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 — we are made of music, we are made of time (and some peace) — 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.

Atoms with Consciousness: Yo-Yo Ma Performs Richard Feynman’s Ode to the Wonder of Life, Animated

This is the final installment in the nine-part 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 rest here.

THE ANIMATED UNIVERSE IN VERSE: CHAPTER NINE

Here we are, each of us a portable festival of wonder, standing on this rocky body born by brutality, formed from the debris that first swarmed the Sun 4.5 billion years ago and pulverized each other in a gauntlet of violent collisions, eventually forging the Moon and the Earth.

Here we are, now standing on it, on this improbable planet bred of violence, which grew up to be a world capable of trees and tenderness. A conscious world. A world shaped by physics and animated by art, by poetry, by music and mathematics — the different languages we have developed to listen to reality and speak it back to ourselves.

Here we are, voicing in these different our fundamental wonderment: What is all this? This byproduct of reality we call life: not probable, not even necessary, and yet it is all we know, because it is all we are, and it is with the whole of what we are that we reckon with reality, that we long to fathom it — from the scale of gluons to the scale of galaxies, from the mystery of the cell to the mystery of the soul.

Every once in a while — perhaps once or twice a century, if we are lucky — atoms shed by dying stars constellate into a living mind so shimmering, so uncommonly gifted in multiple fathoming-languages, that poems and paintings, elegies and equations, theorems and songs spring from it with equal ardor and equal beauty. Rebecca Elson was one. Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988) was another — a Nobel-winning physicist, a philosopher, an artist, composer of the world’s most lyrical footnote and most bittersweet love letter, who saw no boundary between knowledge and mystery, between our different modes of fathoming reality and serenading the wonder of the universe that made us.

In the autumn of 1955, a decade before he won the Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work on quantum electrodynamics, Feynman took the podium at the National Academy of Sciences to contemplate the value of science. Midway through his characteristically eloquent and intellectually elegant lecture, addressing the country’s most orthodox audience of academic scientists, he burst into what can best be described as a splendid prose-poem about the mystery and wonder of life, inspired by a reflective moment he spent alone on the edge of the sea, where Rachel Carson too found the meaning of life. It later became the epilogue to Feynman’s final collection of autobiographical reflections, What Do You Care What Other People Think? (public library), published the year of his death.

Richard Feynman lecturing at CalTech

In this ninth and final installment of the animated Universe in Verse, legendary cellist and Silkroad founder Yo-Yo Ma — one of the most boundlessly curious and wonder-smitten minds I know, who knew Feynman and shares with him a passionate appreciation of science as the native poetry of reality — brings this prose-poem to life in a soulful, symphonic reading, animated by artist and designer Kelli Anderson (who previously animated Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism” at the second annual Universe in Verse in 2018 and Amanda Palmer’s reading of “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” by Adrienne Rich at the third live show in 2019).

Radiating from it all — from Feynman’s words, from Yo-Yo’s music, from Kelli’s animation — is what Feynman himself once told Yo-Yo: “Nature has the greatest imagination of all.”

[UNTITLED ODE TO THE WONDER OF LIFE]by Richard Feynman

I stand at the seashore, alone, and start to think. There are the rushing waves… mountains of molecules, each stupidly minding its own business… trillions apart… yet forming white surf in unison.

Ages on ages… before any eyes could see… year after year… thunderously pounding the shore as now. For whom, for what?… on a dead planet, with no life to entertain.

Never at rest… tortured by energy… wasted prodigiously by the sun… poured into space. A mite makes the sea roar.

Deep in the sea, all molecules repeat the patterns of one another till complex new ones are formed. They make others like themselves… and a new dance starts.

Growing in size and complexity… living things, masses of atoms, DNA, protein… dancing a pattern ever more intricate.

Out of the cradle onto the dry land… here it is standing… atoms with consciousness… matter with curiosity.

Stands at the sea… wonders at wondering… I… a universe of atoms… an atom in the universe.

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); Chapter 8 (nonhuman consciousness and the wonder of octopus intelligence, with Sy Montgomery and Marilyn Nelson).

