if it can be prevented by the limited use of military force. They are pretty sure that it is prevented in many cases by the knowledge that force is there to stop it. For men are not perfect, but neither are they foolish enough, as a rule [with exceptions], to burgle or murder even on a national scale, if they know that they will be stopped and punished.

Citing a prominent politician who had once said to her that “pacifism is not practical politics” but “to be spiritually healthy every nation needs to have a spear-point of idealist opinion,” she dismantles the convenient illusion that pacifism is a purely ideological stance with no practical responsibilities of political participation:

The pacifist who argues that he is concerned only with principles, and that politics are not his business, is usually evading the discipline and the responsibility of hard thinking. His position is a logical one only if he does not either expect or desire the politician to put pacifist principles into practice for him. He won’t expect it, but if he does desire it then it is incumbent on him to study the world situation and try to decide for himself how it might be done, in general at least, if not in particular.

To illustrate the interleaving of lives across the artificial pickets of national borders, she looks back on the 1947 cholera epidemic that quickly came to claim five hundred lives per day in Egypt but was also quickly curbed after twenty nations cooperated on a supply line for vaccines. In a sentiment of staggering timeliness in the wake of the twenty-first century’s deadliest pandemic — which Mary Shelley anticipated two centuries ago — Lonsdale observes that “plagues are no respecters of sovereignty,” nor are the far-reaching economic, moral, spiritual, and radioactive consequences of war.

Art by Ryōji Arai from Almost Nothing, yet Everything: A Book about Water by Hiroshi Osada

In another sentiment of staggering timeliness in the aftermath of a twenty-first-century despot masquerading as a democratic ruler while erecting a physical wall on his nation’s border, and half a century before Toni Morrison lamented that in our time “walls and weapons feature as prominently now as they once did in medieval times,” Lonsdale adds:

One of the objects of military alliances and military defence seems to be the prevention of population movements, the freezing of the status quo.

It is just not possible to freeze the status quo, either nationally or internationally. One might as well try to freeze the Indian Ocean.

Writing shortly after the first test explosions of nuclear weapons in the Pacific Ocean, and shortly before Rachel Carson made ecology a household word a century after it was coined with her epochal exposé on the ecosystem devastation pesticides inflict far beyond their intended locus of use, Lonsdale observes:

No nation can claim that it can do what it likes, even with its own. The air above it will move to other parts of the world. The water around it will be exchanged gradually, not only with surface waters elsewhere, but also with the waters in the depths of the ocean.

Art by Ryōji Arai from Almost Nothing, yet Everything by Hiroshi Osada

At the heart of Lonsdale’s case against war is a clarity about the dangers of relativism and transactionalism, the dangers of mistaking self-interest for moral courage:

Total disarmament would not be an extreme form of partial disarmament [but] something quite different… At present our attitude is “If you eat my grandmother, I’ll eat yours. But if you will agree not to eat my grandmother, I’ll agree not to eat yours either, but I will jolly well look out to see that you are not beginning to boil the water in the saucepan.” What we need to do is to develop a horror of cannibalism, a horror of the crime of war.

Total disarmament means not only the abolition of military organization, of armament factories, of armies, of the naval and air forces, but the re-education of men and women everywhere to abhor the idea of war… abhor war and all preparations for war, not only in one country — although some country must set an example — but in every country… abhor it so much that they were willing to accept the readjustments that the absence of war and of the sanction of force might mean. It would be absolutely necessary to be clear on that point in any large-scale effort at adult education.

Art by Edward Gorey for a special edition of Little Red Riding Hood

This is a point of great subtlety and great import, for it speaks not only to the constant threat of war looming over the world but to the ecological apocalypse looming with even greater certainty unless we re-educate ourselves. In the near-century since Lonsdale’s time, we have cannibalized our climate for the exact same reason we have failed, as a civilization and a species, to eradicate war: Most people, whatever their loftiest moral standards may be, are simply too unwilling to inconvenience themselves with the not terribly demanding readjustments of habit that a personal stance against fossil fuel or the tendrils of the military industrial complex would demand of their daily lives. We weigh political candidates by how their tax policy would impact our personal finances and not by their intended military spending. We toss our soda cans — made of the same metal as the military aircraft of WWII — into the recycling bin when we remember, and we continue to fly across the increasingly carbonic sky we share.

Art from The Three Astronauts — Umberto Eco’s vintage semiotic children’s book about world peace

With this, Lonsdale excavates the deepest stratum of the reasons for war. Military alliances and international treaties only gauze the open wound of widespread inequality and injustice that colonialism and capitalism have inflicted on our world. In a sentiment an epoch ahead of her time, she observes:

Real security can only be found, if at all, in a world without the injustices that now exist, and without arms.

Lonsdale considers how such a world might become possible:

There are two ways in which such changes might come. One is the way of the compulsion of experience, the whip and spur of historical inevitability, the coercion of facts. That is the hard and bitter way. The other is the way of foresight, of preparation, of imagination. It is also the way of moral compulsion. It may be no less hard but it is not bitter.

Half a century before Jacqueline Novogratz bridged the notions of moral imagination and moral leadership in her elevating manifesto for a moral revolution, Lonsdale laments that most people are not instinctually able to make the necessary effort of imagination, for they are too accustomed to being led by leaders too unimaginative and morally insipid, if not actively immoral. She writes:

Most people… can rise to great heights of courage and sacrifice, but not usually without leadership. Two kinds of such leadership exist. The first is leadership from above. The other is leadership from within. Very often the second does have to precede the first. Those people who see clearly the necessity of changed thinking must themselves undertake the discipline of thinking in new ways and must persuade others to do so.

Art by Rockwell Kent from Wilderness, 1919. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Anticipating the world-changing power of Greta Thunberg’s generation, Lonsdale considers the members of our species best poised to think in new ways:

The new world needs much more than co-existence. It needs ways of living together peacefully and co-operatively, and these ways young people educated in the principles of peace could help find.


What is essential in the future is that every member of the family, even little children, should learn at whatever cost not to give way to wrong or to co-operate in it… It would mean also that if another nation was invaded, and not our own, the support that we could give them would be limited to moral support… unless we intend to destroy the world to prevent aggression. But moral support is powerful in proportion to the integrity of the nation that gives it.

Four years before Eleanor Roosevelt — who shared Lonsdale’s condemnation of nuclear weapons and spearheaded the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that set out to lay “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” — made her impassioned case for our personal power in world change, Lonsdale observes that creating a world without war would require as much cultural devotion and resources as planning for war took in the past. But such planning, she observes, is not the unreachable work of governments — it is the work of the people, each and every one of us, for we ourselves are the primary resource of the possible future:

If the will to plan internationally for peace were there, the mechanisms would not be far to seek. And the will that is required is that of ourselves, the ordinary people of the world, expressed urgently enough for those who govern not to be able to ignore it, even if they would.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1920s. (Available as a print.)

A surviving copy of Is Peace Possible? is well worth tracking down. (Humanistic publishers, take note: It is also well worth bringing back into the public imagination.) Complement it with Albert Camus on the antidote to violence and the great Czech dissident playwright Václav Havel — who endured multiple imprisonments by the communist government for his values of justice, humanism, and ecological consciousness, before becoming president of his liberated country — on living up to our interconnected humanity in a globalized yet divided world, then revisit E.B. White, writing in the same era as Lonsdale on the other side of the Atlantic, on nuclear weapons and what it really means to live in a peaceful world.