Albert Camus on how to enlarge our love of life, Hannah Arendt on time, space, and where our thinking ego resides, Rilke on the rewards of reading, Lisa Randall on dark matter and the astounding interconnectedness of the universe, and more.
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“The art of self-culture begins with a deeper awareness … of the marvel of our being alive at all; alive in a world as startling and mysterious, as lovely and horrible, as the one we live in.”
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“Those who prefer their principles over their happiness,”Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) wrote in his notebook toward the end of his life, “they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness.” Indeed, our principles tend to harden into habits and although habits give shape to our inner lives, they can mutate into the rigidity of routine and create a kind of momentum that, rather than expanding our capacity for happiness, contracts it. In the trance of routine and principled productivity, we end up showing up for our daily lives while being absent from them.
Few things things break us out of our routines and awaken us to the living substance of happiness more powerfully than travel. Camus knew this. Decades earlier, when he was only twenty-two and still a long way from becoming the second-youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, he explored this human perplexity with unparalleled intellectual elegance and spiritual grace in a gorgeous essay titled “Love of Life,” eventually included in his posthumously published collection Lyrical and Critical Essays (public library).
Recounting the sight of a young woman dancing deliriously in a Spanish cabaret, Camus — whose entire life was undergirded by the ethos that happiness is our moral obligation — writes:
Without cafés and newspapers, it would be difficult to travel. A paper printed in our own language, a place to rub shoulders with others in the evenings enable us to imitate the familiar gestures of the man we were at home, who, seen from a distance, seems so much a stranger. For what gives value to travel is fear. It breaks down a kind of inner structure we have. One can no longer cheat — hide behind the hours spent at the office or at the plant (those hours we protest so loudly, which protect us so well from the pain of being alone). I have always wanted to write novels in which my heroes would say: “What would I do without the office?” or again: “My wife has died, but fortunately I have all these orders to fill for tomorrow.” Travel robs us of such refuge. Far from our own people, our own language, stripped of all our props, deprived of our masks (one doesn’t know the fare on the streetcars, or anything else), we are completely on the surface of ourselves. But also, soul-sick, we restore to every being and every object its miraculous value. A woman dancing without a thought in her head, a bottle on a table, glimpsed behind a curtain: each image becomes a symbol. The whole of life seems reflected in it, insofar as it summarizes our own life at the moment. When we are aware of every gift, the contradictory intoxications we can enjoy (including that of lucidity) are indescribable.
But this contact with absolute bliss, Camus cautions, necessitates an equal capacity for contact with absolute despair:
There lay all my love of life: a silent passion for what would perhaps escape me, a bitterness beneath a flame. Each day I would leave this cloister like a man lifted from himself, inscribed for a brief moment in the continuance of the world… There is no love of life without despair of life.
Echoing Kierkegaard’s unforgettable admonition — “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy,” the Danish philosopher wrote in contemplating our greatest source of unhappiness — Camus considers how the trance of productivity robs us of the very presence necessary for happiness:
Life is short, and it is sinful to waste one’s time. They say I’m active. But being active is still wasting one’s time, if in doing one loses oneself. Today is a resting time, and my heart goes off in search of itself. If an anguish still clutches me, it’s when I feel this impalpable moment slip through my fingers like quicksilver… At the moment, my whole kingdom is of this world. This sun and these shadows, this warmth and this cold rising from the depths of the air: why wonder if something is dying or if men suffer, since everything is written on this window where the sun sheds its plenty as a greeting to my pity? I can say and in a moment I shall say that what counts is to be human and simple. No, what counts is to be true, and then everything fits in, humanity and simplicity. When am I truer than when I am the world? My cup brims over before I have time to desire. Eternity is there and I was hoping for it. What I wish for now is no longer happiness but simply awareness.