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The Art of Putting Your Talent in the Service of the World: The Russian Prince Turned Anarchist and Pioneering Scientist Peter Kropotkin’s Advice to the Young

While the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell was contemplating social change and the life of the mind and her contemporary Walt Whitman was instructing America’s young on what it takes to be an agent of change, on the other side of the globe, the poetic and politically wakeful scientist Peter Kropotkin (December 9, 1842– February 8, 1921) was laying the foundation of a moral revolution while revolutionizing evolutionary biology.

Having grown up in the atmosphere of the European revolutions — that first continent-wide flare of warning that capitalism, with its basic power structure built upon labor-extorted property ownership, is not working for the vast majority of people — Peter (or, rather, Pyotr) was twelve when he renounced the hereditary title Prince. The son of an aristocratic patriarch who owned more than a thousand serfs, this precocious boy saw early and clearly how such staggering inequality foments abuses of power and feeds the worst of the human soul. He felt there must be another way for human beings to live together, felt a deep calling to find it.

One of artist and radical political philosopher Rockwell Kent’s century-old woodcuts. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

At seventeen, Peter fell under Darwin’s spell and found in the dawning evolutionary science a ray of optimism for humanity — assurance that if the world can and does change, so can we; that we are not doomed to social conditions set in stone by some higher power that renders us powerless to evolve morally the way species evolve biologically. When his father withheld the kind of education he hungered for, the young man left for Siberia as an officer, using the military pretext to join geological expeditions and study glaciation — research he eventually published while in prison. He arrived in the tundra ablaze with idealism, with the yearning to change an oppressive system, and left with a lucid awareness that the system was broken beyond structural repair — he had seen the myriad abuses of government power, the corruption, the indifference; he had seen how the peasants governed themselves with a superior knowledge of the land and deep bonds of mutual trust.

Meanwhile, he was translating Voltaire into Russian, dreaming of a life modeled on Humboldt’s, writing a physics primer and a book on how advances in technology will liberate women from domestic drudgery, and diving deeper into evolutionary theory as he made meticulous field observations of the natural world, of how living creatures interacted with one another and with their environment. A century before Jane Goodall, Peter Kropotkin became the first scientist to speak of empathy among non-human animals and to insist, an epoch ahead of Lewis Thomas, that empathic altruism is our natural condition; a century before E.O. Wilson, he studied the extraordinary cooperation networks of social insects and drew from them mutual aid models for human society, culminating in his widely influential 1902 book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. These ideas came to permeate his political writings and activism, for which he was imprisoned in Russia and which, upon his escape, sent him into a four-decade exile in England, Switzerland, and France (where he was also imprisoned).

Peter Kropotkin by Félix Nadar.

In a prefatory note on his most politically influential and prescient essay, “The Spirit of Revolt,” penned several years after he escaped from prison and posthumously included in the Kropotnik anthology Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings (public library), he writes:

In periods of frenzied haste toward wealth, of feverish speculation and of crisis, of the sudden downfall of great industries and the ephemeral expansion of other branches of production, of scandalous fortunes amassed in a few years and dissipated as quickly, it becomes evident that the economic institutions which control production and exchange are far from giving to society the prosperity which they are supposed to guarantee; they produce precisely the opposite result. Instead of order they bring forth chaos; instead of prosperity, poverty and insecurity; instead of reconciled interests, war; a perpetual war of the exploiter against the worker, of exploiters and of workers among themselves. Human society is seen to be splitting more and more into two hostile camps, and at the same time to be subdividing into thousands of small groups waging merciless war against each other. Weary of these wars, weary of the miseries which they cause, society rushes to seek a new organization; it clamors loudly for a complete remodeling of the system of property ownership, of production, of exchange and all economic relations which spring from it.

[…]

Action, the continuous action, ceaselessly renewed, of minorities brings about this transformation. Courage, devotion, the spirit of sacrifice, are as contagious as cowardice, submission, and panic.

This action, Kropotkin believed, must be undertaken most ardently and purposefully by the young, including the young “in heart and mind” — those unbroken by the current system and therefore best poised for the moral leadership needed to revise it.

Art by Marianne C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

In his most widely circulated pamphlet, titled “An Appeal to the Young” and also included in the anthology, he addresses “young men and women of the upper classes” — those chance-born into lives of relative power and privilege, graced with access to good education and the opportunity to develop their natural talents — and exhorts them to put their gifts in the service of making life more livable for others. He writes:

I take it for granted that you have a mind free from the superstition which your teachers have sought to force upon you; that you do not fear the devil, and that you do not go to hear parsons and ministers rant. More, that you are not one of the fops, sad products of a society in decay, who display their well-cut trousers and their monkey faces in the park, and who even at their early age have only an insatiable longing for pleasure at any price… I assume on the contrary that you have a warm heart and for this reason I talk to you.

