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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Brain Pickin's- Great phots and info in this one

Neil Gaiman on how to tell a great personal story, Meryl Streep sings her mother's lullaby, Jane Hirshfield's anthem against the silencing of science and the assault on nature, mathematician Marcus du Sautoy on the unknown, and more.NOTE: This message might be cut short by your email program.
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WelcomeHello, Larry! This is the weekly email digest of brainpickings.org by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition – Anne Lamott on mercy, kindness, and forgiveness as the root of self-respect, a children's book about Ada Lovelace, Dani Shapiro on time, and more – you can catch up right here. And if you're enjoying this newsletter, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation â€“ each month, I spend hundreds of hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.

How to Tell a True Tale: Neil Gaiman on What Makes a Great Personal Story

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion memorably wrote. And perhaps we live in order to tell our stories — or, as Gabriel García Márquez put it in reflecting on his own story, “life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” To tell a story, Susan Sontag observed in her timeless advice to writers, “is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.”
And yet our means of making a clearing through the chaos of events matter as much as, if not more than, the events themselves. The best of our stories are those that transform and redeem us, ones that both ground us in ourselves by reminding us what it means to be human and elevate us by furnishing an instrument of self-transcendence. 
What it takes to make such a clearing is what Neil Gaiman, a writer who knows a thing or two about what makes stories last and how storytelling enlarges our humanity, examines in his foreword to All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown (public library), celebrating a quarter century of storytelling powerhouse The Moth
The sequel to the volume that gave us what I continue to consider the greatest Moth story ever told, this wondrous collection contains forty-five stories about courage in the face of uncertainty by tellers as varied as a cognitive scientist and an Ultra-Orthodox Jew.
Neil Gaiman (Photograph: Amanda Palmer)
Reflecting on his own improbable path into the Moth community, where storytellers tell true stories in front of a live audience and end up feeling like they have “walked through fire and been embraced and loved,” Gaiman considers what makes a great Moth story — which is ultimately a question of what it is in a human story that anneals us to one another through the act of its telling:
The strange thing about Moth stories is that none of the tricks we use to make ourselves loved or respected by others work in the ways you would imagine they ought to. The tales of how clever we were, how wise, how we won, they mostly fail. The practiced jokes and the witty one-liners all crash and burn up on a Moth stage. 
Honesty matters. Vulnerability matters. Being open about who you were at a moment in time when you were in a difficult or an impossible place matters more than anything. 
Having a place the story starts and a place it’s going: that’s important. 
Telling your story, as honestly as you can, and leaving out the things you don’t need, that’s vital. 
The Moth connects us, as humans. Because we all have stories. Or perhaps, because we are, as humans, already an assemblage of stories. And the gulf that exists between us as people is that when we look at each other we might see faces, skin color, gender, race, or attitudes, but we don’t see, we can’t see, the stories. And once we hear each other’s stories we realize that the things we see as dividing us are, all too often, illusions, falsehoods: that the walls between us are in truth no thicker than scenery.
All These Wonders is replete with wondrous true stories of loves, losses, rerouted dreams, and existential crises of nearly every unsugarcoated flavor. Complement the theme of this new anthology with Anaïs Nin on how inviting the unknown helps us live more richly, Rebecca Solnit on how we find ourselves by getting lost, and WisÅ‚awa Szymborska’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the generative power of not-knowing, then revisit Gaiman on why we readthe power of cautionary questions, and his eight rules of writing.
For a supreme taste of The Moth’s magic, see astrophysicist Janna Levin’s unparalleled story about the Möbius paths that lead us back to ourselves

Poetry as Protest and Sanctuary: Jane Hirshfield’s Magnificent Poem Against the Silencing of Science and the Assault on Nature