The great courage is still to gaze as squarely at the light as at death. Besides, how can I define the link that leads from this all-consuming love of life to this secret despair? If I listen to the voice of irony, crouching underneath things, slowly it reveals itself. Winking its small, clear eye, it says: “Live as if …” In spite of much searching, this is all I know.
Every successful technology of thought, be it science or philosophy, is a time machine — it peers into the past in order to disassemble the building blocks of how we got to the present, then reassembles them into a sensemaking mechanism for where the future might take us. That’s what Harvard particle physicist and cosmologist Lisa Randall accomplishes in Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (public library), which I recently reviewed for The New York Times — an intellectually thrilling exploration of how the universe evolved, what made our very existence possible, and how dark matter illuminates our planet’s relationship to its cosmic environment across past, present, and future.
Randall starts with a fascinating speculative theory, linking dark matter to the extinction of the dinosaurs — an event that took place in the outermost reaches of the Solar System sixty-six million years ago catalyzed an earthly catastrophe without which we wouldn’t have come to exist. What makes her theory so striking is that it contrasts the most invisible aspects of the universe with the most dramatic events of our world while linking the two in a causal dance, reminding us just how limited our perception of reality really is — we are, after all, sensorial creatures blinded by our inability to detect the myriad complex and fascinating processes that play out behind the doors of perception.
The Universe contains a great deal that we have never seen — and likely never will.
Randall weaves together a number of different disciplines — cosmology, particle physics, evolutionary biology, environmental science, geology, and even social science — to tell a larger story of the universe, our galaxy, and the Solar System. In one of several perceptive social analogies, she likens dark matter — which comprises 85% of matter in the universe, interacts with gravity, but, unlike the ordinary matter we can see and touch, doesn’t interact with light — to the invisible but instrumental factions of human society:
Even though it is unseen and unfelt, dark matter played a pivotal role in forming the Universe’s structure. Dark matter can be compared to the under-appreciated rank and file of society. Even when invisible to the elite decision makers, the many workers who built pyramids or highways or assembled electronics were crucial to the development of their civilizations. Like other unnoticed populations in our midst, dark matter was essential to our world.
But the theory itself, original and interesting as it may be, is merely a clever excuse to do two more important things: tell an expansive and exhilarating story of how the universe as we know it came to exist, and invite us to transcend the limits of our temporal imagination and our delusions of omnipotence. How humbling to consider that a tiny twitch caused by an invisible force in the far reaches of the cosmos millions of years ago hurled at our unremarkable piece of rock a meteoroid three times the width of Manhattan, which produced the most massive and destructive earthquake of all time, decimating three quarters of all living creatures on Earth. Had the dinosaurs not died, large mammals may never have come to dominate the planet and humanity wouldn’t be here to contemplate the complexities of the cosmos. And yet in a few billion years, the Sun will retire into the red giant phase of its stellar lifetime and eventually burn out, extinguishing our biosphere and Blake and Bach and every human notion of truth and beauty. Stardust to stardust.
One of the book’s central threads is the essential capacity for uncertainty that science requires of its practitioners. The same impulse that gave rise to religion — to do away with doubt and rest into certainty — is also present in science, for it is a profoundly human impulse and science is a profoundly human endeavor. Throughout the history of scientific breakthroughs that Randall chronicles, new theories are consistently met with opposition by scientists who have grown attached to older models. But therein lies the premier forte of the scientific method as a tool for advancing humanity’s conquest of truth — in the face of sufficient evidence, even staunch supporters of older models begin to doubt them and eventually accept the newer ones.
Randall captures this succinctly, perhaps with an eye to the rest of contemporary culture where opinions are formed with little consideration and opposition is dismissed on principle — in a sentiment that calls to mind Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit, she writes:
Only when existing scientific ideas fail where more daring ones succeed do new ideas get firmly established.