He proceeds to taxonomize the young into several groups — artists, scientists, lawyers, teachers, technologists — each uniquely suited to a particular contribution to social change. A quarter millennium after Galileo made his immortal case for critical thinking and a century before Carl Sagan composed his classic Baloney Detection Kit, Kropotkin reminds young scientists that the work of critical thinking is never complete and tasks them with seeding the spirit of reason into humanity’s bosom:

By working at science you mean to work for humanity, and this is the idea which will guide you in your investigations. A charming illusion!

[…]

More than a century has passed since science laid down sound propositions as to the origin of the universe, but how many have mastered them or possess the really scientific spirit of criticism? A few thousands at the outside, who are lost in the midst of hundreds of millions still steeped in prejudices and superstitions worthy of savages, who are consequently ever ready to serve as puppets for religious impostors… Why? Because science today exists only for a handful of privileged persons, because social inequality, which divides society into two classes — the wage-slaves and the grabbers of capital — renders all its teachings as to the conditions of a rational existence only the bitterest irony to nine-tenths of mankind.

Art from Thomas Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750. (Available as a print.)

In a sentiment Sagan would echo in celebrating science as a tool of democracy, Kropotkin observes that even more important than making new discoveries is incorporating the truths already discovered into the average person’s fundamental grasp of reality in order to eradicate the biases and superstitions that thwart justice:

The most important thing is to spread the truths already acquired, to practice them in daily life, to make of them a common inheritance. We have to order things in such wise that all humanity may be capable of assimilating and applying them, so that science ceasing to be a luxury becomes the basis of everyday life. Justice requires this… The very interests of science require it. Science only makes real progress when its truths find environments ready prepared for their reception.

With an eye to the long arc of dogma-change — “three generations had to go before the ideas of Erasmus Darwin on the variation of species could be favorably received from his grandson and admitted by academic philosophers, and even then not without pressure from public opinion” — he throws a bold gauntlet at the still-prevalent and lamentably backward notion that working scientists who are also elucidators and enchanters popularizing scientific ideas are somehow, despite being so doubly gifted and thus working doubly hard, lesser scientists:

You will understand that it is important above all to bring about a radical change in this state of affairs which today condemns the philosopher to be crammed with scientific truths, and almost the whole of the rest of human beings to remain what they were five or ten centuries ago, — that is to say, in the state of slaves and machines, incapable of mastering established truths. And the day when you are imbued with wide, deep, humane, and profoundly scientific truth, that day will you lose your taste for pure science. You will set to work to find out the means to effect this transformation… You will make an end of sophisms and you will come among us. Weary of working to procure pleasures for this small group, which already has a large share of them, you will place your information and devotion at the service of the oppressed… You will then find powers in yourself of whose existence you never even dreamed… Then you will enjoy science; that pleasure will be a pleasure for all.

Art by Daniel Bruson for “My God, It’s Full of Stars”

Then, a generation before Rilke composed his Letters to a Young Poet, which remains the single finest packet of advice to artists, Kropotkin turns to the artists:

You, young artist, sculptor, painter, poet, musician, do you not observe that the sacred fire which inspired your predecessors is wanting in the men of today; that art is commonplace and mediocrity reigns supreme?

Could it be otherwise? The delight at having rediscovered the ancient world, of having bathed afresh in the springs of nature which created the masterpieces of the Renaissance no longer exists for the art of our time. The revolutionary ideal has left it cold until now, and failing an ideal, our art fancies that it has found one in realism when it painfully photographs in colors the dewdrop on the leaf of a plant, imitates the muscles in the leg of a cow, or describes minutely in prose and in verse the suffocating filth of a sewer…

What makes art meaningful, what makes it necessary, he intimates, is not increasing fidelity to the real but enduring fidelity to the ideal, to the human spirit in its highest possible manifestation, to the need for its elevation and emancipation commonly called justice — or what James Baldwin considered the artist’s responsibility to society.