“The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife… Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics,” biologist and writer Rachel Carson admonished in her prescient 1953 letteragainst the government’s assault on science and nature. She devoted the remainder of her life to this courageous mission of speaking inconvenient truth to power. In writing Silent Spring, which catalyzed the modern environmental movement, Carson was greatly emboldened by a line from a 1914 poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox: â€œTo sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men.”
Poetry, indeed, has always been one of humanity’s sharpest tools for puncturing the shrink-wrap of silence and oppression, and although it may appear to be galaxies apart from science, these two channels of truth have something essential in common: nature, the raw material for both. To impoverish the world of the birds and the bees is to impoverish it of the bards and the biologists. 
Nature, with its fragile yet resilient magnificence, models for us what aliveness means and reminds us that we are mortal. Poetry wrests from it images and metaphors that chisel from the bedrock of our humanity a measure of graspable truth, teaching us how to live and how to die. Science mines nature for truth of a different order — it is our mightiest means of communing with reality, probing its mysteries, and gleaning from them some sense of belonging, of locating ourselves in the universe, understanding our place in it, and liberating ourselves from delusion. 
That common ground between poetry and science is what poet Jane Hirshfield sows with splendor in her poem “On the Fifth Day,” written for the 2017 March for Science in Washington, D.C., protesting the anti-fact, anti-truth, anti-science political climate of the current American administration.
Jane Hirshfield (Photograph: Nick Rozsa)
It is my immense pleasure to share, with Hirshfield’s permission, this gift of a poem, read by comedian, philosopher of science, and my dear friend Emily Levine â€” the person who first made me fall in love with poetry many moons ago. 
ON THE FIFTH DAY
by Jane Hirshfield
On the fifth day
the scientists who studied the rivers
were forbidden to speak
or to study the rivers.
The scientists who studied the air
were told not to speak of the air,
and the ones who worked for the farmers
were silenced,
and the ones who worked for the bees.
Someone, from deep in the Badlands,
began posting facts.
The facts were told not to speak
and were taken away.
The facts, surprised to be taken, were silent. 
Now it was only the rivers
that spoke of the rivers,
and only the wind that spoke of its bees,
while the unpausing factual buds of the fruit trees
continued to move toward their fruit.
The silence spoke loudly of silence,
and the rivers kept speaking,
of rivers, of boulders and air. 
In gravity, earless and tongueless,
the untested rivers kept speaking.
Bus drivers, shelf stockers,
code writers, machinists, accountants,
lab techs, cellists kept speaking.
They spoke, the fifth day,
of silence.
Join me in supporting Hirshfield’s wonderful #PoetsForScience initiative, a kindred spirit to my own The Universe in Verse project, then revisit Rebecca Solnit on breaking silence as our mightiest weapon against oppression, astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell on how poetry and science enrich one another, and Hirshfield on the effortless effort of creative work.

Meryl Streep Sings Her Mother’s Lullaby

Since its founding in 1934 by a visionary 23-year-old woman named Marie Bullock, The Academy of American Poets has been the country’s most spirited champion of poetry as a force of beauty, truth, and cultural upheaval, working tirelessly at everything from protecting the artist’s right to challenge the status quoto standing for social justice to inviting prominent poets into underprivileged schools.
For fifteen years, the Academy has been hosting Poetry & the Creative Mind during National Poetry Month — an evening of poems by some of the greatest poets humanity has produced, brought to life by beloved actors, writers, and musicians. 
The 2017 edition — which featured readers like Amanda Palmer, Sebastian Junger, Elizabeth Alexander, Meg Ryan, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Uzo Aduba, and Maurice Hines, reading poems by Adrienne Rich, Langston HughesMark StrandMaya AngelouE.E. Cummings, and more — concluded with a most unexpected and tender moment: Meryl Streep, a longtime supporter of the Academy and honorary co-chair of the evening, turned to Amanda Palmer behind her and dedicated to Amanda’s baby son Ash the lullaby Streep’s own mother hand sung to her — an 1845 children’s rhyme by the American educator and poet Julia Abigail Fletcher Carney, titled “Little Things,” which became Streep’s first encounter with poetry. 
I was fortunate to capture this unrepeatable moment of sweetness — please enjoy:
Little drops of water,
Little grains of sand,
Make the mighty ocean
And the pleasant land.
Thus the little minutes,
Humble though they be,
Make the mighty ages
Of eternity.
Please join me in supporting The Academy of American Poets, a noble organization that survives on passion and generosity, then revisit Amanda Palmer’s beautiful reading of â€œHumanity I love you” by E.E. Cummings.

Mathematician Marcus du Sautoy on the Unknown, the Horizons of the Knowable, and Why the Cross-Pollination of Disciplines is the Seedbed of Truth