For this reason controversy can be a good thing for science when considering a (literally) outlandish theory. Although those who simply avoid examining the evidence won’t facilitate scientific progress, strong adherents to the reigning viewpoint who raise reasonable objections elevate the standards for introducing a new idea into the scientific pantheon. Forcing those with new hypotheses — especially radical ones — to confront their opponents prevents crazy or simply wrong ideas from taking hold. Resistance encourages the proposers to up their game to show why the objections aren’t valid and to find as much support as possible for their ideas.
Dark matter itself is a supreme example of this ethos. Although scientists have confirmed its existence, they don’t actually know what it is and believe that it’s made of a new elementary particle that doesn’t obey the forces that drive ordinary matter interactions. But the very search for dark matter is predicated on the leap of faith that despite being invisible, it has interactions, however weak, that human tools made of ordinary matter will eventually detect. Randall — who has previously written beautifully about the crucial difference in how science and religion explain the world — notes that this assumption is “based partially on wishful thinking.” But in that partiality lies the supremacy of science over truth-seeking ideologies built solely on wishfulness. Where humans hope and fear, experiments prove and rule out.
One of the most scintillating parts of the book illustrates this aspect of science in action. Randall tells the story of the unlikely and slow-burning revolution that led to our present understanding of how the dinosaurs perished — a riveting global detective story thirty years in the making, beginning in 1973, when a geochemist proposed that a meteoroid impact caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, only to be dismissed by the scientific community.
Art by Finnish illustrator Annu Kilpeläinen from the coloring book Evolution
The notion remained radical until a geologist named Walter Alvarez — whose dramatically titled book T-Rex and the Crater of Doom inspired Randall’s speculative work — embarked upon an investigative adventure that began in the hills of Italy and ended in one of the greatest breakthroughs in planetary science. The story is also a supreme testament to both the power of interdisciplinary collaboration and the humanity central to science — Alvarez worked with his father, the Nobel-winning physicist Luis Alvarez, to solve the mystery.
The duo detected an unusually high concentration of iridium — a rare metal put to such mundane uses as fountain pen nibs — in the clay deposit separating two differently colored limestone layers. Because Earth is intrinsically low in iridium, they suspected that an extraterrestrial impactor was responsible for this perplexing quantity. After a team of nuclear chemists confirmed the anomaly, Walter and Luis Alvarez proposed that a giant meteoroid had hit the Earth and unleashed a downpour of rare metals, including iridium.
But rather than the end of the story, this was merely the beginning, sparking a worldwide scientific scavenger hunt for the actual site of the impact. Since craters are typically twenty times the size of the impactor and Alvarez estimated that the meteoroid was about ten kilometers in diameter, scientists set out to find a crater nearly 125 miles wide. Despite the enormity of the target, the odds of finding it were slim — if the meteoroid had hit the ocean, which covers three quarters of Earth’s surface, the crater would be both unreachable and smoothed over by sixty-six million years of tides; had it hit the land, erosion, sedimentation, and tectonic shifts may have still covered its traces completely. And yet, in a remarkable example of what Randall calls the “human ingenuity and stubbornness” driving the scientific endeavor, scientists did uncover it, aided by an eclectic global cast of oil industry workers, international geologists, three crucial beads of glass, and one inquisitive reporter who connected all the dots.
The Chicxulub crater in the Yucatán Peninsula, the site of the impact that decimated the dinosaurs.(Illustration: Detlev van Ravenswaay / National Geographic)
In 1991, NASA announced the discovery of the crater in the Yucatan plane of the Gulf of Mexico. But it wasn’t until March of 2010 — exactly thirty years after Walter Alvarez had first put forth his theory — that a collective of forty-one elite international scientists reviewed all the evidence that the meteoroid killed the dinosaurs and deemed it conclusive.
The story, which Randall tells with palpable reverence and exhilaration, brings home one of her central points — science, at its best, methodically applies the known tools at our disposal to reach into the unknown with systematic audacity. She writes:
The beauty of the scientific method is that it allows us to think about crazy-seeming concepts, but with an eye to identifying the small, logical consequences with which to test them.
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