One of artist Arthur Rackham’s 1920 drawings for novelist and poet James Stephens’s Irish Fairy Tales. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Kropotkin especially admonishes young artists against falling into the trap of catering rather than creating — that vital difference Thoreau observed between the artisan and the artist, which often lures the talented into commercially lucrative applications of their gift that leave no lasting mark on humanity, serve no buoy for the human condition:

If… the sacred fire that you say you possess is nothing better than a smouldering wick, then you will go on doing as you have done, and your art will speedily degenerate into the trade of decorator of tradesmen’s shops, of a purveyor of libretti to third-rate operettas and tales for Christmas books… But, if your heart really beats in unison with that of humanity, if like a true poet you have an ear for Life, then, gazing out upon this sea of sorrow whose tide sweeps up around you, face to face with these people dying of hunger, in the presence of these corpses piled up in these mines, and these mutilated bodies lying in heaps on the barricades, in full view of this desperate battle which is being fought, amid the cries of pain from the conquered and the orgies of the victors, of heroism in conflict with cowardice, of noble determination face to face with contemptible cunning — you cannot remain neutral. You will come and take the side of the oppressed because you know that the beautiful, the sublime, the spirit of life itself are on the side of those who fight for light, for humanity, for justice!

No matter your particular gift, Kropotkin argues, it is only by such devotion to the higher aims of justice that your life grows animated by “a vast and most enthralling task, a work in which your actions will be in complete harmony with your conscience, an undertaking capable of rousing the noblest and most vigorous natures.”

This, after all, is the secret to a purposeful and gratifying life — that sacred harmonic where your native gift meets the world’s need and begins to sing.

Complement with Whitman’s enduring wisdom on living a vibrant and rewarding life and W.E.B. DuBois’s existential instruction to his young daughter, then revisit Seamus Heaney’s luminous and largehearted advice on life.

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How to Face the Centuries with Confidence: The Mystery of the World’s Most Majestic Tree

“A tree is a little bit of the future,” Wangari Maathai reflected as she set out to plant the million trees that won her the Nobel Peace Prize. But a tree is also an enchanted portal to the past — a fractal reach beyond living memory, beyond our human histories, into the “saeculum” of time.

In a scientific sense, a tree is both a perpetual death and practically immortal. Out of the beautiful paradox, this ever-dying immortality, arises something beyond scientific fact: Some great poetic truth quickens within you as you stand beneath one of the world’s oldest trees — older than your most distant known ancestor, older than your country, older than your country’s religion.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

Something awakens in us then — the magnified understanding of our own souls that Whitman saw in trees, the magnified understanding of the kinship between souls that Ursula K. Le Guin saw, the broadened portal to aliveness that Anna Botsford Comstock saw. We see, too, that this majestic and mysterious something is made of the selfsame stardust that makes us, and in that knowledge — in that splendid fact of science, which is the native poetry of reality — we find the plainly hidden treasure of the miraculous.

That is what the poetic botanist Donald Culross Peattie (June 21, 1898–November 16, 1964) — who did for trees what Rachel Carson did for the sea — explores in his mid-century masterpieces on the natural and cultural history of trees, which began (like Carson’s prose poetry of science) on the pages of The Atlantic Monthly, grew into smaller separate books, and were eventually collected many tree-rings later in the single volume A Natural History of North American Trees (public library), illustrated with gorgeous woodcuts by the artist Paul Landacre, born in the final years of the nineteenth century in a long lineage of scientists.

Giant Sequoia by Paul Landacre from Peattie’s A Natural History of North American Trees.

Crowning the Giant Sequoia — Sequoiadendron giganteum, also known as Mammoth-tree and California Bigtree Sierra Redwood — king in the kingdom of plants, Peattie captures its temporal majesty in his lyrical prose:

The calm deposition of the rings (rosy pink spring wood ending in the sudden dark band of summer wood) has gone on millimeter by millimeter for millennium after millennium — advancing ripples in the tide of time.

In that lovely way awe has of giving rise to wonder, then to wonderment, he adds:

Why, out of a world of trees, do these live longest? Why is a Cottonwood decrepit at seventy-five years of age, why does the Oak live three hundred summers? And since it can do so, why does it not endure a thousand? How does the Giant Sequoia go on growing, without signs of senility, until literally blasted from the earth by a bolt from heaven, a consuming fire, a seismic landslide, or a charge of dynamite?