In a recent MoMA talk about the lacuna between truth and meaning, I proposed that, just like there is a limit to the speed of light arising from the fundamental laws of physics that govern the universe, there might be a fundamental cognitive limit that keeps human consciousness from ever fully comprehending itself. After all, the moment a system becomes self-referential, it becomes susceptible to limitation and paradox — the logical equivalent to Audre Lorde’s memorable metaphor that â€œthe master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell articulated this splendidly when she wrote in her diary in 1854:
The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.
The century and a half since has been strewn with myriad scientific breakthroughs that have repeatedly transmuted what we once thought to be unknowable into what is merely unknown and therefore knowable, then eventually known. Evolutionary theory and the discovery of DNA have answered age-old questions considered unanswerable for all but the last blink of our species’ history. Einstein’s relativity and the rise of quantum mechanics have radically revised our understanding of the universe and the nature of reality. 
And yet the central question remains: Against the infinity of the knowable, is there a fundamental finitude to our capacity for knowing? 
That’s what English mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, explores with intelligent and imaginative zest in The Great Unknown: Seven Journeys to the Frontiers of Science (public library) — an inquiry into the puzzlement and promise of seven such unknowns, which Du Sautoy terms “edges,” marking horizons of knowledge beyond which we can’t currently see.
Marcus du Sautoy
In a sentiment that calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s assertion that our appetite for seemingly unanswerable questions is what makes us human, Du Sautoy writes:
For any scientist the real challenge is not to stay within the secure garden of the known but to venture out into the wilds of the unknown.
[…]
The knowledge of what we don’t know seems to expand faster than our catalog of breakthroughs. The known unknowns outstrip the known knowns. And it is those unknowns that drive science. A scientist is more interested in the things he or she can’t understand than in telling all the stories we already know the answers to. Science is a living, breathing subject because of all those questions we can’t answer.
Among those are questions like whether the universe is infinite or finite, what dark matter is made of, the perplexity of multiverses, and the crowning curio of devising a model of reality that explains the nature and behavior of all energy and matter — often called a â€œtheory of everything” or a â€œfinal theory” â€” unifying the two presently incompatible models of Einstein’s theory of relativity, which deals with the largest scale of physics, and quantum field theory, which deals with the smallest scale. 
Du Sautoy, who believes — as do I — that “we are in a golden age of science,” considers the central ambivalence behind such a final theory and the very notion of knowing everything. Echoing artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s famous advice that â€œmaking your unknown known is the important thing — and keeping the unknown always beyond you,” he writes:
Would we want to know everything? Scientists have a strangely ambivalent relationship with the unknown. On the one hand, what we don’t know is what intrigues and fascinates us, and yet the mark of success as a scientist is resolution and knowledge, to make the unknown known.
And yet, too often, our human tendency when faced with unknowns is to capitulate to their unknowability prematurely — nowhere more famously, nor more absurdly, than in the proclamation Lord Kelvin, one of the most esteemed scientists of his era, made before the British Association of Science in 1900: â€œThere is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” Elsewhere in Europe, Einstein was incubating the ideas that would precipitate humanity’s greatest leap of physics just five years later. Lord Kelvin had failed to see beyond the edge of the known.
Illustration by Soyeon Kim from Wild Ideas
A quarter century after James Gleick introduced the world to chaos theory, Du Sautoy selects chaos as the first of his seven “edges” and writes:
There are natural phenomena that will never be tamed and known. Chaos theory asserts that I cannot know the future of certain systems because they are too sensitive to small inaccuracies. Because we can never have complete knowledge of the present, chaos theory denies us access to the future. 
That’s not to say that all futures are unknowable. Very often we are in regions that aren’t chaotic, where small fluctuations have little effect. This is why mathematics has been so powerful in helping us to predict and plan. The power of mathematical equations has allowed us to land spaceships on other planets, predict the paths of deadly typhoons on Earth, and model the effects of deadly viruses, allowing us to take action before they become a pandemic. But at other times we cannot accurately predict or control outcomes.
This, Du Sautoy notes, is representative of the common denominator between all of the “edges” he identifies — the idea, also reflected in the aforementioned problem of consciousness, that we might be fundamentally unable to grasp a system from a bird’s-eye perspective so long as we are caged inside that system. Perhaps the most pervasive manifestation of this paradox is language itself, the hallmark of our cognitive evolution â€” language contains and carries knowledge, but language is a system, be it the language of the written word or that of mathematics. 
Du Sautoy reflects on this possible meta-limitation:
Many philosophers identify language as a problem when it comes to the question of consciousness. Understanding quantum physics is also a problem because the only language that helps us navigate its ideas is mathematics.
At the heart of this tendency is what is known as “the paradox of unknowability” — the logical proof that unless you know all there is to be known, there will always exist for you truths that are inherently unknowable. And yet truth can exist beyond logic because logic itself has fundamental limits, which the great mathematician Kurt Gödel so elegantly demonstrated in the 1930s.
Illustration from a vintage children’s adaptation of Micromégas, Voltaire’s trailblazing science fiction homage to Newton
So where does this leave us? With an eye to his seven “edges,” Du Sautoy writes:
Perhaps the best we can hope for is that science gives us verisimilitudinous knowledge of the universe; that is, it gives us a narrative that appears to describe reality. We believe that a theory that makes our experience of the world intelligible is one that is close to the true nature of the world, even if philosophers tell us we’ll never know. As Niels Bohr said, “It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.”
In consonance with my foundational belief that the cross-pollination of disciplines is what catalyzes the combinatorial creativity out of which every meaningful new idea is born, Du Sautoy adds:
Science flourishes when we share the unknowable with other disciplines. If the unknowable has an impact on how we lead our lives, then it is worth having ways to probe the consequences of choosing an answer to an unknowable. Music, poetry, stories, and art are powerful tools for exploring the implications of the unknowable.
[…]
Chaos theory implies that … humans are in some ways part of the unknowable. Although we are physical systems, no amount of data will help us completely predict human behavior. The humanities are the best language we have for understanding as much as we can about what it is to be human.
Studies into consciousness suggest boundaries beyond which we cannot go. Our internal worlds are potentially unknowable to others. But isn’t that one of the reasons we write and read novels? It is the most effective way to give others access to that internal world. 
What we cannot know creates the space for myth, for stories, for imagination, as much as for science. We may not know, but that doesn’t stop us from creating stories, and these stories are crucial in providing the material for what one day might be known. Without stories, we wouldn’t have any science at all.
Complement the thoroughly fascinating The Great Unknown, which examines the implications of these seven elemental unknowns for everything from consciousness to our experience of time to the future of artificial intelligence, with Nobel-winning Polish poet WisÅ‚awa Szymborska on how our certitudes keep us small, astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge, philosopher Karl Popper on truth vs. certainty, and artist Ann Hamilton on the creative power of not-knowing.
BP