One answer may lie in the very sap, for that of the Bigtrees contains tannic acid, a chemical used in many fire extinguishers. Though fire will destroy the thin-barked young Sequoias, when bark has formed on the old specimens it may be a foot and more thick and practically like asbestos. The only way that fire can penetrate it is when inflammable material becomes piled against the base and, fanned to a blowtorch by the mountain wind, sears its way through to the wood. Even then fire seems never to consume a great old specimen, no matter how it devours its heart. And the high tannin content of the sap has the same healing action that tannic acid has on our flesh when we apply it to a burn. The repair of fire damage by a Bigtree is almost miraculous. It begins at once, and even if the wound is so wide that it would take a thousand years to cover it, the courageous vegetable goes about the business as if time were nothing to it.

So we might say that Bigtree lives long because fire and parasites seldom succeed in storming its well-defended citadel. We might say all this and more, yet there remains some quantum of the inexplicable, and in the end we are forced to admit that Sequoias come of a long-lived race — whatever that means — and so outlast the very races of man.

Perspective by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Peattie considers the humble origins of that incomprehensible grandeur of space and time:

All this semieternal life, all these tons and tons of vegetation, come from a flaky seed so small that it takes three thousand of them to make up 1 ounce. The kernel is but 14 inches long, and inside it lies curled the embryonic monarch. There are commonly from 96 to 304 seeds to a cone, and the cones themselves are almost ridiculously small for so mammoth a tree. They do not mature till the end of the second season, and not until the end of the third, at the earliest, do they open their scales in dry weather and loose the seeds, which drift but a little way from the parent tree. Their method of transport is not only weak, but their viability is low; perhaps only half of the seeds have the vitality to sprout. And long before they do so, they are attacked, in the cone and out of it, by untold multitudes of squirrels and jays. Many do not fall upon suitable ground — mineral soil laid bare — but are lost in the duff of the forest floor. Of a million seeds on a tree in autumn, perhaps only one is destined to sprout when the snow-water and the sun of the late mountain spring touch it with quickening fingers.

Giant Sequoia cone and seed by Paul Landacre from Peattie’s A Natural History of North American Trees.

From the outset, this tiny sprouting seed must overcome myriad possible destructions — must “oppose the Worm” and “elude the Wind,” to borrow from Emily Dickinson’s timeless ode to the resilience of living things — in order to stake its tender root into the ground, to comb out the gossamer root hairs that draw water from the soil so that it may eventually shoot up its fragile, fierce sprout into the sky. From then on, the gauntlet of survival continues — cutworms below and wood ants above, finches and chipmunks and ever-greedy squirrels by the legion. With the quiet largeness of heart that pulsates through his prose, Peattie writes:

If a seedling survives its first year, it may face the centuries with some confidence.

[…]

Up into the light and air grows the princeling. The youthful leaves are soft, glaucous blue green; the bark is still smooth and gray with no hint of red about it. The stocky shape of childhood gives way to a conical outline, and the young tree stands clothed to the base in boughs that droop gracefully at the tip, of wood strong yet supple… In the second century of life, the trees begin to assume a “pole form” — that is, with strong central trunk clear of branches for a long way, and a high peaked crown. Gone now are the drooping limber boughs of youth. In their place great arms begin to appear, leaving the trunk at right angles and then, bending up as if at elbows, lift leafy hands in a gesture of hosanna. The soft blue green foliage is replaced by metallic green. The smooth gray cortex gives way to the richly red bark of maturity. At last it is furrowed thicker than the brow of Zeus, and in the gales its voice begins, these years (and hundreds of years), to take on the deepest tone in the world’s sylva.

Art by Bruno Munari from Drawing a Tree

The Giant Sequoia’s grandeur is not only one of scale but also one of astonishing fertility. In the centuries-wide prime of its life, a single tree bears hundreds of thousands of cones, each blazing with hundreds of seeds — hundreds of potential majesties, most of which will perish in the gauntlet, giving life to colonies of ants and flocks of birds, giving testament to the elemental fact that all we know of life and all that remains of it are shoreless seeds and stardust.

Complement with Katherine May on how the science of trees illuminates the psychology of self-renewal, Hermann Hesse’s century-old love letter to trees, and Italian artist Bruno Munari’s mid-century existentialist tree-drawing exercise, then revisit the poetic science of chlorophyll.